The Boatswain’s Call

Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 16 January 2023, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.

Piping is a traditional method of passing orders in a naval setting. A verbal pipe is often replaced with the sound of a boatswain’s call, which can convey specific orders.

Naval lore states the use of a boatswain’s call in English ships can be traced back to AD 1248. The call can be worn as a symbol of rank, mainly because it can be used for passing orders. Up until 1562 it was worn as a badge of office of the Lord High Admiral of England. In today’s navy the boatswain’s call and chain are worn by the Chief Boatswain’s Mate, Quartermaster, and Boatswain’s Mate.

A boatswain’s call is played by holding it between your index finger and thumb, the latter laying along the bottom of the pipe, referred to as the gun. The orb-shaped buoy rests against the palm of the hand and the fingers are used to throttle the exit of air from the hole in the top of the buoy.

The boatswain’s call is relatively easy to master, as there are only two main notes; low and high, and three tones; plain, warble and trill. The low note is produced by blowing steadily into the gun with the hole of the buoy unobstructed by the fingers. The high note is produced by moving the fingers over the buoy and partially throttling the exit of air. A warble is produced by repeatedly moving the fingers from the high to the low position. The trill is produced by vibrating the tongue, similar to how you might roll the letter “R.”

Pipe the side is a 12-second pipe with very smooth transitions from low to high and back to low. It is used when a Commanding Officer arrives onboard, for Royalty, the accused when entering a Court Martial, or for the Officer of the Guard, when the guard is formed up.

The still, a high note held for 8 seconds, is used to call all hands to attention as a mark of respect, or to order silence. If done properly, it should end very abruptly. The carry on pipe is used to negate the still.

The general call is used to get the ship’s company’s attention and is used preceding a broadcast order. Non-naval people often remark how the general call sounds like a wolf-whistle, known to be used when something or someone is pleasing to the eye. Folklore indicates how sailors often used the general call upon seeing an attractive person, which became the derivation of the wolf-whistle. However, there is little evidence indicating this is nothing more than a myth.

A complex pipe consisting of all notes and tones a sailor might produce on a boatswain’s call is the pipe Hands to Dinner. Made daily at 1200, the pipe is an order itself, and does not require any verbal elaboration. This pipe is very long and drawn out, and is the pride of any sailor who can do it absolutely perfectly.

Made to mark the beginning of the daily ship’s routine, the wakey-wakey pipe is a flourish of notes and tones designed to awaken even the deepest sleeper. In contrast, pipe down is used at the end of the ship’s daily routine, marking the time to adopt silent hours.

To a salty dog, the boatswain’s call is seldomly referred to as a pipe or whistle. As was often heard in my day, “A boatswain’s pipe is what the buffer smokes on the quarterdeck.”

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