Bells at Sea

Ship’s bells have accompanied navies and merchant fleets for centuries, serving both functional and ceremonial uses. Bells are typically mounted in a prominent position on an upper deck to signal crew and passengers, broadcast the time, announce whether an important personage or officer had boarded the vessel, or indicate the position of the ship in heavy fog. Often, the ship’s bell becomes the signifying artifact that tells the story of the vessel’s adventures.

Image: Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Dakota Messler strikes a bell aboard the Freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Sioux City (LCS 11) while moored in Augusta Bay, Italy, on Aug. 9, 2022. Courtesy: Mass Comms. Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas A. Russell, U.S. Navy.*

What are ship’s bells used for?

Since at least the 15th century, bells have rung out over the seven seas. Bells onboard ships primarily serve a signaling function. Whether keeping time or sounding an alarm, a ship’s bell is an indispensable instrument of a vessel’s readiness. As such, the bell’s use and maintenance is tasked to a dedicated crewmember. Traditionally, this was the ship’s cook, but modern navies assign the bell’s upkeep to a deck seaman or signalman.

While today we rely on satellite communications and digital timekeeping devices, crews of yore would mark the passage of time with an hourglass. Each half hour, the sand would run out and the glass would be tipped to start again. The ship’s bell would then be sounded to mark the moment, with an additional toll after each half hour: once at the start of the watch, twice after 30 more minutes, three times after that, until eight strikes signaled the end of the four-hour watch.

Ship's bell during gunnery exercise onboard the USS Isabel

Image: Gunnery exercise onboard the USS Isabel (PY 10), circa 1933-1934. The ship's bell is mounted to the mast. Courtesy: Naval History and Heritage Command.

Ship’s bells also warn other vessels of a ship’s location in low visibility and heavy fog. The clear tocsin helps prevent maritime collisions. “In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night,” states the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea adopted in 1972, “a vessel at anchor shall at intervals of not more than one minute ring the bell rapidly for about 5 seconds.”

Bells are also called upon to ring out an alarm in the event of fire. The number of tolls can indicate the location of the fire on the vessel. If a notable individual should come aboard, whether the ship’s captain, commanding officer, or civilian dignitary, the ship’s bell will also be sounded to announce the arrival.

Ceremonial uses for a ship’s bell

For as long as men and women have sailed the open seas, they have carried with them the rituals of life on land. Births happen at sea, deaths happen at sea, and so too do those infinite number of life’s little miracles and occasions in between. A ship’s bell is often called upon to help commemorate such moments. For sailors and their families of the Christian faith, this includes the rite of baptism.

A naval tradition dating back centuries to when Britannia ruled the waves, consecrations or baptisms aboard ships are conducted in or under the ship's bell. This tradition originated with the Royal Navy and is maintained by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the navies of Australia and Canada, among others. A baptism in the ship’s bell is taken as a sign of life and good luck for the ship, with the name of the baptized, whether young or old, inscribed on the inside lip of the bell. On occasion, an inscription might also record a wedding or other significant event of life aboard the ship. 

On New Year’s Eve, a ship’s bell is customarily rung 16 times: eight tolls to mark the end of the old year and eight more to herald the new. At other times throughout the year, the reverberating tolls resound in solidarity or remembrance. If a sailor dies while in service to the nation or vessel, the ship’s bell is sounded eight times – a final salute at the end of one’s last watch and a poignant honor, given the revered status of the ship’s bell to the vessel and crew.

Image: Fireman Amber Duncan, a damage controlman with the USS Comstock, rings a bell at sea as part of the ship’s Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony during their deployment to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations on Sept. 11, 2014. Courtesy: Sgt. Melissa Wenger, U.S. Marine Corps.*

Continuing service after decommissioning, salvage, or recovery

Like the ships that carry them, not all bells survive the journey. Some sink beneath the waves as casualties of wartime aggression. Others might go down in a violent storm. Some ships sailing past their prime might be decommissioned and relegated to a scrapyard. The bell, however, is not like other parts of the rig. It serves a utilitarian function, sure, but it also embodies the spirit of the vessel and the sailors who traverse her decks. 

Ship’s bells within the U.S. Navy remain the permanent property of the U.S. government. When a vessel is decommissioned, the bell is one of several artifacts removed from the ship and tendered into the care of the Naval History and Heritage Command. The bell is cleaned, preserved, and cataloged. It may then wait in storage or find new use on another vessel (most commonly, a namesake to the previous). Other bells are provided on loan to civic organizations, museums, military installations, or naval and historical institutions.

Brass ship bell from the USS Constitution

Image: The brass bell on the USS Constitution at Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston, Massachusetts. The ship, nicknamed "Old Ironsides," is the oldest and most storied commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy.

Since the 18th century, it has been customary to cast or inscribe the ship’s name on the bell’s waist. In the event of a shipwreck, when more vulnerable materials like wood are swept away or degrade into the ocean floor, the bell often provides the only positive means of identification. A bell can be submerged for hundreds of years and still proudly bear the ship’s name upon its surface, little effected by marine growth or oxidation. 

The composition of bronze or brass alloy in a ship’s bell is engineered with exacting proportions of copper, zinc, and tin to withstand unremitting saline exposure – making the bell durable underwater and resistant to the corrosion of saltwater and sea life. This ensures that a ship’s bell continues to inspire long after the vessel itself has lowered its sails for the last time.

Image: A researcher and preservationist studies an x-ray taken of the bell recovered from the shipwreck of the Loch Ard, an 85-metre, three-masted, square-rigged iron clipper that sank off the coast of Victoria, Australia, in 1878. Courtesy: The Standard.

The making of a ship’s bell

The U.S. Navy details the specifications for casting a ship’s bell commensurate with the size and service of a given vessel. The bell’s proportions, weight, tone, and inscription are all predetermined by the naval ship’s class to maintain consistency across the fleet of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, hospital ships, and other vessels.

A balanced and homogenous composition of copper, zinc, and tin is meant to yield bright acoustic properties and resilience to the elements. The metal is to be free from internal stresses or strains, which may affect the serviceability of the bell or cause it to crack. Its tone should be full, clear, and round, and able to resound well beyond the limits of the bow and stern. The finish is to be plain, free from defects and blemishes, and polished on the outside only. To maintain a spotless and brilliant appearance, sailors routinely buff and polish the ship’s bell. 

Illustration of the ideal proportion of a ship's bell

Image: Illustration of a U.S. Navy Motor Boat Bell, circa 1918, from The Naval Artificer's Manual. Courtesy: Naval History and Heritage Command.

An inscription on the bell, cast at the time of founding or engraved after, will include the letters “U.S.S.” (United States Ship) followed by the name of the vessel and the year of commissioning. If a vessel is not named, the bell is to bear the letters “U.S.N.” (United States Navy) only. The size of the letters in relation to the bell follow approved standards. Ships within the Royal Navy use the initialism H.M.S. instead, signifying Her Majesty's Ship. 

The Navy stipulates that any variation to set bell measurement standards must not exceed ¼ inch. The weight of a bell is permitted limited variation as well, with a tolerance of only 2 percent above or below the specified weight in a 600- or 800-lb. bell. The tolerance is greatest in the smallest of bells, allowing for not more than 5 percent above or below the specified weight in bells weighing 20, 30, or 60 lbs.

While the U.S. Navy has contracted dedicated bell foundries for bells before, many of the largest shipbuilding companies and suppliers to the Department of Defense cast their own bells for new ship commissions.

Image: Detail from The Naval Artificer’s Manual delineating appropriate bell weights, tones, and dimensions for U.S. Navy ships and motor boats of different sizes. Courtesy: Naval History and Heritage Command.

*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.