The Whistle

      The most mournful sound aboard came from the boat's
 "whistle".  We did not use it often.  But sometimes the
 repetitious, plaintive sound of the whistle dominated the rhythms
 of life and of introspection aboard the boat.

      The actual  horn that we called a whistle was located on the
 forward edge of the sail, perhaps a foot above the deck.  The
 handle for operating it was on the bridge, convenient for the use
 of the Officer of the Deck.  The whistle was an air horn, far
 louder than any trucker's monster horn.  The sound of our whistle
 was much like that of the foghorns around the edge and mouth of
 today's harbors.
      We used the whistle just as any surface boat did, signaling
 our intentions (Inland Rules) or our actions (International
 Rules).  Short blasts, long blasts, prolonged blasts (depending
 whether Inland or International) all had meanings, when cleverly
 grouped together as specified in the Rules of the Road.  Proper
 use of whistle signals is an important topic in cases at Admiralty
      (The U.S. is the only nation in the world with its own unique
 set of rules for piloting and navigation on inland waters.
 Fortunately, International Rules are the same in Copenhagen and
 Lisbon, Montego Bay and Shanghai, Murmansk and Capetown.
      (And the U.S. even has two distinct sets of rules, the Inland
 Rules and the Western Rivers Rules.  And the Western Rivers rules
 apply as far east as Alabama.)
      On consecutive years I was the duty officer on New Year's
 Eve, and I was asked each year for permission to blow the boat's
 whistle at midnight to acknowledge the arrival of the new year.
 Each year I assented.  Then I returned to the ritual of writing
 the smooth deck log in meter and rhyme, as is traditionally done
 for the watch during which the year changes.
      But the soul-stirring use of the boat's whistle happened when
 we were in the fog.  We slowed to seven knots, a speed chosen
 solely based on decisions in the Admiralty Courts over the years.
 The speed limit in fog is not specified in the Rules of the Road.
 We could achieve seven knots easily with one engine, so the other
 Diesels were all shut down, making the evening quieter for many of
 the crew.  And we sounded the boat's whistle.
      The rule calls for a short blast every minute.  Good practice
 calls for staggering the intervals slightly, in case another ship
 nearby is signalling in unison with your own whistle.  The process
 was tedious, reflexive, hypnotizing.
      Fog at sea is almost always accompanied by still air and
 still water.  The entrance to San Francisco Bay is unique with its
 moving fog.  In any other fog, the gentle slapping of the waves
 against the outer hull is much quieter than usual, almost as if we
 were in port.  The lone engine is lightly loaded, therefore
 quieter than usual.  There is no wind noise.  An occasional sea
 bird squawks, inviting the question of how they navigate at such
      Then, at night, our navigation lights glow against the fog.
 There is a question of whether the lookouts should use binoculars
 or not.  The loudspeaker on the bridge, over which the general
 announcements below are overheard by the isolated occupants of the
 bridge, seems obscenely loud at a time like this.  The lookouts
 don't need to yell to be heard.  In fact, they can almost whisper
 to the Officer of the Deck about the lack of visibility.
      But the whistle dominates the process.
      The whistle is painfully loud to the watchstanders on the
 bridge.  The contrast of the whistle's loudness with the otherwise
 mesmerizing quiet is almost paralyzing.
      The whistle is loud enough to interfere with conversations
 below, in the control room and in the wardroom.  The rhythm of the
 whistle becomes the rhythm of the boat, even of the people who are
 sleeping.  As the crew watches the movie, the whistle sometimes
 interferes with proper understanding of the dialogue.  At first,
 the whistle interferes with the ability to fall asleep.  Then, the
 whistle becomes a part of sleep, a part of life's rhythm.
      Once, as we were approaching and transiting the Irish Sea, we
 were in the fog for three days.  The whistle sounded incessantly.
 We used a lot of compressed air to feed the whistle.  We got so
 far behind at that speed that we rescheduled our rendezvous with
 the surface forces, and we established our arrival time in
 Cherbourg, based on an assumption that we would be in the fog
 all the way.
      Then one morning at about 2:30, (0230 hours, five bells of
 the midwatch, even though we never rang the bells on the submarine
 except for some extremely rare ceremonial occasions), with no
 warning, the fog lifted.  Or rather, we chugged our way out of the
 edge of the fog.  There were stars.  The world was different.
      I picked up the sound-powered telephone, and I told the
 quartermaster of the watch to enter in his notebook the time at
 which the fog lifted.  And I stopped blowing the whistle.  One of
 the lookouts, a Seaman Apprentice who had just recently been
 promoted from mess cook to lookout, commented that he was looking
 forward to sleeping without that damned whistle going off every
      The first call came perhaps three minutes later.  The
 executive officer wanted to know what was wrong.  I told him that
 we were out of the fog, so I was no longer whistling our presence.
 Seconds later the skipper called, demanding to know what the
 problem was, and why was I discussing it with the exec instead of
 the skipper, who was supposed to be the first to know everything.
 I reminded him that it was not yet time for his wake-up call, and
 that neither his standing night orders nor the specific orders for
 that night required me to wake him to announce the absence of fog.
      A few minutes later I got the third call over the sound-
 powered telephone, this one from the chief of the watch.  Our
 hospital corpsman happened to be the chief on that particular
 watch.  He was bemused that he was calling me for this particular
 reason.  One of his responsibilities was to notify me of any
 unusual occurrences below decks during my watch.
      Everybody aboard was awake, up and about.  They could no
 longer sleep without the fog whistle.

© F. G. Charlton III

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