Logistics Specialist Seaman Curtis Peterson jumps from the USS Antietam fantail during a swim call. Picture: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David Flewellyn/U.S. Navy

Logistics Specialist Seaman Curtis Peterson jumps from the USS Antietam fantail during a swim call. Picture: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David Flewellyn/U.S. Navy

Navy

Hands To Bathe: Why This Navy Custom Is Not About Washing Hands

What is Hands To Bathe or Swim Call as it's known in America?

Logistics Specialist Seaman Curtis Peterson jumps from the USS Antietam fantail during a swim call. Picture: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David Flewellyn/U.S. Navy

Logistics Specialist Seaman Curtis Peterson jumps from the USS Antietam fantail during a swim call. Picture: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David Flewellyn/U.S. Navy

Hands To Bathe is one of a plethora of Royal Navy traditions that has survived through the ages of its seafaring history but perhaps confusingly for the unenlightened, it is not about washing hands – well, not those body parts specifically.

The custom is one many a crew member looks forward to, especially during a long deployment at sea, as it is a chance to have some fun in downtime and is a boost for morale.

It is not just the Royal Navy that has followed the custom over time – many other of the world’s navies have a version of the tradition including the United States where it’s known as Swim Call and the Royal Australian Navy which stick to the traditional “Hands To Bathe” title.

Sometimes, Hands To Bathe is turned into a Banyan - another naval tradition involving a visit to a beach for a barbecue.

US Marines jump off the side of the USS Essex during a Swim Call. Picture: US Marine Corps photo by Cpl Elize McKelvey.

US Marines jump off the side of the USS Essex during a Swim Call. Picture: US Marine Corps photo by Cpl Elize McKelvey.

So What Is Hands To Bathe?

Hands To Bathe is the moment when a Royal Navy, or other navy's, ship stops off at a pleasant location as it sails the world in the strategic defence interests of the nation. Perhaps off the coast of a tropical or Caribbean island, for instance, to allow crew members to jump in the water, and go for a swim in the sea.

It is a chance for crew members to swim in some of the warmer waters of the world as the Royal Navy carries out its duties in distant corners of the globe, often in hotter climates.

The ship comes to rest in the water in a static state, or in naval terms Zero PIM (Plan/Points Of Intended Movement in nautical navigation), or what non-seafarers might think of as anchoring up, before the crew is then given permission to get into the sea for a swim – even jumping off the side of the ship into the water if health and safety checks have first been made, such as checking the temperature and depth of the water for instance.

Commodore (Ret'd) Alistair Halliday, who was in command of three ships from 1995 to 2001 and is now CEO of the Forces Employment Charity RFEA following a Royal Navy career, said that while the custom dates back centuries, the procedure for Hands To Bathe would be well set up and well organised if it took place in modern times.

He said safety is a key consideration for the crew, and would only be carried out if a ship in transit had time to stop in the water for, say, about an hour, and if the water was considered warm enough under procedural guidelines. He said it was a great naval institution, adding:

“I must have done it about 50 plus times in my time at sea. I used to love it - and used to jump in off the bridge roof!  Submarines do it too - but they have more safety issues and don’t have a boat either.

“I did it many times in most ships I served in. It is great for morale - especially in a long deployment."

How Is Hands To Bathe Carried Out?

This is the professional Navy, so the crew would not simply stop the ship and jump off into the water – professional standards and operations would have to be maintained in modern times.

So a range of measures would be ensured before Hands To Bathe was announced, such as machinery being tagged to make sure, for example, that screws were not turning, that sonars were off, that eductors and discharges and other ballast fluid systems were off while the ship was at Zero PIM to name but a few of the operational procedures that have to be met before the crew can enter the water.

A safety boat would also have to be lowered into the water to help anyone who might run into difficulties, with one crew member placed on shark watch with a gun, and a scrambling net would also have to be in place to allow the swimmers to get back on board.

The ship would be stopped to give the engaged side a lee – so that any wind would take the vessels towards the bathers – anyone on the wayward side could very rapidly be distanced from the ship if the wind quickly moved a ship sideways by one to two knots – faster than swimmers.

When all these considerations, and more given the complexity of operating a huge Royal Navy vessel, have been met, then swimmers would be able to take the plunge into the sea. Commodore (Ret'd) Halliday added:

“When all is ready you make the great pipe over main broadcast “Hands to Bathe, Hands to Bathe, from the STBD side of the ship”.   

Sailors aboard aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson swim after jumping off aircraft elevator No. 4 during a swim call. Picture: Z2A Collection / Alamy.

Sailors aboard aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson swim after jumping off aircraft elevator No. 4 during a swim call. Picture: Z2A Collection / Alamy.

What Is The History Of Hands To Bathe?

Hands to Bathe is thought to date back as a seafaring tradition to times even before the foundation of the Royal Navy, or other seafaring nations of the world.

It is likely to stem from the days when personal hygiene was perhaps more of a luxury than a daily routine for sailors on board ships.

Fresh water on board would have been reserved for drinking, not washing, as it was in such short supply on long voyages, so the ship’s crew would have few opportunities to keep themselves clean, with no doubt a mass of body odours building up.

There are records of Hands To Bathe as a formal command dating back to at least the 18th century for navies of the world but stopping ship for a dip in the sea goes back further - ever since mighty fleets of ships began to venture across the open seas.

Swimmers in the sea for illustration. Picture: Jumpstory.

Swimmers in the sea for illustration. Picture: Jumpstory.

Why ‘Hands To Bathe’ If It’s Not Washing Hands?

To understand why the term is not, say, ‘Crew or Sailors To Bathe’, it would need a look back into the etymology and evolution of its origins in Middle English and how this has evolved in naval parlance.

The word ‘hand’ had its original meanings around power, control, charge and agency, thus a ‘hand’ was someone who was the holder of something or someone in charge of a role.

This meaning is likely to have developed over time in naval language into ‘deckhands’, meaning sailors on deck, or ‘all hands’ – meaning all the passengers or crew of a ship.

Early records suggest the phrase was originally ‘All Hands To Bathe’ and was shortened over time.

So, ‘Hands To Bathe’ simply means ‘all hands go to bathe’ – the crew gets to bathe with a dip in the sea.

America’s ‘Swim Call’ might give the custom more clarity, as it ‘does what it says on the tin’ but perhaps without some of the charms of tradition and heritage attached.

Have you taken part in Hands To Bathe or Swim Call? Tell us your stories of when and where - and send us pictures too if you have them, to [email protected]