Toasts of New Year’s past: Ship horns, sky fire and a bit of ‘bubbly’

In a few short days, New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world will take place, with different cultures noting the turn of the year in their own unique ways. In Denmark, tradition calls for standing on a chair and jumping off it at the stroke of midnight, literally jumping into the new year for good luck. In Peru, people mark the new calendar by having organized fistfights because beating each other up over past differences “clears the slate” for the coming year. Here in the United States, millions of revelers watch the “time ball” drop during festivities in New York’s Times Square, probably without realizing that Capt. Robert Wauchope of the British Royal Navy first came up with the idea of a “time ball” to help vessel navigators ensure that the chronometers needed for their navigational calculations were accurate. The maritime industry has its own cultural tradition to celebrate the new year: the blowing of the ship’s horn at the stroke of midnight.

As a cadet at the California Maritime Academy and early in my career working on tugs, I was unaware of this maritime tradition. I first experienced it as a third mate on a chemical tanker carrying benzene, caustic soda and toluene from Louisiana to the West Coast. It was 2345 on Dec. 31, and I had just come up to the wheelhouse to relieve the watch. We were at anchor off of Cristobal, Panama, in the Atlantic Anchorage, awaiting passage through the Panama Canal the following morning. After checking in by UHF radio with the able seamen on my watch, the first order of business was fixing myself a cup of coffee. Then, it was time to go out on the starboard bridge wing to get some bearings for the midnight check of our anchor position. There were dozens of ships anchored, and from my solitary vantage point I could see them riding easily as the warm, moisture-oozing air hung thickly in the moonlight. All was still and quiet.

Suddenly the calm was shattered by a cacophony of ships’ horns. The bellowing from huge Panamax ships mixed with the shrill piercings of smaller tuna boats and Japanese fishing vessels, almost making me jump out of my skin. Then, after a few minutes all was calm again. Stepping back into the wheelhouse to plot our position and make the first entries in the new deck logbook, I thought about all of the merchant ships blowing their horns at midnight, like a wave of sound following the time zones around the globe. My new year had started.

Other than the traditional sounding of the ship’s horn, for me New Year’s at sea has consisted mainly of a few decorations put up around the ship, coupled with a specially prepared feast for the crew. I recall one year, though, when Lynwood, the radio operator on our oceanographic ship, went out of his way to make our day more special. He worked hard all day to pull in the shoreside radio stations transmitting the bowl games, and set it up so that each of us could tune into them and listen live on the radio in our stateroom. It was a little bit of home we all appreciated, although after the games I did notice a few long faces on those who lost money in the betting pool.

One of the most surreal New Year’s Eves I have experienced on a ship occurred while I was a mate on a product tanker berthed in Kalaeloa Harbor at Barbers Point, Hawaii. We were pumping unleaded gasoline and diesel to the Chevron facility, and at 2330 I arrived in the cargo control room to sign the declaration of inspection and read over the chief mate’s cargo orders. Fifteen minutes before midnight, I called John and Carlos, the two able seamen on my watch, along with the second pumpman, Riz, on the UHF radio and asked them to meet me at the base of the catwalk just in front of the ship’s house.

I am sure that they expected me to go over my operations plan for the next four hours, as I usually did at the beginning of each cargo watch. Instead, I pulled out three plastic bags full of candy, four paper coffee cups and two bottles of Welch’s carbonated grape juice. Pouring each one a cup and handing out the bags of candy, I said, “Time to toast the new year, gentlemen.” As we raised our cups of “bubbly,” all of a sudden we got to experience the Hawaiians’ new year tradition of fireworks at midnight. Explosions that sounded like cannon fire, with flames lighting up the night sky in reds, yellows, hot whites and green star clusters, soon filled the ocean-fresh air with acrid smoke. Concerned, I was ready to shut down cargo operations, but then realized that although fireworks were exploding all over the island, there were none over the marine terminal itself, and thus they posed no danger to the vessel. That was certainly the most colorful New Year’s Eve I have ever experienced while working at sea — and a moment I will always remember.

On a personal level, New Year’s Eve is a time to reflect upon the year past, contemplate the one ahead, and to celebrate the moment. On a grander scale, the turn of the calendar is also a time to ruminate on “the big picture.” For our industry, 2019 will see new pollution, ballast water, bulk cargo and emissions rules enter into force, with amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) not far behind. As the year progresses, it will be up to us to stay informed, ready and alert.

Till next time, I wish you all Happy New Year and smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff