Tag Archives: matelots

Ring on the Homeward Bounders

In the song ‘Ring on the Homeward Bounders’, Maggie Ann features for the third time. She had now, for the purpose of this song, come to represent all the women in my life that had meant a lot to me.

The Royal Navy has a language all of its own. Many of the terms used by Jolly Jack have distant and historical origins. The phrase ‘ringing on the homeward bounders‘ originated from the ring of the engine telegraphs. I should stress that things have moved on, modernised and changed since I was a sailor in the 1970’s and what follows is based on my experience and memories of that time.

Ordinary Seaman McNab (with beard) aged 19 years

Back then, the ship’s wheelhouse was often as not, deep inside the ship and not up on the bridge as you might expect. The sailor steering the ship could not see where he was going and relied on orders being passed down from the bridge, where the Officer of the Watch would be in charge.

In the wheelhouse there was a seat for the helmsman in front of the ship’s wheel. On the bulkhead in front of him, there was the compass display, giving the ship’s course. The engine telegraphs were next to the wheel giving the options for both Port and Starboard engines. Each could be set to Full Astern; Half Astern; Slow Astern; Stop; Slow Ahead; Half Ahead; Full Ahead. Another control was mounted on the engine telegraphs to set the engine revolutions. The Officer of the Watch would make his decisions regarding course, speed, etc, and would call up the wheelhouse on an intercom. A typical exchange at the start of a watch on the wheel might go as follows.

Helmsman:    “Bridge – Wheelhouse”

Officer of the Watch:     “Bridge”

Helmsman:    “Bridge – Wheelhouse. Permission for Able Seaman McNab to take the wheel Sir?”

Officer of the Watch:     “Granted”

Me:    “Able Seaman McNab on the wheel Sir. Course to steer 135, both engine telegraphs showing Half Ahead, 120 revolutions set Sir.”

Officer of the Watch:     “Very good. The weather and swell is on our Port Quarter but we should be altering course an about half an hour which will make things easier for you. In the mean time keep her steady.”

Me:    “Aye Aye Sir”

The job then was simply to keep the compass reading as close as you could to the course given by the Officer of the Watch. Whilst you did that, the motion of the waves would do its best to knock you off course. It was a boring job, but in wild weather, you were kept busy, and more importantly, warm and dry with a hot cuppa to hand if required.

Whenever the ship was away from its home base for a prolonged period of time, the day would eventually come when all that remained was for the ship to head for home. When that time came the order would be passed to the wheel house to alter course for home. That process was called ‘ringing on the homeward bounders’. It may be the Officer of the Watch who gave the order, but if the ship had been away from home for several months, invariably the captain would come on the ship’s intercom system, make a few comments about how well we had all done and then give the order to ring on the homeward bounders.

Meanwhile in the wheelhouse the lad on the wheel would wait for the order to come from the Captain on the bridge.

Captain:     “Wheelhouse – this is the Bridge”

Helmsman:     “Wheelhouse”

Captain:     “Yes Wheelhouse, that is us clear of the navigational channel. There are a few vessels around, so we may have to alter course once or twice until we are well clear. But for the time being… Course to steer 340. Engine telegraphs Half Ahead. 220 revolutions… Ring on the Homeward Bounders… We are going home!”

The lad on the wheel would repeat the instructions back to the Captain on the bridge to confirm that he had heard correctly, and as he adjusted the engine telegraphs they would make that classic ring as the stokers down in the engine room confirmed they had received the orders. A smile would then spread across his face and his heart would beat just that little bit faster.

It was always good to be going home.

Many years after my time in the Navy – still on the wheel, escorting HMS invincible home to Rosyth (2003)

Although I never did a round the world trip during my naval service, I felt as if I knew all the big sea ports of the world intimately. Many evenings were passed swapping sailor’s stories of adventures in far flung places that usually involved drink, women, fights and hangovers.

Verse One, deals with the tough issue of separation. The opening line refers to the sailor having been away from family and loved ones for six months. But in years gone by a tour of duty could easily take up to 18 months or more. There is a cauldron of powerful and mixed emotions on departure day. There is great sadness, or in some cases relief, knowing that you will not see you family, sweetheart or wife for a prolonged period of time. In some cases the families are present to wave off the crew and inevitably many tears are shed. But for the sailor, there is also a sense of excitement and adventure as you sail off to foreign parts. There is also the relinquishing of family responsibilities. During your months away at sea you have no need to look after children, go to the supermarket, cut the grass, do the washing, etc,. On board ship your meals are cooked for you, your laundry is done for you and all you have to focus on is doing your job and enjoying some down time with your ship mates.

But the pain of separation is always there, lurking in your thoughts. As a serviceman there was no option to say “Actually I’ll sit this trip out if you don’t mind because I’d rather spend the night with my new girlfriend than sleep in a mess-deck with forty drunken, snoring, farting matelots.”

Verse Two, deals with the Biscay Bay and Gibraltar. I crossed the Bay of Biscay many times and have yet to see it calm. The Atlantic swell would come rolling in from the west towards France and northern Spain. We, of course, would be heading south at right angles to the swell. Whilst I fortunately never suffered from sea sickness, that crossing was never a comfortable one. The swell was always mountainous and to this day I refuse to believe anyone who tells me that they have seen it calm.

During my service I visited Gibraltar more times than a can recall. My ship mate Dave and I used to sing in the bars of Gib, including one called the White Heather Club. I also celebrated my 21st birthday in Gib which was memorable for two things. After a 12 hour drinking session I passed out on my bunk. In those days I sported a large bushy beard, which proved too much of a temptation for my so-called pals, who burned half of it off with a Zippo lighter whilst I lay in a drunken stupor. The next day I should have been on duty and failed to muster on the jetty. My mates were sent to get me and the duty NCO decided to sober me up my throwing me into the waters of the harbour. Ah… happy days.

Verse Three is all about crossing the equator and also the draw of Bugis Street in Singapore. Other than in exceptional circumstances the ship would always enjoy a crossing the line ceremony if there were lads on board crossing the Equator for first time. Drink would be drunk and various games and nonsense would take place on the upper deck.

Photo of HMS London Crossing the Line by John Simm

Bugis Street in Singapore was a notorious run ashore for sailors. The street was the place to go for any sailor with shore leave in Singapore. One of the big attractions were the Kai Tais or Beaney Boys. They would parade up and down teasing the drunken sailors with their sexuality and beauty. But literally, underneath it all, the stunning Kai Tais ladies were in fact men.

An old post card from the 60’s showing four of Bugis Street’s Kai Tais lady boys.

But above all I wanted to get across the fact that most sailors, whilst they might be enjoying seeing exotic parts of the world, just wanted to get back home to their loved ones, and the longer you were away, the stronger that emotion became.

The video below was recorded at Glenfarg Folk Club with Stan Ginter on banjo and Hamish Grant on backing vocals.

Ring on the Homeward Bounders

 It’s six months to the day, since first I sailed away

And I bid my love a tearful fond goodbye

And on that wind and rain swept quay, she was smiling up at me

But I could see the tears were welling in her eyes

Now I’m a jolly jack, and there’s no point in looking back

For a sailors life is upon the surging foam

But I’m a sentimental man, and I miss my Maggie Ann

And I wish this ship would turn and head for home


Ch. So ring on the Homeward Bounders, ring them on, (ring them on)

Ring on the Homeward Bounders, ring them on, (ring them on)

Turn the wheel around, and let this ship be homeward bound

Ring on the Homeward Bounders, ring them on


It was a wild and wintry day as we crossed the the Biscay Bay

The Atlantic swell was running long and high

And the waves crashed o’er the bow as through that swell we’d plough

And the rain lashed down from a black and a leadened sky

Then Gibraltar and its rock, that was where the ship did dock

And we had ourselves a mighty run ashore

But my thoughts would always roam to that girl I’d left at home

And to the time when I could hold her close once more


The weather it was fine as we sailed across the line

And Neptune kept the gophers far at bay

And we sang and drank our beer in the Southern Hemisphere

Before we got our ship back underway

Then the storms we did escape as we sailed around the Cape

And set a course for good old Singapore

But a night down Bugis Street, it never can compete

To an evening with the girl that I adore


We drank rum and beer amid all those bars in Honkyphid

Before we set of eastwards once again

And we crossed a typhoon’s path, and how we felt its wrath

As we rode the storm out on the raging main

Then we gave a loud “Hoorah” as we passed through Panama

For now we know that it will not be long

Until the order it rings out and we hear the skipper shout

“Ring on the Homeward Bounders… ring them on”


gophers – waves

Honkiephid – Hongkong