Behold the Glory of the Bosun's Whistle and Its Power Over Sailors

(Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Evelyn P. Haywood/U.S. Navy photo)

If you're a Navy veteran, there's a good chance you've heard this whistle. You might know it as the boatswain's call, boatswain's pipe or bosun's whistle, but it's all the same whistle, and it's been in continuous use since before the U.S. Navy -- or even the United States -- existed.

In the days before electronic communication or gigantic ships crewed by thousands of sailors, something was needed to communicate orders easily to a ship full of hardy men who were drinking grog, extremely focused on arduous tasks and were often in the middle of terrible weather.

Try finding your friend in a crowded bar toward the end of a long Friday night, and you might have an idea of how hard this might be. Sure, shouting will get the attention of people around you, but it's not going to tell your pal the Uber has arrived.

So instead of going hoarse trying to shout orders all over the ship in the middle of a storm or battle, naval officers took a page from land armies and created a system of orders that could be heard easily with the use of a musical instrument. Instead of drums, they chose a high-pitched whistle and put it in the hands of the boatswain.

For you landlubbers, the boatswain is essentially the foreman of the ship's work crews. Simply put, the boatswain is the one directing the maintenance and operation of anything aboard the ship that isn't the engines.

Now imagine needing to direct hundreds of men and boys at once to make sure the ship operated well and didn't fall apart. A whistle could easily be used to send orders to the crew or even to other ships. It's a good system.

The most common commands included hauling the lines, hoisting officers aboard ship, ordering boats to leave the side of the ship, order all hands on deck, dismiss the current watch, sweep up, call the crew to the mess, call the crew to attention and make general announcements. There are, of course, many others.

In today's world of electronic communication and massive ships that house thousands of sailors in different compartments, the boatswain's call is not as effective as it once was. It has since been replaced with intercom systems in everyday use, but it is still used for ceremonial purposes.

The boatswain's call is still used to "pipe aboard" and "pipe ashore" important officers who are boarding or leaving a ship, and the "pipe ashore" still can be heard in retirement ceremonies and funerals or is accompanied by ruffles and flourishes or even a gun salute.

No one does ceremonies like sailors.

No one. (Cmdr. Joseph Roberts)

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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