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Maritime Tradition – Ship’s Bells – Sailing – Sail Away Girl


Hello Sailors,

For years I have heard about the Maritime Tradition, Ship’s Bells, and I know it is a way of telling time on a boat, however, I have no idea how many bells mean what time and I thought you might not know either.

So I wanted to look into the subject and see what’s what in the boat bell ringing business.

Not surprisingly, at least not to me, is that the Ship’s Bells is a system for signaling watch changes, but turns out the ship’s bell has also been used for other nautical events including:

  • The ringing in of the new year.
  • The announcement of a dignitary boarding the vessel.
  • Baptisms.
  • Announcing your existence in foggy conditions.
  • As a safety alarm.
  • The passing of a sailor.

Ship’s Bell as a Watch Schedule:

Ship's Bells for Watch Schedule

Four hour watch schedules were put into place in seafaring some time in the 1500’s. At that time, the 24 hour day was split into six four-hour increments with one of the four-hour increments divided in to two two-hour segments to allow every crew member the opportunity to eat the evening meal at evening meal time.

The watches were as follows:

Watch Bells Middle Morning Forenoon Afternoon First Dog Last Dog First
One Bell 1 0030 0430 0830 1230 1630   2030
Two Bells 2 0100 0500 0900 1300 1700   2100
Three Bells 2 1 0130 0530 0930 1330 1730   2130
Four Bells 2 2 0200 0600 1000 1400 1800   2200
Five Bells 2 2 1 0230 0630 1030 1430   1830 2230
Six Bells 2 2 2 0300 0700 1100 1500   1900 2300
Seven Bells 2 2 2 1 0330 0730 1130 1530   1930 2330
Eight Bells 2 2 2 2 0400 0800 1200 1600   2000 0000

With the exception of the First Dog Watch, eight bells would signify the end of the crew on duty’s watch.

The times were announced in this fashion due to the fact that a 30 minute hourglass, versus time pieces, was used to keep up with time on a ship. It was easier to keep up with the hour and half hour using the even odd bell ringing sequence.

Ship’s Bells to ring in the New Year:

Ring in the New YearThe ship’s bell is rung sixteen (16) times at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Eight bells for the year ending and eight bells for the new year.

Ship’s Bells Announcing Dignitaries:

Naval tradition has rung the ship’s bell to announce the arrival of a special individual aboard the vessel.

The more bells rung, the more important the dignitary. The number of bells has historically coincided with the number of “sideboys” the visitor was entitled to have.

A sideboy is a male or female crew member that is part of an even-numbered group that is posted in two rows to aid the visitor aboard.

The sideboys had historically been stationed on the quarter-deck, but now may be on the dock as part of the ceremony. The sideboys receive their instructions via the boatswain’s whistle.

The President and Vice President of the United States both are assigned the maximum number of sideboys, eight. The minimum number of sideboys to be assigned to a visitor coming aboard would be two.

Ship’s Bells Baptism:

Baptism on a ship

The ship’s bell wasn’t rung to announce the baptism of a baby. Instead it was turned upside down and filled with the baptismal water used to christen the new member of the crew.

The tradition was to engrave the child’s name to the back of the bell after the baptism.

Ship’s Bells Announcing Your Existence in Foggy Conditions:

Ship's Bells in Fog

Foggy Day Sailing in Chcago

Now I’d say announcing your position versus existence but it would be very wrong. First of all, ringing a bell would let no one know a boat’s position, but mostly because in the fog sounds are eerily distorted and play havoc with your mind.

If the bell ringing is getting louder, then you are getting closer to whatever the bell is on and potentially on a collision course. This is of course where radar and AIS will come in handy.

The ship’s bell is rung rapidly regularly for five seconds at a time in fog so others will know you are out there somewhere.

Ship’s Bells to Sound an Alarm:

In the event of any emergency on board, a ship’s bell is rung rapidly for a long period of time to signal any distress.

Ship’s Bells for the Passing of a Sailor:

It has been a long time nautical tradition to mark the death of a sailor by eight bells. It is still used today by both civilian and military sailors.

Does your sailboat require a bell? The US Coast Guard requirement is any vessel of 65+ feet (20 meters) or longer is required to carry a bell and a whistle.

Now I don’t plan to get a sailboat that big, but I think having a bell is so much a part of nautical tradition I can’t imagine sailing without one.

How about you? Do you carry a bell on board? Do you use it? Would love to know.

See you on the water,

Sail Away Girl