It’s probably fair to say not many of your mates down the pub can talk about the time they took a dip in the ocean while a marksman scanned the horizon for sharks.
Like so many aspects of military life, this surreal experience becomes a definite box to tick in every seaman’s career. Some old seadogs may even have ticked off swimming in each of the seven seas during their life on the ocean wave.
“Hands to Bathe” is a Naval tradition which dates back centuries, no doubt to the days when personal hygiene was a luxury. Fresh water was a precious commodity, so captains dropped anchor in a calm sea and ordered all hands on board to jump ship and get clean.
Showers only arrived on ships a generation ago; and there’s generally only one bathtub: in the sickbay, to treat a man overboard for shock once he’s been rescued from the ‘drink’. (I’ve heard rumours of there being another one in the Captain’s cabin on larger warships, for his private use, but I’ve not verified this personally.)
So the practical reasons for taking a dip are valid. Soldiers who fought at Gallipoli a century ago reminisced that one of their pleasures was a trek away from the trenches to the coast for a weekly wash and to rid themselves of fleas and ticks – despite the fact they were being shelled as they swam.
British sailors bathing through the generations
In more modern times and peaceable places, Hands To Bathe is a treat; a recreation activity during a deployment of many months, when for a few hours you can pretend you’re on holiday and have a bit of fun. As seen in YouTube videos of sailors and Marines being pushed overboard, or bellyflopping into the blue.
But not everyone looks forward to the pipe call coming over the ship’s tannoy. The downtime activity is done with a bit of trepidation. And of course the scare stories abound - most Matelots will have a ‘dit’ to spin about the time one of their muckers came too close for comfort to a nobby… (“Nobby Clark” = Naval rhyming slang for shark.)
A former medic has blogged:
“Now I love the sea, don't get me wrong, but I also respect it. It's a mysterious place. At once benign and calm, then a raging cauldron. Never fear, though. The crew are well protected. There are a couple of crew members at either end of the ship with rifles keeping watch for unwanted visitors. I'd hate to see what happens if a school of sharks pays a visit for a mid-morning snack. I think there would be pandemonium: 2 riflemen not sure whether to fire or not and 40-odd seamen trying to scramble up a climbing net!
'Hands to bathe' - I don't bloody think so!”
Watch British sailors at sea on their swimming adventures.
For submariners, Hands To Bathe is an even rarer privilege, on the occasions their boat surfaces. (We can’t post the photos because they date from the era before women went to sea, and the crew was permitted to skinnydip.)
Recollections on a Navy forum include:
“I did it off the Azores once. The water was very blue, warm and a bit deep (couldn't touch the bottom, tried as well).
"It was great fun until the world's biggest nobby turned up... we all got out then. Talk about party pooping…. it was big...all teeth and fins and definitely in charge!”
“I once had a swim over the Marianas Trench. An eerie feeling floating just below the surface and looking down knowing there was nothing but 30,000 feet of water between you and the bottom. Another time a bloke had just begun his dive off the submarine casing when a huge shark appeared. The look on his face as he tried (and failed) to regain his balance was priceless!”
To mitigate these risks, warships may send out a small boat to sit a little way off; supervising the swimmers and providing rapid rescue in the event of sinister sea creatures or shifting sea states. In 1970, HMS Minerva's sea boat [pictured] had to round up a school of sailors who’d been carried too far on the current.
If you’re deployed on a class of ship which has its own dock, that makes for even better conditions for the Hands To Bathe. HMS Fearless and Intrepid; and the more modern Albion and Bulwark; have opened their rear ramps to flood the back of the ship, creating a sheltered swimming pool environment for the crew. The US Navy does similar, and names it a “Swim Call.”
U.S Navy swim call
Caveats apply, and conditions aren’t always favourable. When I joined HMS Bulwark on exercise in the Indian Ocean, the warnings were stern. The vessel had docked down, but under no circumstances were personnel to bathe or ingest the water. The fact that it was brown, with floating flipflops and other putrid debris lapping up the ramp made the health and safety reasons about as crystal clear as the water was not.
Where in the world have you enjoyed a “Hands to Bathe”? Have there been any memorable mishaps? Contact us with your stories.