Eight Bells – A sea-service celebration

Coast Guard Cutter John McCormick (WPC 1121) and crew make way to their home port at Coast Guard Base Ketchikan, in Ketchikan, Alaska, March 21, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Cmdr. Charlotte Mundy, Coast Guard Office of Cutter Forces

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. Personnel who achieve this distinction stand out as significant contributors to the seagoing Coast Guard. Additionally, there are many serving who do not wear cutterman’s pins 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 who serve aboard the cutters.

The cutterman insignia is worn by career cuttermen, after serving at least five years at sea and achieving all required qualifications for their specialty. Officers wear a gold insignia and enlisted members wear a silver insignia. The design can be divided into three basic components: the wheel and the waves represent the heritage of the sea; the five-point star represents five years of sea duty; and the shield at the center represents the Coast Guard and its seagoing tradition.

Today, the Coast Guard has 243 cutters in the fleet and nearly 8,000 members serving aboard ships. We share some of the same nautical traditions held dear by the revenue cutters built after congress authorized the Treasury Department in 1790 to build a small fleet to, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, “be made useful sentinels of the laws.”

Four currently commissioned cutters share names of the original 10 revenue cutters: Vigilant, Active, Diligence and Eagle. In the coming years, with the acquisition of the Offshore Patrol Cutter (OPC), we will also add Argus back to the fleet.

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 aboard, 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 salute back and say, “Make it so.”

Coast Guard Cutter Willow (WLB-202) departs Coast Guard Yard en route to its new homeport in Charleston, S.C., after completing its midlife maintenance availability.

“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, 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 seagoing traditions unite and bind the entire cutter community together. A new crew member can go aboard a cutter of any size or class and be comforted by the shared traditions of standing double “4-8s,” ringing eight bells, testing the ship’s alarms and whistle at noon, completing underway checklists, checking the setting of material condition yoke, closing the brow at first call to morning and evening colors, and, of course, 1,000 coffee breaks for the crew, among many others.

Capt. Mark Frankford, chief of the Coast Guard’s office of cutter forces, said, “It’s important for us to celebrate the time-honored traditions that form the basis of our service, while recognizing that even with the benefit of today’s technology, going to sea to protect our nation still isn’t easy and still requires great dedication and sacrifice. Eight Bells is an opportunity for us to take a moment and appreciate the hard work done by cuttermen everywhere and the incredible efforts to support the cutters and their crews by shoreside maintainers, trainers, logistics chains and administrative, personnel and medical services.”

Local Eight Bells celebrations are planned for Alameda, California; Charleston, South Carolina; New London, Connecticut; and Washington.

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 cutter sea service traditions. Videos are available for viewing on the Coast Guard’s YouTube channel playlist. You can vote for your favorites with a “like,” and the video with the most likes by Oct. 31, 2017, will be recognized as the winning Eight Bells video.

Coast Guard Cutter Healy underway in the Arctic Ocean during the Arctic West Summer 2015 deployment.

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