Bells at Sea
Naval TimeThe history of horology has been intimately connected with seafaring. Knowing the time was important for navigation (see longitude). It was also necessary for keeping track of the changing of the watch.
Ringing The BellsThe naval tradition of ringing bells to mark the changing of the watch dates from the era before reliable and affordable pocket watches. The ringing of the bell was a simple way of informing the entire crew of the time.
The exact origin of the tradition is uncertain. It has been suggested that it was connected with the early use of a sand-timer to track time aboard ship. This would need to be turned every half an hour and, the theory goes, the junior crew member responsible for this would ring a bell to confirm this had taken place.
Whatever the origin, ringing the bells is an established part of historic naval tradition.
The 24 hours of the day were divided into six watches each of four hours duration. Bells were rung to indicate the progress of the watch. Thirty minutes after the start of the watch, one bell would be rung. Thirty minutes later, two bells, etc. This continued until the end of the watch when eight bells would be rung - eight half hours making, of course, the four hour duration of the watch. The eight bells signified that the watch was due to be relieved.
This tradition led to the saying "Eight bells and all's well", indicating that the watch had passed peacefully.
Dog WatchIt is customary for one four hour watch each day - usually 16:00 to 20:00 - to be split into two half watches of two hours each. These half-watches are known as the "dog watches". Having an odd number of watches (seven instead of six) means that the sailors are able to rotate through the different watches rather than having to keep the same one each day.
For the second dog watch, the bells are rung as "1-2-3-8" instead of "5-6-7-8". This custom is said to have originated during the 1797 Nore mutiny. The mutineers had planned to use the five bells in the dog watches to signal the start of the mutiny. The officers heard of the plot and changed the ringing to confuse the mutineers.