The History of Eight Bells...

Sounding of ship's bells is well rooted in the history and tradition of the maritime industry. Learn more about bell schedules and watches at boating and sailing.

Onboard timekeeping has been an integral part of shipboard life since the earliest days of long distance navigation. Early mariners had no means available to determine latitude and used crude methods to estimate latitude. Successful navigation depended on dead reckoning, a process that used three sources of information to determine position. Ships would tow a log attached to a knotted cord that was paid out behind the stern. Comparing the number of knots passing over the transom to the elapsed time estimated distance. Mariners used rough compasses and observations of the moon and stars to determine direction.

Sometime during the 1500's, shipboard crews saw their duty periods organized into four hours watches. This split the crews into two groups, one on duty and the other free to rest. Since navigation already placed an emphasis on timekeeping, a signal bell would be sounded aboard every thirty minutes. This period reflects the common use of a figure eight or double-bubble sand half hour watch glass to track shipboard time. After 1915, US Merchant ships saw their crews divided into three watches working four hours on and having eight hours off, and the combining of the two Dog Watches into a single evening watch.

The bells used to mark shipboard time were organized into a schedule that reflected the four-hour watch served by the crew. Each watch is identified by its time of day and one watch, called the Dog Watch, was split into two parts to allow taking of an evening meal. The resulting number of uneven watches insured both crews shared the graveyard shift of 0000-0400 equally.

These are watches observed by ship's crew:

Bells are sounded in a pattern every thirty minutes. The maximum number of bells that can be struck is eight, hence the saying "eight bells and all is well." This is the common schedule of ship's bells that is repeated every four hours:

With the end of the watch, eight bells are sounded and the sailor was relieved. All watches follow the routine schedule except for the two Dog Watches. The first Dog Watch sees only four bells sounded at its end and the Second Dog Watch is finished with eight.

Bells are sounded for other purposes. At New Year's Eve, 16 bells are sounds with 8 given for the old year and 8 sounded to bring in the new year. Bells are sounded rapidly for five seconds during periods of low visibility and fog. Bells ringing for a longer period signals a general ship alarm. Ultimately the passing of a sailor is marked with the ringing of eight bells. Sounding of the ship's bell is a powerful reminder of the traditions rooted in long held maritime tradition.

* Article written by Alan Sorum
* Article 1st seen on Suite 101.