Monday, August 22, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Pipe To

One of the most ubiquitous symbols of seafaring life is the sound of the bosun’s whistle. Anyone who has ever watched a movie about ships or shipping set from medieval times to World War II and beyond has heard its high pitched call. What this handy instrument actually is, and the fact that it does sound off more than those well known three notes, is not so familiar to most.

The pipe or whistle, either term is correct, is akin to a piccolo and is carried by a ship’s bosun (boatswain) as a symbol of authority. Generally the pipe dangles from a chain worn around the neck, but it can be carried in various different ways as well. The pipe is descendant from the now archaic Admiral’s whistle. This was a small instrument made of gold and worn around that officer’s neck as a symbol of rank. By the 18th century, bosun’s pipes were made of silver, nickel or brass and so they are to this day.

The four parts of the pipe are the gun (reed), the buoy (bowl), the keel (flange) and the shackle (ring) which attaches the pipe to its chain.

The bosun uses his whistle in his capacity as the transmitter of orders from the officer in charge to the foc’sle men. Various different trills and tweets are used to get the men’s attention and/or to signal the order proper. A by no means all-inclusive list of a few routine orders would be:

Call to attention; Call to meals; Heave or pull on rope, oars, etc; Colors up or down; Belay action; Pipe a guest over the side; Pipe down.

Recognizing the bosun’s call via his pipe was one of the many things that differentiated a true seaman from a lubber. Doubtless it was something newbies learned quickly to avoid the ramifications of not responding in the appropriate manner. No one likes a dressing down or – worse still – a flogging, after all.

Header: Modern bosun’s pipe via The Brass Compass


Capt. John Swallow said...

Interesting to note that a Bosun's Pipe may be the first "pealess" whistle - a design not truly duplicated until the 20th century, when in 1987, Ron Foxcroft of Hamilton, Ontario (Canada) and designer Chuck Shepherd introduced the Fox 40®. The Fox 40 is used in most major sports and is now preferred aboard ship for the same reasons that made the Bosun's Pipe effective: it's the loudest whistle in the world! the "pealess" design is brilliant - it prevents all the problems caused by the "pea" - dirt and moisture build up inside the whistle chamber, won't jam from over-blowing, won't freeze and is totally waterproof! The Bosun's Pipe also had the advantage of being multi-tonal which adds to it being heard above other sounds (like the wind) and is more prominent to the human ear - the Fox 40 replicates this by using a dual chamber design (though it's still one straight blast). This is the same principle in high end safety alarm systems.
Some Samba whistles from South America have adapted the pealess design so as to be heard above loud Carnival crowds!

On a related note, years ago when I had me Border Collie, I trained her using a Bosun's Pipe - when she heard "Piping Aboard" she came right to heel (even if I whistled without the Pipe).

Pauline said...

Fascinating stuff; thankee indeed, Captain. As always, much appreciated.

Border Collies are some smart dogs. Too smart for me, I'm afraid. I'm more of a mastiff sort of gal.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Good stuff, Pauline, and thankee... I have a bosun's call, and when I was in Deck, had my guys tune it with beeswax. We used to practice on watch, when there were no contacts about and nothing else going on. Fond memories, indeed!

Pauline said...

Thanks, mate. It really is something so common aboard ship that you almost don't think about it. I had the lightbulb go on yesterday as I was looking at the offerings over at The Brass Compass. Seriously, Pauline; you haven't written about a bosun's whistle?

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Why not, indeed? I wish I could tell you that I could recognize the different whistles or calls, but being the lubber I am, I could not. I do recall that they even used them on the old Star Trek TV show back in the 60's, though...

Pauline said...

I do remember that on the old Star Trek series. It was usually to pipe officers and such on to the bridge if I recall with the bridge being comperable to the quarter deck. Ubiquitous indeed.