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
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
set of rules for piloting and navigation on inland waters.
Fortunately, International Rules are the same in
Rules and the Western Rivers Rules. And the Western Rivers rules
apply as far east as
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 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
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
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
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