Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print Feed Feed

Dog Watch: A bosuns sound orders

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #126 November/December 2002

From Ocean Navigator #126 November/December 2002

Directing the rabble commonly found aboard the decks of sailing ships of old often required an iron hand. For a ship to be run well, it needed a good boatswain. His responsibilities included the oversight of proper and efficient setting and trimming of sails and sail handling, rigging, anchors, cables, etc. He would also detail the crew to carry out day-to-day work of the ship, splicing, cleaning and painting. Essentially, anything that occurred on deck and in the rig was his domain.

In his capacity as "overseer of the deck" it was often necessary for the boatswain — pronounced, and often spelled, bosun — to communicate with dozens of crewmen scattered throughout the ship's decks and rig. In the days before public address systems, this would have required a Herculean voice or a whistle.

Where English ships are concerned, this unique communication device, called a bosun's whistle or pipe, traces its lineage back to the Crusades in the 13th century. Prior to that, it is believed that ancient Greek and Roman skippers used a flute-like instrument to convey orders to oarsmen or galley slaves. (The fact that slaves were often culled from vanquished armies and navies who spoke different languages may have played a role in the development of musical rather than spoken orders.)

Sailors perched high aloft in the yards could be given sail-handling orders via unique cadences transmitted through the bosun's pipe. This form of communication was particularly useful when the wind was up and a human voice would not carry over the howl of a gale through the ship's rigging.

The whistle itself, which vaguely resembles a pipe, is, like many shipboard implements, intricately named. It has a keel, a gun, a shackle and even a buoy. Mastering its use required skill and practice. Each call was often made up of combinations of notes that were produced by modifying one's grasp of the gun and modulating the air as it left the buoy.

Through Tudor times, the Lord High Admiral of England used the bosun's whistle as a badge of rank. Admiralty whistles were, however, a far cry from the ordinary version used by the common seaman. Often made of jewel-encrusted gold and suspended from a gold chain, it was clear to any observer that the wearer was in charge. This tradition resulted, no doubt, because of the order-giving nature of the whistle. Particularly in battle, when the whistle sounded, the crew responded without hesitation. Their lives and the very life of their ship rested upon the swift execution of the bosun's orders.

Lord Edward Howard, Lord High Admiral of England, while engaged in the battle of Brest Roads in 1513, boarded a French ship, perhaps a bit overzealously. The crew of his own vessel allowed the two ships to separate, allowing the admiral to become stranded. After a gallant fight, it became apparent to him that his demise was imminent, at which point he opted to throw his command bosun's whistle into the sea rather than allow a vaunted symbol of the British Admiralty fall into enemy hands. Figuratively speaking, by doing so, he prevented the enemy from capturing his flag.

In its day, the bosun's whistle was used to convey all manner of commands, from chow call and battle stations to "hoist away" and a call for sweepers to man their brooms. Common, everyday usage of the bosun's whistle diminished considerably with the electronic age, where it was supplanted by the public address system. Widely recognized even by lubbers, and still used today is the bosun's call known as piping the side. This ceremonial cadence is reserved for heralding the arrival of high-ranking officers, royalty, heads of state and government officials. Its familiar high, low and high tones were once actually individual signals for line handlers to heave and lower a bosun's chair, which would be used to lift these lofty officials from their boats to the ship's deck.

Perhaps the most familiar of all bosun's calls, while not widely recognized in its tonal form, is the command to be quiet or "pipe down." This signal would be sounded just before passing the word to turn in and keep silence about the decks.