Sixteen Bells To Ring In The New Year

The practice of ringing bells at sea is as old as the bells themselves. On board ship it is important to observe some form of timekeeping to facilitate the smooth running of the ship. As clocks or watches were, at best, expensive and so out of the reach of the ordinary sailor, time was measured by using a sand glass.

It was left to one of the ship's boys or midshipmen to be responsible for turning the glass. The most common form came with a running time of half an hour. As periods of duty were split up into four-hour watches, it quickly became the custom to sound the ship's bell every time the sand glass was turned.

In order to tell the time from the bell, noon, 4pm, 8pm, midnight, etc. were marked by the ringing of eight bells. Every half hour thereafter was marked by the ringing of one bell, with an additional ring for each subsequent half hour. Therefore 12:30 was marked with one bell, 1 o'clock by two rings, and so on, until eight bells were sounded after the four-hour period. Are you confused yet?

It was also custom that on the change of watch, when eight bells were sounded, and of course provided everything was in order, to shout, "Eight bells and all is well!"

Once a year, sixteen bells were rung to mark the end of an old year and the beginning of a new. Usually the oldest person on board was given the task of ringing out the old while the youngest person on board was allowed to ring in the new.

From With a Pinch of Salt: A collection of nautical expressions and other stories by Captain Nick Bates, Sheridan House 2006

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Comment by Chuck (C_Note) on January 1, 2010 at 11:02am
I spent 6 yrs in the navy, and I have to admit, I had no clue what all the bell ringing meant. Of course, us Sea Bees, not living on ships, didn't hear many bells, except those in our heads after a night of liberty on the beach.
Thanks for the heads up on the bells
Comment by Banana Wind on December 30, 2009 at 10:39pm
Yup ...and of course theres always been the long time related saying of "8 Bells for so and so (recently deceased sailor)" to mark the end of their "watch" as it were.......we won't have a Bell available at the party we will be attending ..but I suppose we will be doing our own virtual version in spirit....for you see ....we will be traveling inland to good ole Dallas,Tx to celebrate New Years...wohooo! Happy New Year Terri!
Comment by Terri on December 24, 2009 at 8:49pm
Oh, I'm sure they do..for a small fortune. I had one a few years ago (b.s. = before sailing) that was my great aunties....antique, beautiful sound...and sold it when downsizing and selling house..regret it now..big time!
Comment by J.C. Smith on December 24, 2009 at 2:50am
8 bells & all is well
Comment by Terri on December 21, 2009 at 7:01pm
Wishing you a joyous holiday too!
Comment by Marlene A. Sassaman on December 21, 2009 at 9:55am
Thanks Terri for this bit of nostaglia. I love ship stories, especially the true ones. Hope your holiday is a joyous one!

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