Heeding the Bosun’s Pipe

Good Boatswain, have care. Where’s the master? Play the men.
The Tempest (Act 1, Scene 1)

As a supernatural storm batters his ship, a frightened King of Naples pesters the harried ship’s boatswain, urging him to “play the men” — to call all hands by playing his boatswain’s pipe. Later in the same scene, the beleaguered boatswain laments the noise and interference of panicking landlubbers, when he says, “A plague upon this howling! they are louder than the weather, or our office,” meaning even the shrill squeals of his pipe can’t be heard above their anxious cries. Such is the antiquity of that humble, quasi-musical instrument that has become synonymous with the ancient office of boatswain.

Adm. Nimitz was greeted with the distinctive high-pitched squeals of a boatswain’s pipe whenever he boarded his flagship during World War II, as was King Richard I when he climbed aboard his vessel to cruise to the Crusades some seven centuries earlier. Capt. Kirk was no stranger to the sounds of the boatswain’s pipe whenever dignitaries materialized in the transporter room of the starship Enterprise; and even Napoleon Bonaparte received a piped Royal Navy salute as he boarded HMS Bellerophon before voyaging into exile at St. Helena.

The enduring boatswain’s pipe was developed as an effective communication device for delivering instructions to ships’ crews by means of a series of shrill notes capable of being heard anywhere in a vessel or high above in the tops. During the noise of battle or in storm conditions when the human voice might become inaudible, sailors depended on the pipe’s piercing renderings to sound the word.

What exactly is a boatswain’s pipe? It’s really little more than (apologies to any offended boatswains) a simple whistle, constructed of copper or brass, and sometimes chrome- or silver-plated. Henry VIII’s Lord High Admiral was in the habit of wearing something showier, a jewel-encrusted gold boatswain’s pipe on a heavy gold chain to proclaim his position as top Tudor tar. But this was hardly the kind of bauble a burly boatswain would feel comfortable blowing.

The main parts of the standard boatswain’s pipe (see diagram) are the buoy, the keel, the shackle, the gun and the orifice. To play it, the pipe is held 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, and the fingers close over the gun, buoy and orifice so that exit air may be throttled to the desired degree. Care must be taken that the fingers do not impinge upon the edge of the orifice in the buoy or on the end of the gun nearest the buoy, as this will stifle all sound. A combination of tongue and finger movement, while blowing, produces distinct notes and trills.

The U.S. Navy’s Bluejackets’ Manual (1967) notes, “Even though there are loudspeaker and intercommunication systems on modern ships, the boatswain’s pipe also is used for calling and passing the word.” Calls identified in the manual are:

Word to be passed: to command silence before passing an order or information

All hands: to call all hands’ attention

Boat: to call away a boat; also to a division or divisions to quarters

Call mates: to assemble the boatswain’s mates; also to arouse quick notice or attention from a working group

Mess gear: piped to mess gear

Piping the side: accompanies appropriate side honors, signaling that official personages are coming aboard (like the president, perhaps, or Bob Hope when he entertained the fleet)

It’s interesting to speculate whether that old sailors’ superstition about whistling aboard ship (Never do it, or you’ll whistle up a wind you don’t want.) might have come about as a result of confusing the sound made by human lips with that made by the boatswain’s pipe. Pity the poor sailor whose thoughtlessly whistled ditty brought his off-watch buddies to battle stations.

Although playing of the boatswain’s pipe aboard ship has diminished in recent decades, most navies still employ the antique device for ceremonial purposes — and if Gene Roddenberry was right, the boatswain’s pipe might eventually make it beyond this world, aboard some intergalactic ship, bound where no one has gone before.

By Ocean Navigator