If you hadn’t noticed, I enjoy boating and working on boats (both old and new), but just that one hobby wasn’t a big enough money sink for me, so I also got into the world of horology. Horology is the study of time and particularly the art of clock and watch making. I’m not going to delve into my poor choices and my multitude of watches that I have accumulated, but there is an interesting bit of overlap between these two hobbies.
I received this Sea Chime ship’s clock about 10-years ago as a Christmas present from my parents. It is a decent Swiss made example of a ship’s clock, though not in the same realm as a Chelsea ship’s clock, which can sell for several thousands of dollars. What I most like about it, is that it strikes the ship’s bells on the hour and half hour.
I spent several years aboard a ship standing a 4-on/8-off watch schedule; the chimes serve as a reminder to be grateful that I don’t have to wake up at midnight to go on watch. For those that aren’t familiar with a 4-on/8-off watch schedule, it is the standard maritime watch schedule among the merchant fleet and was used aboard all NOAA ships. You would be assigned the 12-4, 4-8, or 8-12 watch. You would stand watch during those hours in the morning and then come back on watch during the same four hours in the evening, having the interceding eight hours to attend to other duties or rest.
The ship’s bells track these watches with each watch being composed of 8-bells, or distinct strokes on the bell, with one bell being added each half hour. Thus, at 0030 there would be a single strike on the bell, at 0100 there would be two strikes, and so forth until you reach eight strikes at 0400. This pattern would then repeat for the next watch period. The bells are struck in pairs with slight pauses in between; for instance, at 0300 the strike pattern would be “ding-ding…ding-ding…ding-ding.”
In the days of sail, these bells and time keeping would be done manually. The would have a half-hourglass and when it ran out, the ship’s bell would be struck the appropriate number of times, the half-hourglass turned, and then the process repeated 30-min later. This is also where the saying “Eight bells and all’s well” comes from, which means something went uneventfully; the end of the watch is 8-bells.
Time telling was of course critical to navigation, and the advent of accurate marine chronometers allowed the determination of longitude with celestial navigation. That’s probably getting a little too far off topic for one post, but to this day, ships will carry a ship’s clock even though they are not as critical for navigation as they once were. I can still remember the ship’s bells chiming from the CO’s office just below the bridge and counting the bells until I could say, “8-bells, and all’s well,” before heading down to my stateroom for some much needed sleep.
Until next time, here’s wishing you fair winds and following seas!
Brent Pounds has over a decade of experience in the maritime industry and has been involved in recreations boating since he was a child. See the About section for more detailed information.