Before the advent of accurate time pieces, time on a ship was regulated by the bell and a system of watches lasting either four or two hours. When the sand had run through a 30-minute “hour glass”, the glass was turned to start again and the bell was struck. In a four-hour watch, the bell would be struck from one to eight times, an increase of one strike every 30 minutes and performed in sets of two. So, for example, if you heard two sets of quick strikes followed by a single strike, you would know it was “five bells” in whatever the watch was (forenoon, morning, etc). Of course, this entire timekeeping process depended on an accurate glass and attention to detail!
The bell in this photo is from SV Tenacious, on which I’ve sailed many times. You can see the intricate rope pull hanging from the bell. The original captain liked to have the bell rung and it was the watch leader’s responsibility to see that it was done. I would start checking my watch every 15 seconds or so from five minutes before the time, mentally going over the number of strikes required. Once I forgot, and gradually was aware that the captain was quietly standing at the corner of the chart house, just gazing at me. Oh dear!