Piping the side - Alamy pic

Executive Officer Lt Dave Miln (right) and PO Jay Buckley, performing the custom of Piping the Side on board HMS Cattistock during a Royal Navy Joint Warrior training exercise. Picture: PA Images / Alamy.


Piping The Side: A Naval Tradition That Harks Back To The Crusades

What is piping the side and what is its history?

Piping the side - Alamy pic

Executive Officer Lt Dave Miln (right) and PO Jay Buckley, performing the custom of Piping the Side on board HMS Cattistock during a Royal Navy Joint Warrior training exercise. Picture: PA Images / Alamy.

Piping using a Boatswain’s Call has been part of the naval history of passing orders for hundreds of years but is now generally reserved to ceremonial occasions.

Orders passed using the instrument known as a boatswain's call - a pipe or bosun's whistle - are known as 'pipes' and the origins of this tradition, that is now used as a mark of respect for distinguished visitors coming aboard a ship by the Royal Navy and other world navies such as Canada and Australia, can be traced back as far as the 13th Century and the times of the religious wars of the Crusades.

The orders would be delivered in a series of whistles at different pitches or tones. The actual piping for piping the side consists of a low note, rising to high and falling to low again, lasting for 12 seconds on a single breath.

Piping the side is one ceremony carried out with the whistle - now reserved for specified members of royalty or those with specific Royal Navy ranks when they come aboard or leave ship - and is performed by literally piping at the side of the ship.

Over time, with the advancement of more sophisticated and technological communications systems, orders have no longer needed to be delivered by whistle, but the tradition of piping remains very much alive – as a mark of respect when piping the captain or special visitors and when important orders need a degree of emphasis.

Today Piping the Side is largely a form of salute forming part of what might be thought of as gangway ceremony and the practice is learned by Royal Navy sailors from cadet upwards.

Bosun's whistle - Alamy

A Bosun's pipe, Bosun's whistle or bosun's call, on a lanyard. Picture: Buddy Mays / Alamy.

What Is The History OF Piping?

The Boatswain’s pipe is among the oldest of nautical items of equipment, with other forms of whistling instruments such as flutes being used as far back as the days of the Roman Empire.

In the early days of seafaring, orders given across ships, especially to those up in the rigging, were often difficult to hear.

Hearing clear orders was even harder over the sounds of crashing waves and high winds, particularly in foul weather and storms.

The boatswain, traditionally in charge of rigging, equipment and sails, would issue orders by the whistle, and the sailors to whom he issued those orders would respond to a series of sounds that acted as forms of command – not too dissimilar perhaps to how a farmer might give commands to sheepdogs by whisting.

Records of a form of a pipe being used to issue commands go back as far as 1248 and the Crusades – for instance, in the Seventh Crusade by King Louis IX of France during battles to recover the Holy Land. French Crusaders were joined by bowmen, or archers, from England, who were called upon to attack by the sound of a piped whistle.

The piping the side tradition is thought to have evolved out of those commands by the sound of whistle.

In the early days of naval fleets, Captains would often have go aboard the flagship of their senior officer – to receive orders and discuss plans and navigation for example.

They would often go aboard another ship in the fleet by Bosun’s Chair, especially when the sea was too rough to put a gangway between ships –  so a seat made out of a short plank would be suspended on a rope between the ships – and the commands for hoisting in a Captain as he sat suspended from the rope, and sending him on his way again, would be piped to the side of the ship.

Armed Forces taking part in ceremonial activity procession for the funeral of Prince Philip. Picture: MOD/Crown Copyright.

Piping The Side In Modern Times

Regulations for when and for whom crews should pipe the side are listed in the naval table of marks of respect which states that the side is to be piped only for certain members of royalty, dignitaries and officers of a specified rank listed in the table - when they come aboard, or leave, one of Her Majesty’s ships – and sets out that this can be done between the hours of Colours and sunset.

This includes Her Majesty The Queen, other members of the Royal Family of the rank of Captain, RN or Reserve and above, and when in uniform, plus members of the Admiralty Board and Commonwealth Naval Boards and other officers of Flag rank and Commodores in uniform, among a long list of people with a particular status or rank.

Piping the side also takes place when a body is being brought on board or sent out of a ship, as a mark of respect.

A Royal Navy Piping Party was part of the proceedings for the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in April 2021 to pay homage to his naval service, despite this ceremony not being held on a ship.

Made up of one Chief Petty Officer and five ratings, the six-strong party piped the “Still," a boatswain’s call traditionally made on naval ships to call the crew to attention and issue instruction - but the piping was carried out on the south side of the West Steps of St George's Chapel during the funeral procession.

Have you taken part in a memorable moment when piping the side? Let us know at [email protected] or on our social media pages.