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The Boatswain's Call

The Boatswain's Call or whistle, was once the only method other than the human voice of passing orders to men on board ship. Today more sophisticated communications systems exist but the Royal Navy, always believers in tradition, still use the Boatswain's Call as a mark of respect to pipe the Captain or special visitors on board, or for emphasising important orders. The boatswain was the officer in charge of rigging, sails and sailing equipment. He therefore needed to issue orders more often than other officers and so the whistle was named after him. In the old days men were rigidly trained, almost like sheepdogs, to respond immediately to the piping of the Call. At sea, in moments of danger - particularly in storms - they could be counted on to hear the high-pitched tones of the Call, and react without delay. A shouted order may not have been heard above the sound of howling winds and lashing waves. Instructions to hoist sails, haul or let go ropes were conveyed by different notes and pitches. It is known that the galley slaves of Rome and Greece kept stroke to the sound of a flute or whistle similar to the Boatswain's Call. It was first used on English ships in the thirteenth century, during the crusades, and became known as "The Call" about 1670 when the Lord High Admiral of the Navy wore a gold whistle as a badge of rank. This was known as the "Whistle of Honour." The ordinary whistle of command was issued in silver and often each officer had his own Call decorated with rope designs and ship's anchors. Each section of the Boatswain's Call has a nautical name. The ball is the buoy; the mouthpiece is the gun; the ring is called the shackle and the leaf is called the keel.


The call should be held between the index finger and thumb, with the thumb on or near the shackle The side of the buoy rests against the palm of the hand and the fingers close over the gun and buoy hole in position to throttle the exit of air from the buoy to the desired amount. Care should be taken not to touch the hole of the buoy or the end of the gun, or the sound will be choked.

There are two main notes; the low and the high, and three tones; the plain, the warble and the trill.

The low note is produced by blowing steadily into the mouth of the gun with the hole of the buoy unobstructed by the fingers.

The high note is produced by throttling the exit of air from the hole of the buoy. This is done by closing the fingers around the buoy, taking care not to touch the edge of the hole or the end of the gun.

The warble is produced by blowing a series of jerks, which results in a warble similar to that of a canary.

The trill is produced by vibrating the tongue while blowing, as in rolling the letter R.

How to hold a Boatswain's Call

The Still and the Carry On

The two main pipes used by Sea Scouts are the 'Still' and the 'Carry On'. Each of these is described below. In Sea Scouting the two pipes make up the colours ceremony.

The Still

The still is used to call all hands to attention as a mark of respect, or to order silence on any occasion. The still is also used to announce the arrival onboard of a senior Officer. The pipe is an order in itself and does not require any verbal addition.

This is the signal for the colours to be hoisted at colours ceremony.


The Carry On

The carry on is used to cancel the still. The pipe is an order in itself and does not require any verbal addition.

This follows the still at colours.