Eight Bells – A tradition among cuttermen

 

Written by CDR Charlotte Mundy

CGC WEDGE (WLR 75307) preparing to work aids to navigation.”

On Oct, 18 1974, the Office of Personnel promulgated the Coast Guard Cutterman Insignia program, to “recognize the contributions and qualifications of our personnel…” Today, that insignia represents the personal fulfillment of the professional training and sea service associated with a seagoing Coast Guard career. Additionally, there are many serving who do not wear the insignia, yet make considerable contributions to the cutter community. The Office of Cutter Forces’ Eight Bells – A Sea Service Celebration, honors the everyday traditions common aboard all Coast Guard cutters, highlights the shared experiences across all afloat platforms, and recognizes the hard work done by Coast Guard members onboard the cutters and ashore to support them.

The striking of eight bells at noon harkens back to the days of sail, when time was kept by the trickle of sand through a half-hour glass. One bell was rung for each passing half-hour to help keep track of the length of watches. At the end of a four-hour watch, with the striking of eight bells, the watch would change. Noon bells today are a way of honoring those traditions from long ago. Shortly before noon, when the ship’s captain is onboard, the Officer of the Day (OOD) approaches the captain with the “noon approach” to report on the general condition of the ship. The OOD will salute the captain, and say, “captain, the hour of noon approaches. The magazines have been inspected and found to be cool and dry. All small arms, ammunition and pyrotechnics are accounted for. Request to strike eight bells on time and test the ship’s emergency alarms and whistle.” The captain will return the salute and say, ‘Make it so’

And I actually heard those words echoing in my ears as I typed them. After nearly 10 years at sea, some things are so indelibly marked in my memory that they will always be part of me. My ships have always taken on more significance to me than just being a sum of their parts. They are more than all the spaces, the pieces of equipment, the amenities for comfortable living and all the other miscellaneous bits.

CGC FORWARD (WMEC 911) waits for their embarked helo to return for the night after survey flights after Hurricane Irma.

I remember walking through HAMILTON’s (WHEC 715…the old HAMILTON) main passageway, after having been away from 378s for four years. It smelled the same as BOUTWELL, some odd, distinctive bouquet of Simple Green and diesel exhaust, with hints of JP5, sweat, metal, paint and salt. Never mind those weird, eerie noises in the bos’n hole and paint locker that give new OODs the heebie-jeebies. And I’ve always found it a little unsettling that the bridge, which is the center of the universe underway, is usually deserted and lonely in port. The engines and generators, the fuel transfer system, the idiosyncrasies of every ship, the awards on the bulkheads, that tear in the mess deck bench cushion, the scullery deep sink on morale pizza nights…they all make up the greater ship that is more than just the ship. Maybe that’s why we capitalize a ship’s name. It’s more than just its letters.

Eight Bells – A Sea Service Celebration is intended to recognize the hard work done by everyone who serves on a cutter, including career cuttermen, cuttermen-to-be, and those that support cutters

CGC NORTHLAND (WMEC 904) receiving stores from a sister US Navy ship while conducting hurricane relief operations in the Florida Straits.

every day, all week, all year, on every type of cutter. Despite the diversity in missions and capabilities among the cutter classes, the time-tested sea going traditions unite and bind the entire cutter community together. A new crewmember can go aboard a cutter of any size or class and be comforted by the shared traditions of standing double 4-8s, ringing of eight bells and testing the ship’s alarms and whistle at noon, completing underway checklists, checking the setting of material condition Yoke, the closing of the brow at first call to morning and evening colors, and, of course, 1000 coffee break for the crew, among many others.

Underway, there are swim calls, mid-rats, drills…always drills, boat launching detail, field days, navigation briefs, fish call, GAR models for everything, pizza night, and one of my favorites…breakfast after the 4-to-8s. And always, the fickleness of large bodies of water that can go from flat calm to a raging maelstrom in a few short hours, that force the crew to work together as a team to keep each other safe and conduct operations, and require us to rely on the dedicated attention to detail and devotion to duty from our shore-mates that make sure we’re ready on the pointy end of the spear.

Local Eight Bells celebrations are planned for Alameda, CA; Charleston, SC; New London, CT; and Washington, DC. Members were also invited to submit original video or audio content around the theme of eight bells, and were required to incorporate the actual sounding of eight bells and highlight cutters’ sea service traditions. Videos are available for viewing on the Coast Guard Youtube channel. You can vote for your favorites with a “Like” and the video with the most likes by October 31 will be recognized as the winning Eight Bells video.

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