The Bit About Boat Whistles

(Photo of the Canberra by 10-year-old Jackie Parmeter! [circa 1968])

“I don’t like boat whistles…”

That’s what Cary Grant’s grandmother, Janou, declares in An Affair to Remember – one of my all-time favorite movies! Whenever I come across it (thanks, TCM!), I can’t resist watching – even though I know it means a journey through lots of emotions…

Come to think of it, boat whistles can kind of do the same.

I actually don’t think “whistle” really describes what Janou hears (although it seems to be a proper nautical term). It’s more like what Dad accidentally captured in video he was taking on a ship as it cruised out of Valletta, Malta. Dad was trying to record his always-brilliant thoughts on the stunning travel moment – except…:

(Don’t they know Dad’s talking?!)

I mean that’s the real sound. Jarring. Intrusive. In this case, judgmental maybe..? And while I’m tempted to agree with Janou more and more as the years go by, the range of my responses to boat whistles remains a bit broader.

Regardless of my general feelings, the function of boat whistles on the high seas is very specific! Each monotone blast is governed by International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, and by US Inland Navigation Rules. So yeah, when I’m standing on the deck of a cruise ship and that explosion of sound makes me do a spit take with my Mai Tai, I grudgingly get it – in the name of preventing boat accidents, “jarring” and “intrusive” is good.

One short blast: When you pass a boat on your port (left) side.

My introduction to boat whistles may have been all the way back when I was four! Dad the professor decided to take a sabbatical in Australia for a year – and Mum, my big brothers and I went along with! Since Dad always hated to fly, we journeyed Down Under and back by ship – on the Canberra and the Oriana.

(Getting seen off to Australia by Aunt Martha and Uncle Bill!)

Although I’d have heard our ships’ whistles at each stop between Los Angeles and Sydney, I only specifically recall one time when we were leaving an island port of call – Fiji, I think. Do I also remember how we spent the day learning about Fijian history, custom and culture? Not so much.

No, what stuck in my four-year-old brain was how several passengers had knotted pantyhose together to create long ropes that reached from the deck back down to people on shore. When our boat horn boomed out and the ship began to maneuver sideways from the dock, I was fascinated by these makeshift moorings as they stretched and stretched – and stretched! Finally, the lines came apart at the weakest lingerie link, after which their makers accepted polite applause for their efforts, and out to sea we went!

Yup. A memory-jogging boat whistle can help ensure that distant – if completely silly – moments from an epic family adventure aren’t tragically lost to time!

Two short blasts: When you pass a boat on your starboard (right) side.

Other memories that resurface are of times when it wasn’t about a boat’s destination – just an “enriching” journey! I enjoyed a meal once on a classic riverboat that was supposed to take me out on the Mississippi! But thundery weather kept us tied up at the dock for every course – except dessert which turned out to be turtle pie and a glorious post-storm cruise on Mark Twain’s beloved river! And afraid I can’t think of a thing the folks and I ate during a Willamette River dinner cruise out of Portland, Oregon. But the scenery and the company were charming, indeed!

(I’m not counting as a dinner cruise the time I was served munchies and a requisite shot of Gammel Dansk on a Danish sailer’s boat. It could have been bouncing over choppy San Francisco Bay waters that turned me green on the trip – but I’m gonna guess it was that booze….)

(Okay, this is a riverboat I road on out of Kansas City – but you get the idea!)

Whatever the menu, my favorite form of nautical nourishment is history! I’ve been fortunate enough to visit London several times where I always love to take a boat ride on the Thames and devour views of the city’s past!

(Boating by the Tower of London!)
(Cruising under Blackfriars Bridge!)

Three short blasts: When you’re backing up (like if you’re leaving a dock).

After the initial teeth-rattling jolt, the blare of a boat whistle can fill me with excitement and anticipation! To do a little more obnoxious bragging of my good fortune (apologies…), I’ve gotten to hear ferry boat whistles while hopping between LA and Catalina Island (for a friend’s wedding!). I’ve heard them as I skipped between Greek islands, as well as when I made an inter-country jump from Ireland to France! I was so excited on that overnight trip to the Continent that I hardly slept! But I’m gonna guess it was also from being in an economy cabin right next to the perpetually roaring engines…

So yeah, being on a ferry can definitely get me psyched about where I’m headed! But that feeling can also be mixed with melancholy over leaving the place I’ve just been. Like at the very end of a wonderful trip to Finland (country of Mum’s ancestors!), the folks and I ferried over to check out St. Petersburg. I found myself feeling both sad to leave a country I’d really come to love, and a bit guilty that I was leaving it to see Russia – the country from which Finland gained independence in 1917 and had to fight so hard against later to keep. I mean, I got over it to enjoy a remarkable couple of days. But it was one those voyages where as I stood on deck the way I love to do, my thoughts remained more aft than fore.

(A ferry the folks and I took around Eastern Canada!)

Another ferry ride that made me excited and sad by turns was one between Ireland and England. I was thrilled to be about to share with the folks a look at Wales (home of some of Dad’s roots)! But we’d been visiting my dear friend Judy outside of Dublin and, as we churned toward the Welsh coast, I felt very sad to leave Irish shores – and one inimitable transplanted American – behind me.

One long blast: When you’re leaving a port.

So I can see Janou’s point of view in An Affair to Remember. She’s been cherishing the company of her grandson (I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s Cary Grant!) and his companion (the incomparable Deborah Kerr!) whose relationship Janou rightly senses will become more than just fellow ship’s passengers (don’t get me started though on the rough seas ahead for them…). (Oh – and please forgive all the parentheses, but there’s a whole lotta subtext going on!)

Then the distant, forlorn sound of a boat whistle signals that Janou’s guests must leave to continue their journey. As I said, of all the moments in the movie that still get to me every time I watch, the way Janou’s face falls at the thought of their parting resonates more and more…

Even so, I sure count myself lucky to have so many happy memories that carry one long boat whistle blast as their exclamation point! Yes, sometimes I do share Janou’s feeling when the sound carries me back to grand voyages I’ve shared with people I’ve loved and can’t journey with anymore. But I can get carried away too by the promise in the sound of a boat whistle! Again, after the jarring and the intruding and all, I embrace it as an invitation to climb aboard for more adventures yet –

As well as to try and time my video taking accordingly!

Port Out, Starboard Home – and smooth sailing to you!

(Mum in front of Insignia on which we cruised twice!)


  1. Suszi McFadden · · Reply

    What a wonderful post! So evocative … I feel like I’m there. In fact, at one point, I think I *was* there (I still have a Gammel Dansk shot glass). Thank you for taking me around the world with you. Love the post!

    1. Oh, thank you so much – glad you enjoyed the tour! And you remember Gammel Dansk! On a choppy Bay, it did not. Go down. The smoothest… Sure good times though! Thanks again!

  2. Mike Jackson · · Reply

    My cousin was an engineering officer on the Canberra for many years, and would have been serving when you traveled to Australia.

    1. Oh my – it’s a small world, isn’t it? Our family was very fond of the Canberra. I understand they used her in the Falklands. Spartan by today’s standards – but we loved our voyage!

      1. Mike Jackson · ·

        Yes, Canberra joined the QE2 transporting troops to the conflict in the Falklands in 1982.

  3. As always, an enjoyable read. I too have many happy memories of ship coming and goings, from Australia to England, through the Panama Canal, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Baltic from Sweden to Finland, but most wonderful, the two years we spent as a family with our children on the Mercy Ships Anastasis between Europe and West Africa… So I know the feelings you write of…

    1. Thank you very much! Looks like you’re quite familiar with ship travel! What an important mission on the Anastasis – and how amazing to undertake it as a family!

  4. Such an interesting post, Amy! Thank you for sharing .

    1. Thank you – appreciate your giving it a read!

  5. Sabbs – I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I envy all your travel adventures and the way you wove the experiences together with the sound of boat whistles. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    1. Thanks very much! I’ve been lucky, indeed, to get to have so many adventures!

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