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Sea Stories: Quarterdeck Traditions


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Sea Stories: Quarterdeck Traditions

One of the U.S. Navy’s greatest strengths is its unique traditions.   Tracing most of these cultural heritage touchstones back to the British Royal Navy and many to even earlier centuries, our Navy enjoys a rich historical legacy of nautical customs.  They are what makes a navy a navy rather than just another land-based service with a slightly different uniform.  Almost everything about sea service is informed and shaped by the environment and long historical custom.  This is why naval uniforms and rank titles are so different from other services’.

Nowhere is this echoing reflection of ancient traditions more apparent than on the Quarterdeck.  The Quarterdeck is the ceremonial and official entrance to the ship when in port.  It has for centuries been a place of respect bordering on reverence.  Decorum is observed in behavior and speech. Officers and visitors come aboard there.   It is customary to salute twice when doing so, first rendering a smart hand salute to the national ensign flying astern, and secondly saluting the quarterdeck itself, by rendering a hand salute to the Officer of the Deck, no matter his rank.  One then requests permission to come aboard, rather than just assuming it and stepping on.  This custom reflects a bygone time when ships carried religious icons on their quarterdecks, with the crew often paying reverent respect to them as a matter of invoking the benevolent protection of the gods against a lethal environment.  It paid to keep the almighty powers on your good side, so that they might stand between you and storm, lightning, wind and sea, starvation, disease and occupational hazard.  Over the centuries, this became a customary reverence towards the Quarterdeck itself.  Watches are stood there in dress uniform vice working wear.  It is kept in a high state of order and cleanliness, and it is often elaborately decorated with nautical fancywork.

Senior officers coming aboard was and is a big deal.  The ship’s reputation (and coincidentally that of her Captain) is reflected by the appearance of the Quarterdeck, and the correctness of the Quarterdeck watch’s procedures.  It was important to have as much advance warning of the approach of a senior officer who rated ceremonial honors as possible, to give time to prepare to look your best and do things right.  For that reason, the Officer of the Deck was by regulation supposed to have a spyglass at hand, to improve his far vision.  Yes, a spyglass.  Not binoculars, these had not yet been invented.    At least when I was on active duty, USN ships still had spyglasses in inventory for use on ceremonial occasions.  Many is the formal quarterdeck watch I have stood with one nestled in the crook of my left arm, where it did not interfere with my right hand salute. 

Nowadays, OSHA-approved brows, or gangways, make it easy to come aboard safely.  This was not always the case.  Back in the days of sail, wooden steps led up the side of the ship and had to be climbed, sometimes against the ship’s motion and varying hull curvature, in all weathers.  Men could and did fall occasionally.  Senior officers coming aboard were particularly important.  It simply would not do to have a Captain or Admiral killed or injured, or even made to look foolish by encountering trouble when coming aboard.  The more senior the officer, the more likely he was to be obese, handicapped due to long service in a profession where malnutrition, dehydration, and combat injury were common, or suffering the infirmities of advancing age.  It was a good idea to have a few hands available to help them get up the side and through the bulwark gangway.  So when a senior officer approached, a few able men were tasked to help them.  These are known as Sideboys, and they are always paraded in pairs, one on either side of the entrance gangway.  The officer came aboard and passed between them.  If he needed a little help getting aboard, they were there to help on both hands.   The number of Sideboys reflects the seniority of the officer concerned.  A Commanding Officer holding the rank of Lieutenant Commander or below rates two Sideboys.  A Commander or Captain rates four, a Commodore or Rear Admiral six, and a Vice Admiral or Admiral eight.   When the officer concerned is seen approaching the gangway, the ships bell is rung in sets of two strokes, matching the number of Sideboys the officer rates.   On ceremonial occasions, a Boatswain’s Mate pipes a specific call on his boatswain’s pipe, which again features flourishes dependent upon seniority.  And an announcement is made giving the officer’s command title (if held) or at least their rank. 

So the whole process might look like this.   The Commanding Officer of USS GRIDLEY  wants to  come to visit your CO to congratulate him on his change of command ceremony which is taking place that day aboard your ship.  Full ceremonies are in effect.   The Quarterdeck watch is stationed in dress uniforms, with as many as eight Sideboys and a Boatswain’s Mate standing by.  The Officer of the Deck, holding a spyglass, sees him approaching, identifies him, and determines that he holds the rank of Commander, so he is entitled to four Sideboys.  He orders the ship’s bell rung four times, in two sets of two, and makes an announcement over the ship’s general announcement PA system:

“(ding ding…ding ding) GRIDLEY, arriving”

Four Sideboys step up to flank the gangway, at attention.  The visiting officer salutes the ensign, then the Officer of the Deck and says “request permission to come aboard”.

The OOD returns his salute and says “Welcome aboard, sir”

 The Boatswain’s Mate blows his call as befits the officer’s rank as the officer steps aboard and passes between the Sideboys.   (This is called being “piped aboard.)”  The visiting officer is undoubtedly met by a ship’s officer and respectfully conducted to the CO if he doesn’t come meet him personally.

And that centuries-old practice is still conducted today, with precision and pride reflecting our unique sea service.


P.S.:  What’s with the Boatswain’s Pipe, or “Call” as it is sometimes referred to?  This is an archaic form of whistle, made of a non-corrosive metal, which has no moving parts.  It was and is used to make several differing specific calls, or tunes, if you will, which have specific meanings related to orders or procedures.  On a ship powered by the wind, with the ever-present sound of wind and sea, it could be heard and understood more readily than the human voice when conditions were harsh.  It was worn on a lanyard about the neck of the Boatswain’s Mates, and only used by them to relay orders to men aloft, on and below decks.  Over the centuries, it became a ceremonial badge of office for Boatswain’s Mates, and they are still entitled to wear it in dress uniform.




Edited by Gunboat1
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My ship was in port in Stavanger Norway,  tied up to the quay downtown, just across the street from shops, restaurants and bars, the most convenient port I've ever been in.  One could simply walk down brow, cross the street and chose from many establishments. 

I had the 2000-0000 OOD.   Shortly after 2000 I saw the Commanding Officer walking towards the quarterdeck.  Just I was about to order the appropriate bells to be struck I noticed him waving his arms and shaking his head no.  He came to the quarterdeck and said, "I don't want anyone to know I'm leaving the ship.  I'm going to that bar right over there (pointing).  Send the messenger if you need me."  He then saluted and left the ship.  A couple of hours later he returned,  again with no ceremony. 

I figured he just needed a little down time alone.

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