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WHAT IS TOLD BY A SHIP'S BELL
CAPTAIN JOHN M. ELLICOTT, U.S.N.
Nothing in a ship becomes so closely identified with her throughout her whole career as a ship's bell. Officers and crew come and go; masts, decks, engines, and boilers become old, and are replaced by new ones; but from the day that she first glides into the water the same ship's bell remains always a part of her, marking her progress all over the world, and finally going down with her to a lonely grave at the bottom of the sea, or surviving her as a cherished souvenir of her existence and achievements.
On a man-of-war the bell is usually inscribed with her name and the date of her launching; and as it is probable that it may some day become a memento of a glorious history, the bell is often the subject of special care in casting or selection. Sometimes the hundreds of workmen who have built the great ship contribute each a silver coin to be melted and moulded into a bell which shall be the token of their love for the object of their creation and their interest in her future career. Often the people of the city or state after which a man-of-war is named may present to her a magnificent bell appropriately ornamented and inscribed with words of good will and good wishes. Such a bell is usually presented with ceremony after the ship goes into commission.
Ships' bells in general are made of bronze, like other bells. The addition of silver in their composition gives them a peculiarly clear and musical tone. They are placed in such a position on the upper deck that they may be heard from one end of the ship to the other, and are usually near the mainmast or at the break of the forecastle.
The ship's bell is the regulator of all her daily routine. It rings out to her officers and crew that the time has come for them to do certain things. It tells when it is time to make the ship tidy for inspection, and when it is time to go to drills; it tells the navigator when to take his sights, and the watch-officers when to go on watch; it tells the portion of the crew below decks when to come on deck, and those on deck when they may go below to rest or sleep. It is struck by hand whenever the ship's clock marks the hour or half hour; but it is struck in a peculiar way.
On board ship the twenty-four hours of the day are divided up into periods of four hours each, called watches. Beginning at eight o'clock in the evening, the four hours from then til midnight make the first watch; the four from midnight until four o'clock in the morning make the midwatch; the four from four until eight o'clock in the morning make the morning watch; the four from eight o'clock in the morning until noon make the forenoon watch; the four from noon until four o'clock in the afternoon make the afternoon watch; and the four from then until eight in the evening make the dogwatches.
The crew of a ship is usually divided into two parts, also called watches; and at sea one watch is on deck and on duty for four hours while the other is below, resting or sleeping. At the end of four hours they exchange places. They are named for distinction the starboard watch and the port watch. When not at sea all hands are on deck, and each watch does the work during the day on its own side of the ship, except a few special men who stand in watches as at sea.
You can easily see that, since there are six watch periods in a day and two watches of men, the same men would have the same period of watch every day. This is prevented by
dividing the watch from four in the afternoon to eight into two equal parts called the first dogwatch and the second dogwatch. That makes an odd number of watches in each day, and changes the rotation for the men.
The day being divided into watches, the strokes of the bell tell off the hours and half hours of the watches. Thus at the end of the first half hour of the watch the bell is struck once, at the end of the full hour twice, at the end of the next half hour three times, and so on until at the end of the fourth hour it is struck eight times. Then it begins all over again for the next watch. You will notice that all the odd numbers of strokes are on half hours, and all the even numbers on the hours. If you ask a sailorman on board what time it is, he will not tell you in hours and minutes, but in bells. Thus if he says, "It has gone seven bells, sir," you will be pretty sure to know what portion of the day it is in, and can tell at once whether he means half past eleven, half past three, or half past seven. The bells are struck from one to eight through the dogwatches the same as in any other watch.
On a warship the bell is struck by the messenger boy of the officer on watch. He takes the clapper in his hand and makes the strokes in groups of two, struck quickly, with a slight pause between, and the odd bell, if it is a half hour, is struck last. Thus five bells are struck ting-ting, ting-ting, ting; six bells, ting-ting, ting-ting, ting-ting; and so forth.
Only once a year do they strike more than eight bells on board ship, and that is at midnight on New Year's Eve. When twelve o'clock is announced that night the officer of the watch calls out, "Strike eight bells!" then, "Strike eight more for the new year!" Sixteen bells then ring out in loud vibration, arousing every soul by their unusual number, and
announcing to everybody, from the captain down to the ship's cook, that the old year is gone and they have entered upon a new year.
The ship's bell is sometimes used for other than routine purposes. When a ship is lying at anchor in a fog the bell is struck frequently as a warning of her presence, so that vessels under way may hear, and keep clear of her. On a man-of-war three strokes each time are given, the odd stroke being made first in order to make the ringing different from the third half hour of the watch. Thus the fog bell of a war vessel rings out ting, ting-ting every two or three minutes while the fog lasts. Merchant vessels simply ring the bell rapidly five or six times, then stop, then ring the same way again after a few minutes' pause; but on board of a manof-war this would mean "Fire!" and would bring her whole crew rushing on deck, leading out hose, grabbing buckets, and starting pumps.
This fire signal is rung on our naval vessels at least once a week for drill, and all the officers and men have regular stations at hose and pumps, to which they go as fast as they can, and start streams of water flowing just as if there were a real fire. In these drills officers' servants usually form a line with buckets to take water from a deck pump and throw it on the fire. Of course when there is no real fire the streams from the hose are pointed over the side, and the buckets are passed along and emptied overboard.
On a certain man-of-war on the Pacific station a few years ago the officers had Chinese servants; and although they could scarcely speak a word of English, they were quick to learn what was shown to them, and soon did like clockwork the fire drill with buckets. One day there was a real fire. Volumes of smoke poured up from the fore hold, and it
took several streams of water nearly an hour to put out the flames. When the fire was under control some one thought of the Chinamen; and behold! there they were, ranged in line and in plain sight of the smoking hatchway, rapidly passing their buckets along, but emptying them over the ship's side as they had been taught to do!
On Sundays when divine service is held on board a manof-war the bell is tolled slowly, one tap at a time, before the service begins, to let the officers and men know that it is church time. During the service a long white pennant on which is a blue cross is kept flying over the ship's flag. The bell is also tolled in the same way during burials at sea.
Other bells which give information to those who navigate ships at sea are the fog bells of lighthouses. Nearly every lighthouse has its fog bell, so that when the coast is hidden by fog in the daytime, or the rays of the lighthouse lamp are shrouded by fog at night, the great bell is set going by clockwork to ring out a warning to passing vessels and make them keep clear. Some lighthouses have a big steam fog horn instead of a fog bell. When one of our men-of-war passes near a lighthouse in the daytime, its keeper strikes the fog bell three times as a salute, and the man-of-war returns it by blowing three whistles.
At the entrance to harbors there is often a buoy with a bell on top which rings incessantly with every lurch as the buoy is rocked by the waves, so that in a fog or in the darkness of the night, vessels can find it by the sound, and then know that they are at the mouth of the channel which leads to a safe anchorage.
Bells thus play an important part at sea.