Navigation & Timekeeping

Bell Time Aboard Ship

Watch Schedules and Ship’s Bells

shipsbell.gif (2586 bytes)As early as the 15th Century, a bell was used to sound the time onboard a ship. (Time, in those days, was kept with an hourglass.) The bell was rung every half hour of the 4 hour watch. A 24 hour day was divided into six 4 hour watches, except the dog watch (16:00 – 20:00 hours) which could be divided into two 2 hour watches to allow for the taking of the evening meal.


Middle Watch

Midnight to 4 AM (0000 – 0400)
Morning Watch 4 AM to 8 AM (0400 – 0800)
Forenoon Watch 8 AM to Noon (0800 – 1200)
Afternoon Watch Noon to 4 PM (1200 – 1600)
First Dog Watch 4 PM to 6 PM (1600 – 1800)
Second Dog Watch 6 PM to 8 PM (1800 – 2000)
First Watch 8 PM to Midnight (2000 – 0000)

The bells were struck for every half-hour of each watch, with a maximum of eight bells. For instance, during the Middle Watch you would hear the the following:

00:30 1 bell
01:00 2 bells
01:30 2 bells, pause, 1 bell
02:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells
02:30 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 1 bell
03:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells
03:30 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 1 bell
04:00 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells, pause, 2 bells

At eight bells your watch was over! All other 4 hour watches followed this same procedure except the Dog Watches.

At the end of the First Dog Watch, only four bells were struck, and the Second Dog Watch bells were struck like this: 6:30 PM, one bell; 7 PM two bells; 7:30 PM, three bells; and at 8 PM, eight bells.  However, this last was a tradition developed in the British Royal Navy after the Nore Mutiny, the beginning of which was signalled by the ringing of five bells during the middle of the two dog watches; so in the Spelljammer® universe, since that tradition never would have needed to be developed, the dog watches are rung in the normal sequence of eight bells.


Bell Time on Shipboard
Time – A.M. Time – A.M. Time – A.M. Time – P.M. Time – P.M. Time – P.M.
1 bell – 12:30 1 bell – 4:30 1 bell – 8:30 1 bell – 12:30 1 bell – 4:30 1 bell – 8:30
2 bells – 1:00 2 bells – 5:00 2 bells – 9:00 2 bells – 1:00 2 bells – 5:00 2 bells – 9:00
3 bells – 1:30 3 bells – 5:30 3 bells – 9:30 3 bells – 1:30 3 bells – 5:30 3 bells – 9:30
4 bells – 2:00 4 bells – 6:00 4 bells – 10:00 4 bells – 2:00 4 bells – 6:00 4 bells – 10:00
5 bells – 2:30 5 bells – 6:30 5 bells – 10:30 5 bells – 2:30 5 bells – 6:30 5 bells – 10:30
6 bells – 3:00 6 bells – 7:00 6 bells – 11:00 6 bells – 3:00 6 bells – 7:00 6 bells – 11:00
7 bells – 3:30 7 bells – 7:30 7 bells – 11:30 7 bells – 3:30 7 bells – 7:30 7 bells – 11:30
8 bells – 4:00 8 bells – 8:00 8 bells – noon 8 bells – 4:00 8 bells – 8:00 8 bells-midnight


Spelljamming® Navigation


Since spelljamming takes place in three dimensions, we must draw upon the terminology of underwater and aerial navigation in order to accurately reflect course headings, directions, and deck commands to the Sail Crew (or, the things that that Bo’sun bellows and expects the crew to understand).

When turning a craft in three dimensions, the commands to do this must be given separately for each dimension, so each one needs its own term.

When a ship turns left or right (port or starboard) from the level of its gravity plane, that is known as the ship’s yaw.

The angle a ship is tilted up or down from the level of its gravity plane is known as its pitch.

If you ran a line from the point of a ship’s bow along its gravity plane to the place where its rudder would be (or is, if it’s water-landing capable), the angle at which is spins around this is known as its roll.  Think of your dog rolling over on his back and the term makes sense!  In sci-fi dramas where a ship takes “evasive maneuvers,” it is usually rolling.

Aviation manuals offer the following diagram (the arrows show the spinning of each axis):


Or, this wonderful fish picture might help to clarify for those who struggle with physics:


Giving a command to turn in a particular way is therefore often given according to pitch, roll, or yaw.  These might be given in degrees of a circle “Pitch 45 degrees, yaw ten degrees, roll 120 degrees!” which can be shortened to “Pitch 45, yaw ten, roll 120!”, degrees of a circle with a direction from the gravity plane also indicated up to a maximum of 180 degrees, which is the limit of a semi-circle “Pitch five (degrees) up, yaw ten (degrees) starboard!”, or as the facings of a clock, especially when speaking of the yaw “I’ve got a bandit on my six!”

Such commands might also be given according to the traditional nautical terms we are more familiar with “Hard to starboard!” or “Full astern!”

Most of the pitch and roll would be controlled by the spelljammer at the helm, who would direct the ship to travel in a certain way through the force of her or his will, and some of the yaw would be controlled that way as well.  However, most of the yaw, and some of the pitch and roll would be controlled by the sail crew.  Tying down and opening certain sails at certain times (or paddling oars on one side and not the other, and so forth) would change the aerodynamics of the ship, which would affect its ability to make those adjustments.  Otherwise, rigging your ship in the Spelljammer® universe would have no effect on the maneuverability of your craft.  The exception to this is, of course, one man craft such as flitters, where a sail crew is not needed.  The direction of the ship is therefore entirely in the hands of the helmsman.  Lacking a need to communicate a complex series of commands between several people, as well as smaller size, makes for a better maneuverability class.

This is also why it is theoretically possible for a ship to operate with just its helmsman, but at a significantly reduced maneuverability class if the ship is not designed to be used in this way.  The sails (or oars, or whatever) don’t tilt or dip or release at the right times, and turning becomes much more arduous, potentially even damaging the craft if done too suddenly at an angle that the ship is not properly prepared to do.

Setting a Course:

Setting a course is a different cup of tea.

Navigating a ship without a compass is possible, but generally, a boat so doing follows coastlines.  This is simply not possible in wildspace.

Modern aircraft and submarines, who navigate in three dimensions, do so through the use of radio technology, which of course, is not present in the Spelljammer® universe.

So we must rely on basic tall ship navigation, which involves using dead reckoningcompass directions, and some method of detemining pitch, which would involve a variation of the sextant or astrolabe.

Dead reckoning is  is the process of calculating one’s current position by using a previously determined position, or fix, and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over elapsed time, and course.(Source: Wikipedia).  This is navigating using landmarks and counting distance and time.  This is the reason that keeping time on a ship accurately is so important.  This works in spelljamming just as it does at sea.

compass determines which direction one is travelling in, but it needs a point of orientation.  This created a unique problem for spelljammers, since there is no magnetic north in space.  However, the Arcane overcame that difficulty by creating a device that orients to the crystal shell of a given sphere and points towards the sphere’s centre, called a stellar compass.  If the needle is spinning in circles, you know that you are at the centre of the sphere.  The device is a needle suspended in a clear globe, the diametre of which is marked with a band showing all the traditional compass directions in the nautical tradition (North, South, East, West, and points between) as well as the degrees of a circle; and a band that crosses it directly at the North and South, showing “Up,” “Down,” and all the degrees of a circle.

A nautical sextant would have limited application in space, since it measures the distance between two objects, one generally being in the sky (say, the sun) and one being the horizon (which doesn’t exist.)  Instead of using the horizon, in order to make use of a sextant, a navigator would have to arbitrarily choose an object to focus on instead of the horizon in order to fix a position, perhaps by using the centre body of a sphere in place of the horizon, and the planet that you are headed for in place of the sun or other celestial object.  This has very little application in a sphere with chaotic planetary movement!

However, an astronomical sextant, designed to measure the angles between stars, would be very useful.  The only problem is that they are huge and heavy, so only large ships would have the room for them,  and only ships supplied by an excellent budget would be able to afford them.

Astrolabes, which measure the distance and angles of visible objects from a specific point (on earth, a specific latitude, but in space, a specific planetary point or other landmark) would have some application in space if you were at all familiar with the sphere, but very little if you were not or if the sphere is at all unusual in its structure.

There is a magical item that exists in the Spelljammer® universe known as a celestial astrolabe, which instantly maps the sphere you are in as a “holographic display”, but of course, those are rare, and even more prohibitively expensive.

There is also an item known as a spelljamming sextant, detailed in the War Captain’s Companion, which has three lenses to fix positioning instead of two, and lining all of them up would therefore compensate for the stable position of the horizon not being present in space.

Last, a ship’s navigator would have to keep track of the planetary movements in each sphere in order to take accurate measurements and make precise calculations, so if (s)he were unfamiliar with the sphere, this would complicate matters even further.  Magical aids to fixing position and determining the locations of other people or items may be able to provide the missing elements in those situations.

In short, this is a much more complicated process, involving a more eclectic skill set than planetary navigators might require!  And if you spend a lot of time exploring the surfaces of planets, (s)he would have to know something about that as well.

For pictures of some navigational aids that would have been put to use, see Story Elements.


Spelljamming distances and sizes are measured by hex or hex-lengths, which is about 500 yards.  The name comes from spelljamming tactical maps and charts, which are divided into hexes for ease of conversion (of a three dimensional navigation system to two dimensions.)  A mile is 1760 yards, and therefore about three and a half hex.

At spelljamming speeds, all ships travel at the same rate, which is 100 million miles per day, or 350 million hex.  Only when nearby another gravitational body does a spelljammer’s own speed based on his magical power, or tactical rating, become important or relevant.  Spelljamming vessels automatically slow to tactical speeds when encountering other gravitational bodies.

One comment on “Navigation & Timekeeping

  1. Pingback: Major Rewrite of Brothers in Arms Completed, and Website Moving Project | Toy Soldier: A Spelljammer Saga

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