Tending the Side: A Navy Tradition

By Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Daniel Garas
Naval History and Heritage Command

Welcoming dignitaries and visitors of special attention aboard ships carries with it the ancient nautical custom of tending the side.

In modern age, the physical process of coming aboard a ship is as simple as walking up a ladder gangway, but in the age of sail the process proved to be a complex and tedious occasion.

Rainbow sideboys render honors as Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus arrives aboard the then future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) as it transited the Strait of Magellan, Aug. 19, 2014. America was traveling through the U.S. Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet areas of responsibility on its maiden transit, “America visits the Americas”.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason Graham/Released)

Rainbow sideboys render honors as Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus arrives aboard the then future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) as it transited the Strait of Magellan, Aug. 19, 2014. America was traveling through the U.S. Southern Command and U.S. 4th Fleet areas of responsibility on its maiden transit, “America visits the Americas”. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason Graham/Released)

In the age of sail ships were commonly used as meeting locations or for hosting dinner. Officers frequently invited distinguished visitors to dine aboard.

Naval Ceremonies, Customs and Traditions, Fifth Edition, by Mack and Connell, tells us that due to the design of sailing vessels, there was no dignified or easy way for visitors to come aboard. Guests found themselves either climbing up a rope ladder or being hoisted aboard in a system of pulleys attached to a board known as the boatswain’s chair.

The affair also could prove to be dangerous if the visitor fell from the boatswain’s chair or slipped while climbing up the ladder, so as a matter of good etiquette additional help was provided to assist in the procedure. Sailors that were mustered specifically to assist in pulling the visitor aboard safely were called “sideboys.”

Legend says that visitors of higher rank or privilege tended to eat better and were therefore more corpulent, requiring more sideboys to heave them aboard. This eventually evolved into a tradition whereby more distinguished visitors received more sideboys.

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, when visitors were hoisted aboard or over the side, the boatswain’s mate coordinated the procedure calling the order to “hoist away” or “avast heaving,” on his pipe.

Today, tending the side is a highly formalized Navy ritual that transcends nautical presence and is mimicked ashore for retirement rituals, change of commands and receiving other distinguished visitors.

OPNAVINST 1710.7A says that an even number of sideboys line up facing each other in two rows, with the boatswain’s mate positioned behind the outboard sideboy in the forward row.

The boatswain’s mate then pipes the command “alongside,” timing it to end when the boat ferrying the visitor reaches the foot of the accommodation ladder on the receiving ship, or the car arrives at the shore end of the accommodation ladder (brow).

When the visitor’s head comes in to view at the level of the quarterdeck or reaches a designated point on the brow, the boatswain’s mate initiates the command for him. The sideboys and all others on the quarterdeck then salute as he pipes “over the side.”

The piping continues and salutes are held while the visitor has passes between the two rows of sideboys until the officer of the deck receives him or any musical honors or gun salutes have been rendered.

Due to the nature of his duties, the boatswain’s mate is permitted to salute left-handed if he uses his right hand to hold the call (pipe).

When the visitor departs the process is repeated, except in reverse, with the boatswain’s mate piping “over the side” as the visitor passes through the sideboys and “away” as his boat or vehicle gets under way.

The ceremony is usually performed in dress uniform under smart appearances, but when dignitaries arrive aboard ship via aircraft, personnel on the flight deck, while wearing their various colored jerseys, carry out the custom. In this event, sideboys are known as “rainbow sideboys.”

To this day, when Sailors tend the side they are not only receiving a dignitary, but participating in an ages old tradition that links them directly to the past.

Tending the Sides Infographic

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Tending the Side: A Navy Tradition