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Tell Time Like A Sailor

Shed your landlubber status now!

After you read this page you'll be able to tell time like a sailor—The Muses guarantee it.

On the right and left and below are two depictions of the clipper ship Flying Cloud, proud representative of its new class of high-speed sailing vessels when it was launched in 1851. On its maiden voyage it broke the speed record for sailing from New York to San Francisco, becoming world famous overnight. It made the journey in 89 days, cutting the previous record in two. Time flew on the Flying Cloud.

about announcing time onboard ship

The sound you heard when this page opened is the ringing of a ship's bell. It's sounding eight bells. Peaceful, isn't it?...Or are the bells announcing fire or danger of another sort? Bells were rung onboard ship for a number of reasons.

  • Want to hear the bells again? The bell repeats once. Wait until the repeat finishes; then play it again: click here.

On this page, The Muses discuss how bells ring onboard ship when they tell time. Time of day (local to a ship) is announced around the clock every day on virtually all maritime vessels everywhere in the world. It's announced the same way using the same system regardless of country, crew, cargo, or registry.

The method used for expressing announced time employs a bell. It's  universal. Anyone who can hear the bell and who knows how to decipher the rings knows what time it is.

Read on as The Muses explain how you can decipher nautical bell signals like a pro.

A brief History of nautical bell ringing

Announcing time with bells aboard ship is an ancient tradition dating back to the 15th century. It was adopted by mariners because knowing the time was important; it spread by common, unwritten agreement. No standards body was necessary because, in addition to their land of birth, all seamen share citizenship in a single nation—the sea. Even enemy sailors had seamanship in common.

In the early days, time was kept with an hourglass and the bells were rung manually. Later, after the development of accurate ship's clocks in the nineteenth century, chronometers were developed that would announce time by automatically ringing bells.

Technically, a chronometer is a timepiece or timing device with a special mechanism for ensuring and adjusting its accuracy. Chronometers were developed to determine longitude at sea and for any other purpose where very exact measurement of time is required. Since the advent of chronometers, the science of measuring time accurately has continued to improve without letup; but the method for announcing time with bells has scarcely changed since its inception. It's used today almost exactly as it was in the British Navy of the 17th and 18th Centuries.

How to tell time nautically

Telling time with nautical bells is essentially a matter of deciphering the code used to ring the bells. It's a procedure that's easy and simple. Translating bell ringing into clock time is child's play once you know the standard scheme for ringing the bells and you understand the role of the watch in ship's life.

the watch

Onboard a ship, a watch is a period of time, usually four hours, during which one part of a ship's crew is on duty. For obvious reasons, the officers and crew who tend to the working of a ship for this four-hour period are also referred to as the watch.

How the watch worksA new watch comes on duty every four hours. Rotation relieves the old watch from fatigue and keeps the new watch on its toes. This rotation pattern repeats throughout the 24-hour period that comprises a day. Since a watch lasts four hours, there are six watches during the day and the day is broken into six equal parts. Three watches or twelve hours pass during the morning hours, from midnight to noon; three watches or twelve hours pass during the evening hours, from noon to midnight.

Under normal conditions, a sailor will stand two watches a day and will be on duty a total of eight hours out of 24. The assignment of crew members to watches is adjusted so that no crew member serves on consecutive watches; each member of the crew gets a rest break between the two watches he stands.

How the watch counts timeAmong its other jobs, the watch has responsibility for keeping track of time and announcing time to the rest of the crew. For purposes of telling time on board ship, the day starts at midnight, or what is the same thing, the day starts at 12:00 a.m. with the midnight watch, called the Middle Watch in nautical parlance. After the first half hour on duty, the watch rings the ship's bell for the first time. Thereafter, it continues to ring the bell and to announce time at regular one-half hour intervals throughout its four-hour watch. After four hours on duty, at 4:00 a.m. The Middle Watch is relieved by the second watch of the day, called the Morning Watch. This rotation process continues day and night. See the table called the Watches, below, for a complete list of watch names and times.

the watches

Watch Name


 (12-hour time/24-hour time)

Middle Watch Midnight to 4 a.m. /0000 - 0400
Morning Watch 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. /0400 - 0800
Forenoon Watch 8 a.m. to Noon /0800 - 1200
Afternoon Watch Noon to 4 p.m. /1200 - 1600
Dog Watch 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. /1600 - 1800
First Watch 8 p.m. to Midnight /2000 - 0000

the bells

Just as the day is divided into six equal four-hour watches, each watch is divided into eight equal half-hour increments.

Every half hour, the watch on duty rings a bell to announce the time of day. The bell is rung in such a way that it represents the number of half-hour intervals that have elapsed since the watch came on duty.

How is this done? A series or group of claps is rung in rapid succession, forming a pattern of alternating claps and pauses. The number of claps in the group is equal to the number of half-hour intervals that have elapsed since the watch came on duty; therefore, a group's pattern is distinctive and unique for each half-hour the watch will sound.

Bells are rung starting with the first half-hour after a watch begins. Each half hour thereafter the number of claps in a group is increased by one. Therefore, the number of ship's bell claps heard when the bell is sounded is equal to the number of half-hour intervals that have elapsed since the watch began. Hearing two bell claps would mean that two half-hour intervals or one hour have elapsed since the watch went on duty.

See the table called The Bells, below, for a complete list of the times of day at which bells are rung and the pattern of bell claps and pauses for each time.

the bells

—to hear the bell pattern, click the chronometer in the column marked Ring

Half Hour Increments Time of Day

(Sounded twice a day, a.m. and p.m.)

Bell Pattern Total # Bells Ring
First half hour 12:30; 4:30; 8:30 1 bell 1
Second half hour 1:00; 5:00; 9:00 2 bells 2
Third half hour 1:30; 5:30; 9:30 2 bells, pause, 1 bell 3
Fourth half hour 2:00; 6:00; 10:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells 4
Fifth half hour 2:30; 6:30; 10:30 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 1 bell 5
Sixth half hour 3:00; 7:00; 11:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells 6
Seventh half hour 3:30; 7:30; 11:30 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells,

pause, 1 bell

Eighth half hour 4:00; 8:00; 12:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells,

pause, 2 bells


This table indicates the times at which bells are heard during a 24-hour day. The times shown in the column marked Time of Day are the clock times (for a 12-hour clock) when bells are heard in the morning hours (a.m.); bells also ring in the evening hours (p.m.) at these times. For example, six bells will be rung at 3:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., 11:00 p.m., as watches come on and go off duty. 

In the column marked Total Number Number of Bells, the total number of bell claps in each row indicates the number of half-hour intervals that have elapsed since the watch went on duty.

How to tell time—the method

By now the process of translating a group of bell claps into a time of day should be obvious. It's a three-step process:

  1. Count the number of bell claps in the group of claps rung by the watch. Since the number of claps is equal to the number of half-hour intervals that have elapsed since the watch began, add them up to calculate the number of hours that have elapsed since the watch began. For example, if you hear 2 bell claps (2 bells), the watch has been on duty for one hour; if three bells, the watch has been on duty for one-and-one-half hours.
  2. Note the time that the current watch came on duty. For example, if the watch now on duty is the Morning Watch, it came on duty at 4:00 a.m.
  3. To come up with the time of day, add the number of hours that have elapsed since the watch came on duty to the time the watch came on duty. For example:
    • If the the Morning Watch is now on duty, it came on duty at 4:00 a.m. If you hear two bells, one hour has elapsed since 4:00 a.m.; it must now be 5:00 a.m.
    • If the Afternoon Watch is now on duty, it went on duty at 12:00 p.m. If you hear six bells, it must now be 3-o'clock in the afternoon.


How does one establish which watch is on duty when the bells ring and when it went on duty?

The name of the watch doesn't really matter for telling time. So long as you take a fix on the number of bells and the approximate time of day, you'll have all the information you need.

Sailors do it by such means as scanning the sky, looking at shadows cast by the sun, or noting that dinner is cooking or has has just been served, or similar clues . For example, if the sun is higher than 45 degrees above the horizon but still in the east, the current time must be later than 8:00 a.m. and earlier than noon.

Watches start at midnight and change every four hours. Therefore, this must be the second watch. With the sun where it is, it's too late for the midnight watch and too early for the afternoon watch. Therefore, the watch now on duty must be the second watch, the one that started at 8:00 a.m. and will quit at noon. Just add the elapsed hours rung by the bells to 8:00 a.m. and you have the time.

When it comes to telling bell time, common sense rules the day. In this example, the watch now on duty is the Forenoon Watch. But the name of the watch isn't what's important for telling time. What's important is the time the watch went on duty and the number times the bell struck.


  1. No wonder sailors talk "bell talk" by answering in bells; they do so because they tell time by counting bell claps. When a sailor says it's six bells, for example, he means that six bells or three hours have elapsed since the current watch went on duty.
  2. Bell time is only accurate to the nearest half hour. The announced time is precise only while the bells are ringing. A half hour will elapse before bells ring again. Therefore, in the interval after the bells stop ringing and before they ring again, the current time is somewhere between the time when the bells last rang and one-half hour later.
  3. One bell never marks the start of a watch; one bell marks the first half-hour after the current watch stated.
  4. Claps occur in pairs when possible. Pauses between claps in a group occur after each pair.
  5. The odd clap in a sequence of claps is always the last one to sound. When one clap sounds after one or more pairs of claps, it signals that a single additional one half-hour interval has elapsed on the watch, except for the solitary clap that indicates the first half-hour interval.
  6. Eight bells marks the end of a watch.

pop quiz

Take this simple little quiz to confirm your mastery over bell time.

  • Ring (click) the bell and then decipher the time: click here.
  • Hint: The watch bell woke you out of a sound sleep and you're tired. It's summertime but it's dark even though there're streaks of light in the east. No one is stirring.
  • What time is it?
  • Answer

  1. Judging by the sky, it's too late for the Middle Watch and too early for the Forenoon watch. It must be the Morning Watch.
  2. The bell rang 3 times. The watch has been on duty for 1-1/2 hours.
  3. The Morning Watch runs from 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. If the watch began at 4:00 a.m. and it's 1-1/2 hours old, the time of day must be 5:30 a.m.
  4. Hey! 5:30 is no fit time to be up. Go back to sleep.

more Hints

  1. It may help to think of the watch as ringing bells to announce the length of time it is been on duty, not to announce the time of day; then convert to the time of day.
  2. Remember that the number of bells rung indicates neither the current time of day nor the time the watch went on duty. The number of claps always indicates the number of half-hour intervals that have elapsed since the time of day that the watch went on duty.

modified bell ringing for the dogwatch—an historic exception that proves the rule

The dogwatch (see The Watches table, above) begins at 4:00 p.m. and ends at 8:00 p.m. It's the watch that occurs before or around diner time, when the watch may becoming drowsy or some of the off-watch crew may be taking an afternoon nap (called a dog-sleep, a light or interrupted sleep).

about two-hour dogwatches

On some ships, the dogwatch is divided into two equal two-hour watches, each of which is referred to as the dogwatch. The first of these two periods runs from 4 to 6 p.m.; the second one runs from 6 to 8 p.m. On these ships, a dogwatch might be divided into two halves as a way to make it easier for cooks to serve the evening meal and the crew to eat it. Half the crew eats during the first half; the other half eats during the second half.

How it works

If you're on a ship with a dogwatch that's divided into two halves, your ship may have altered the pattern it uses for ringing bells during the second half. If so, the bell pattern will differ from the normal pattern (shown above in the table called The Bells, above).

If the ship you're on follows this approach, you will hear dogwatch bells rung in the usual fashion during the first two hours of the dogwatch (first to the fourth half hours), as shown above in the table called the Bells and below in the table called The Bells For A Two-Part Dogwatch.

But your ship will ring dogwatch bells differently in the second half of the four-hour dogwatch period. In the second half, bells will be struck the same way as they were struck in the first half of the dogwatch, except for the fourth half-hour when the dinner service and the dogwatch both end. Then bell ringing will revert to what it is normal for the ship during off-meal hours, namely eight bells. See the table called The Bells for a Two-Part Dogwatch, below.

the History behind the two-hour dogwatch

The practice of ringing bells differently in the second half of the dogwatch originated in the British navy after an historic 1797 mutiny. After the mutiny, the bell pattern was changed so that the signal for the mutiny, which was five bells in the second dogwatch, will never again be given.

Notice how this revised scheme for ringing dogwatch bells does not produce a five-bell ring. Never again will 5-bells be struck on a British navy vessel during the dogwatch; never again will 5-bells announce the anniversary of the great 1797 British navy mutiny.

the bells For a Two-part dogwatch

Dogwatch Half Hour Increments Time of Day

(Sounded p.m. only)

Bell Pattern Total # Bells
First Half First half hour 4:30 p.m. 1 bell 1
Second half hour 5:00 p.m. 2 bells 2
Third half hour 5:30 p.m. 2 bells, pause, 1 bell 3
Fourth half hour 6:00 p.m. 2 bells, pause, 2 bells 4
Second Half First half hour 6:30 p.m. 1 bell 1
Second half hour 7:00 p.m. 2 bells 2
Third half hour 7:30 p.m. 2 bells, pause, 1 bell 3
Fourth half hour 8:00 p.m. 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells,

pause, 2 bells


[Coming: Bell animation. Put a number of bell images in each time a visitor clicks. Add sound of ship's bells to page and ring number of bells that's correct for each number of bells the visitor clicks.  Picture of chronometer. Rang bells with clocks once they were perfected. Convert this page.

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