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Watches at Sea

Watches at Sea

The sailors in the navy could tell the time by using the ships bell. The day is divided into seven periods called watches. The day starts at midnight and the time is recorded in four figures, of which the first two denote the hour and the last two the minute. 

The following table shows the difference in the recording of time by naval and civilian methods.

Watch (24 hr clock) 12 hour clock
Middle 0000-0400 midnight to 4 am
Morning 0400-0800 4 am to 8 am
Forenoon 0800-1200 8 am to noon
Afternoon 1200-1600 Noon to 4 pm
First Dog 1600-1800 4 pm to 6 pm
Last Dog 1800-2000 6 pm to 8 pm
First 2000-2400 8 pm to midnight

The purpose of dividing the period between 1600 and 2000 into two “dog watches” is to provide an odd number of watches in the 24 hour day so that the port and starboard watches will keep a different watch each day.

The seaman, unlike the civilian, does not speak of the morning, afternoon, and evening, but of the morning, forenoon, afternoon and dog watches.
Striking the ship’s Bell

The time is indicated by striking the hours and half-hours on the ship’s bell throughout each watch, in accordance with the table below so the time indicated is called “one bell,” “two bells,” etc, according to the number of times the bell is struck.

First half hour One bell
First hour Two bells
First hour and a half Three bells
Second hour Fourbells
Second half-hour and a half Five bells
Third hour six bells Six bells
Third hour and a half Seven bells
Fourth hour eight bells Eight bells

This sequence is repeated in each watch, with the exception of the last dog watch; seven bells, for example, can therefore indicate 0330, 0730, 1130, 1530, or 2330, and so when quoting the time by this method the name of the watch is added; 1030, for example, is described as “five bells in the forenoon .” Time in the last dog-watch is marked as follows:- 1830 by one bell, 1900 by two bells, 1930 three bells and 2000 by eight bells.

Except for marking the time the ship’s bell is only struck to indicate the position of the ship when at anchor in a fog or bad visibility, or to sound the general alarm in the event of fire or other emergency. 

The fog signal is the rapid ring of the bell for about five seconds every minute. For a general alarm the bell is rapidly for considerably longer than five seconds, and this is followed by a pipe indicating the nature of the emergency and giving orders for dealing with it. The general alarm is only sounded by the order of the Commanding Officer (Captain).

Another time the ship’s bell is rung is new year’s eve when it is struck 16 times - eight bells for the old year and eight bells for the new year.



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