Manning the Rails: A Navy Tradition

Oct. 3, 2016 | By Annalisa Underwood, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
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Manning the rail, like the ceremonial military gun salute, is a centuries old practice for rendering honors aboard naval vessels. According to Royal Connell and William Mack's "Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions," the custom of manning the rail evolves from "manning the yards" (the spars on a mast from which sails are set) and cheering the ship. In Roger Marbecke's 1596 manuscript during the English Cadiz Expedition, he wrote that when a ship returned to port and approached the Lord Admiral, those on board would "presently man the ship and place every one of their companies both upon the upper and middle deck and also upon the waist and shrouds and elsewhere to the most advantage they can to make the bravest show and appear the greater number." Marbecke further wrote that the masters and mates of the ship would join all the company, shaking their hats and caps while cheering joyfully three times by them and three times interchangeably by the Lord Admiral.

As the tradition evolved, Connell and Mack note that it became written in the U.S. Naval Instruction of 1824, "In manning the rigging for cheering, the people should be chosen for their size, to stand together or on the same ratlines, observing the space of two or three ratlines between each." Today, manning the rail is used in similar fashion in passing honors for the President of the United States, rulers of foreign nations, or members of a reigning royal family. According to the Basic Military Requirements (BMR) training manual, "Manning the rail consists of the ship's company lining up at regular intervals along all weather deck rails. Normal saluting procedures are followed."
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Manning the rails has also become a traditional way to honor the USS Arizona Memorial when all U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Merchant Marine vessels transit Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A ship passing the USS Arizona Memorial renders honors by sounding, "Attention," and all hands topside render a hand salute until the ship has passed the memorial and "Carry on" is sounded (Connell and Mack). A less formal ceremony than manning the rail is having the crew "at quarters." The BMR states that the crew is paraded at quarters on ceremonial occasions, such as:
  • When the ship is entering or leaving U.S. ports at times other than operational visits,
  • When the ship is visiting foreign ports, or
  • When the ship is departing for or returning from extended deployments and other special occasions as determined by a superior.
Though returning to homeport from an extended deployment is considered an occasion for having the crew at quarters, they often times take part in manning the rail when approaching the pier as part of U.S. Navy homecoming traditions.
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