Ship’s Bells

It was the job of a pre-GPS ship’s captain to get a ship from one place to the other. In the age of sail, the crew manipulated the sails at the direction of the Second Mate or “the Mate” depending on the heading and the winds. A Helmsman who would constantly adjust the ship’s rudder via the ship’s wheel or tiller kept the ship’s heading on course. There were effects of current drift and wind drift, but the helmsman was not responsible for those concerns. That was the responsibility of the ship’s Navigator who was probably an officer too. The Navigator would take a shot with a sextant and plot the fix on a map. He would then take into account the drifts, etc. and plot a new heading. This, in turn, would be passed onto the helmsman to maintain. The crew was divided into “watches” of four-hour increments on a twenty-four-hour clock (0000 hrs to 2359 hrs) with one watch being split further into two “Dog” watches which meant there were six watches (see below). A ship is a 24-hour-a-day responsibility (which I try to mimic), and the captain had to sleep sometime, as well as the subordinate officers, mates, and crew. The subordinate officers as acting-captains would oversee the various responsibilities. One thing to keep in mind is Noon (1200 hrs) can be identified at any place on the globe through a simple process as long as the Sun is visible. Besides the helmsman manning the ship’s wheel or tiller, he was also responsible for keeping time via an hourglass which timed out a half-hour (30 mins.) interval and would then be flipped to restart the cycle for the next half-hour. The helmsman flipped the hourglass and chimed one of the eight bells. Given the imprecise nature of this kind of human task, the bell schedule would be “reset” at noon of each day as long as the Sun was visible. Life on the sea did not require a lot of precision, so this worked very well. Here is the list of the watches…

  • First Watch = 8 PM to Midnight (2000 – 0000)
  • Middle Watch = Midnight to 4 AM (0000 – 0400)
  • Morning Watch = 4 AM to 8 AM (0400 – 0800)
  • Forenoon Watch = 8 AM to Noon (0800 – 1200)
  • Afternoon Watch = Noon to 4 PM (1200 – 1600)
  • First Dog Watch = 4 PM to 6 PM (1600 – 1800)
  • Second Dog Watch = 6 PM to 8 PM (1800 – 2000)

… and here is the schedule of bell chimes…

  • 00:30 1 bell
  • 01:00 2 bells
  • 01:30 2 bells, pause, 1 bell
  • 02:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells
  • 02:30 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 1 bell
  • 03:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells
  • 03:30 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 1 bell
  • 04:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells

Take a look here for more information…
If anyone is interested, you can download a ship’s bells app (search “Marine Bells”) for iPhone. Android users will have to check to see if a comparable app is available. I have enjoyed this app’s chiming as it chimes all the bells throughout the day; in fact, I am trying to make the paradigm shift in my mind to not mentally “translate” the bells into an “o’clock,” but recognize them as “bells” (time of day).

Bon voyage!