Six Bells in the Forenoon Watch: A Ship’s Bell in the Age of Sail

I’ve forever been curious about the age of sail and the workings of tall ships. To prepare our forthcoming book, Treason on the Barbary Coast!, Riv Aurora and I did a good amount of research. One curiosity, to me, has always been the ship’s bell.

USS Constitution Ship’s Bell

The bell has been a favorite of Foley artists in movies, but its use in the age of sail was methodical and important. It indicated time and thus duty watches.

Duty watches — the time a sailor or officer was officially on duty and working — were divided into six four-hour shifts (seven if you count a split-shift between 4–8 PM). A half-hour sandglass kept the time. Every half-hour a “ship’s boy” would turn the glass and ring the bell from one to eight times.

At eight bells, the shift ended and a new one began. The system would then reset and the boy would strike one bell at the end of the next half-hour.

An exception to this method was noon, when the hourglass was set aside. The captain or officer on deck would establish noon using a sextant to establish the sun’s apex. When he called noon, eight bells ended the forenoon watch.

The ship’s bell would have the name of the ship engraved on it. Sometimes, this would be the only way to identify the remains of a wrecked ship. By maritime tradition, if a ship changes name, the original bell remains.

A final bit of trivia: polishing the ship’s bell fell upon the ship’s cook. This was by nautical custom, rather than by law or regulation, as part of a deal worked out with boatswain’s mates. The boatswain’s mates would start the cook’s breakfast fire in the early morning, allowing the cook to sleep in. In exchange, the cook would shine the bell between meals — a duty that traditionally fell upon the boatswain’s mates.

At midnight on the New Year, the crew struck sixteen bells — eight for the old year and eight for the new.

Pre-order Treason on the Barbary Coast! by CT Liotta and Riv Aurora, arriving August 15 from Rot Gut Pulp.