When watching movies or reading novels about ships at sea, have you ever wondered what the bells indicated?
In the age of sailing, the periods of time that sailors worked were called “watches.” These hours of duty were coordinated with a 30-minute hourglass. Therefore, bells were struck every half-hour when the hourglass was turned, and in a pattern of pairs for easier counting, with any odd bells at the end of the sequence.
So, unlike civilian clock bells, the strikes of the bell did not accord to the number of the hour. Instead, there were eight bells, one for each half-hour of a four-hour watch.
The first five watches are as follows:
First Watch, 8 pm to Midnight (20:00 to 00:00 hours)
Middle Watch, Midnight to 4 am (00:00 to 04:00 hours)
Morning Watch, 4 am to am (04:00 to 08:00 hours)
Forenoon Watch, 8 am to Noon (08:00 to 12:00 hours)
Afternoon Watch, Noon to 4 pm (12:00 to 16:00 hours)
The next four hours are divided into two Dog Watches—the first Dog Watch, 4 pm to 6 pm (16:00 to 18:00 hours) and the Second Dog Watch, 6 pm to 8 pm (18:00 to 20:00 hours). By means of the Dog Watches, the watches can be changed every day, so that each watch gets a turn of eight hours rest at night. Otherwise each member of the crew would be on duty the same hours every day.
Number of Bells Bell Pattern Hour (a.m. and p.m.)
One bell ding 12:30 4:30 8:30
Two bells ding, ding 1:00 5:00 9:00
Three bells ding, ding pause ding 1:30 5:30 9:30
Four bells ding, ding pause ding, ding 2:00 6:00 10:00
Five bells ding, ding pause ding, ding pause ding 2:30 6:30 10:30
Six bells ding, ding pause ding, ding pause ding, ding 3:00 7:00 11:00
Seven bells ding, ding pause ding, ding pause ding, ding, pause ding 3:30 7:30 11:30
Eight bells ding, ding pause ding, ding pause ding, ding, pause ding, ding 4:00 8:00 12:00
According to seafaring legend, the ship's cooks and boatswain's mates had a duty arrangement to give the cooks more sleep. The boatswain's mates, who worked 24 hours a day on watches, would build the fire in the stove, so that when the cook arose a little while later, the fire would be already going so he could begin preparing breakfast. In return, between meals, the cooks would shine the bell, which was traditionally the boatswain's mates' responsibility.
Ringing of midday bell on the QM2 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur5GT6_wuWs
Susan F. Craft is the author of the award-winning novel, The Chamomile,
a Revolutionary War romantic suspense set in Charleston, SC.