What is a Sea Chest?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A sea chest is a type of wooden trunk used historically by sailors to store their personal possessions. Many sea chests were extremely well built, and as a result sea chests have become coveted antiques in some communities, with some families retaining sea chests which belonged to their ancestors. In addition to antique sea chests, it is also possible to find modern replicas, which can be used to store a wide variety of items.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The design of a sea chest varies, depending on the era it was produced in and the nation it originates from. Many sea chests have a distinctive profile, with a large bottom and slanting sides which lead to a smaller top. Some sea chests had curved tops, while others were left flat for ease of storage, and many included drawers or shelves for the purpose of storing small and especially important items. Typically, a sea chest is also equipped with a sturdy lock and heavy handles so that it can be moved easily.

Historically, a sea chest would have been a sailor's sacred personal possession, and sailors did not touch each other's sea chests without permission. All number of things would be held in a sea chest, including eating utensils, extra clothes, curios from various journeys, and mariner's papers, papers which detailed a sailor's skills and official position on board ship. Sailors also kept references from former employers and mementos of home in their sea chests.

Storage on a boat is often limited, so sailors would be expected to fit all of their personal possessions into their sea chests. Sea chests were typically kept in bunkrooms, butted against the wall or in another location which would be as out of the way as possible. Some were quite ornate, with elegant carving and beautiful construction, while others were kept plain and relatively simple.

In the modern era, it is common to see people using a sea chest for its original intended purpose of storage, but these chests are also used as ornamental devices in some homes, and they may be used as tables or seating as well. Many modern sea chests are made just like their historical versions, by talented artisans who work by hand to create a customized sea chest, complete with dovetailed edges and carved accents. Whether antique or modern, a sea chest tends to be an expensive acquisition; when examining sea chests for purchase, it pays to inspect them carefully for signs of rot and poor construction.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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On modern steel hulled ships, a sea chest is located below the waterline and usually along the bottom of the hull. Leading away from the sea chest into the inner-bottom of the the ship, it will connect to the specific systems piping. Sea chests can be designed to accommodate either suction, discharge or both.

Most sea chests will have some form of grate or louver at their openings to prevent the uptake of foreign matter. For example, the cooling water system aboard a ship will begin with a sea-chest uptake at the lowest part of the hull, then lead upward into the cooling water piping with suction being provided by a pump. After circulating through a heat exchanger to provide cooling water to the engine, the now heated water will be discharged through another pump, into piping leading away from the pump and down through the ship and finally discharged to sea through another sea chest.

The use of sea chests allows for repairs of exfoliated steel in and around the highest wear areas and protects the more critical (and expensive) copper-mickel piping systems.


A retirement sea chest is often given to navy sailors at their retirement. They will include a shadow box for holding flags and metals, and are big enough to hold uniforms, mementos, and other sentimental items. They are usually made of wood and brass, and often times other navy veterans construct the sea chests by hand.


I use a wooden chest that resembles a wooden sea chest for my child's toy box. It work's great (except for the occasional pinched finger) and it holds all of her toys. I do not think it is a real sea chest though, because it wasn't very expensive. I picked it up for forty dollars at a goodwill store.

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