Navy Life

The Boatswain's Call

CPO William H. Lloyd demonstrates the correct method of holding the Boatswain's Call. (Crowsnest Magazine, April 1963)

Unique to naval life, are the pipes that are made by the boatswain's call.

Piping is the Naval method of passing orders and every seaman should know how to use a "boatswain's call". The use of the bosun's call goes as far back as the Crusades (1248).

In former days it was worn in English ships as a badge of rank, because it was always used for passing orders. For years it was even worn as a badge of office os the Lord High Admiral of England and his successors up to 1562. Thereafter it was used in the English fleet for passing all orders and since 1671 it became generally known as the "boatswain's call".

Nowadays the boatswain's call and chain are the badge of office of the Chief Boatswain's Mate, the Quartermaster and Boatswain's Mates. The expression "To Pipe" means, to sound on the boatswain's call and the spoken order to qualify it. Some "Pipes" are even orders and do not require any verbal qualification.

The Boatswain's Call

The boatswain's call is held in the hand between the index finger and thumb, the latter being on or near the shackle. The side of the buoy rests against the palm of the hand. The fingers close over the gun and buoy hole in such a position as to be able to throttle the exit of air from the buoy to the desired amount. Care must be taken that the fingers do not touch the edge of the hole in the buoy, or over the hole in the end of the gun, otherwise all sound will be completely choked.

Playing the Boatswain's Call

The bosun's call can be tuned by scraping away and enlarging the wind edge of the hole
in the buoy and it will sound if the mouth of the gun is held directly into a moderate wind.

There are two main notes; the low and the high, and three tones; the plain, the warble
and the trill.

  • Low Note: The low note is produced by blowing steadily into the mouth of the gun with the hole of the buoy unobstructed by the fingers.
  • High Note: The high note is produced by throttling the exit of air from the hole of the buoy. This is done by closing the fingers around the buoy, taking care not to touch the edge of the
    hole or the end of the gun.
  • Warble: The warble is produced by repeatedly moving your hand quickly from the high to the low position, which results in a warble similar to that of a canary.
  • Trill: The trill is produced by vibrating the tongue while blowing, as in rolling the letter R.

The Pipes

The following instructions show the various pipes used in the Canadian Navy. The numbers at the top of each figure represents seconds of time. The nature, continuity and tone of the notes are indicated by the various lines, and the degree of their slope indicates the speed of ascent or descent of the notes.

The Still

The still is used to call all hands to attention as a mark of respect, or to order silence on any occasion. The still is also used to announce the arrival onboard of a senior Officer. The pipe is an order in itself and does not require any verbal addition. The still is a high note held for 8 seconds. If done properly, it should end very abruptly.

Carry On

The carry on is used to negate the still. The pipe is an order in itself and does not require any verbal addition.

General Call

The general call precedes any broadcast order; it draws attention to the order. The general call is used when passing out-of-routine orders or information of general interest.

Officer of the Day Call

The Officer of the Day call is used to attract the attention of the Officer of the Day to contact the gangway. The pipe is an order in itself and does not require verbal addition. The pipe sonsist of 4 high "pips".

Pipe the Side

When a Commanding Officer of an HMC ship arrivesd onboard he/she is entitled to this pipe. To be done properly it should be 12 seconds long with very smooth transitions. To accomplish this, the sailor must take a very long deep breath prior to beginning; failure to do so will cause the pipe to be abruptly cut short. The side is also piped for Royalty, teh Accused when entering a Court Martial and for the Officer of the Guard (When the Guard is formed up).

Hands to Dinner

The dinner pipe is made at 1200 when the Ship's Company secures and commences the mid-day meal, referred to as dinner. It is never made for any other meal-time. The pipe is an order in itself and does not require any verbal addition. This pipe is very long and any is the pride of any sailor that can do it absolutely properly, and the disgrace of any sailor that does not.

Pipe Down

The pipe down is made at 2230 or at any other time specified by the routine daily orders, when the Ship's Company retire for the evening and the silent hours period commences. The pipe is an order in itself and does not require any verbal addition. When this pipe is made during the middle of the day, it means that the ship is adopting a "Sunday Routine for the remainder of the day.