I once spent a happy few years of my youth in a harborside town. Like a child with its mother, without being aware of it, I learned the moods of the water and weather in different seasons and at different stages of the tide– the haunting touch of the velvet fog or the gentle caress of the lightest drizzle, the salty wet kiss of the summer’s sun or the violent tongue-lashing of a half-hour thunderstorm, or the night so breathlessly still and the tide so high that it looked like one could just step off the dock right onto the glassy surface of the water. To this day when crossing a bridge over the major river in my present city, I cannot help noting whether the tide is going in or running out.
The town rang ship’s bells around the clock, a sweetly piercing sound. Before I lived there, I had read of nautical time and thought it sounded complicated. Noon is eight bells, 12:30 one, 1:00 two, and so on up to eight bells again at 4:00 p.m., and then the cycle repeats around the clock.
But because the bells are struck in pairs, nautical time is far simpler and more intuitive than it seems on first reading. The pairs mean you never really have to count to more than four. And you are never caught, as with landlubber clocks, wondering if you heard nine, ten, eleven, or twelve strikes. If you have a basic orientation to what part of the day or night it is, you will know what time it is when the bells are rung.
If it’s dark outside and seven bells ring “ding-ding, ding-ding, ding-ding, ding,” then you know it is 7:30 p.m., 11:30 p.m., or 3:30 a.m. – just beginning a nice evening out with your friends, or it’s getting a bit late, or you are pulling an all-nighter and you don’t have too many hours to finish that paper you have to turn in that day.
I am a city girl, so “nature” is for me mostly the entity that throws snow in your way and makes you late to work, or rains on you and makes a tired commute home even more tiring. But in those young years by the water, by dint of tides and a wide variety of weather, all metered out by the everpresent nautical time, I was never closer to nature as it really is in all its moods. Ship’s bells thus remind me of one of the most satisfying times of my life.
So it is with great regret that I cannot have a ship’s bell clock.
I and my neighbors are packed together so intimately that if I am walking down the hall toward our shared bath and a half, I can hear random burps and farts and telephone conversations. And so I cannot reasonably have anything that makes noise all the time. Even though these clocks have switches to turn off the sound at night, and even if the guy across the hall plays disco every Saturday afternoon, ringing bells every half hour are a bit much to ask my neighbors to put up with day after day.
But if I could, I would have a ship’s bell clock from Chelsea Clock or Weems and Plath. The sound is actually far sweeter than the recording on the Chelsea website. If you have a good clock shop in your town, go and see if they have a ship’s bell clock, hear for yourself the rhythm of a life by the ocean, and contemplate whether you would like to bring one home.