The Navy’s Cordon Custom
In today’s military, we have many unique customs. The custom of using Side Boys to welcome a visiting dignitary or officer aboard a military vessel had a real purpose at one time. Side Boys are two, four, six, or eight Marines and/or Sailors lining both sides of the gangplank or on the quarterdeck in a ceremony now known as Tending the Side. The number of in the cordon is based on the rank of the officer visiting the vessel: two members for ensigns and LTs, up to eight members for admirals.
This system originally served a utilitarian purpose in the British Navy as early as the 17th century. Back then, men did not have the luxury of walking onto their ships: most had to transfer from a small boat to the larger ship by ladder, or by a device called a Boatswain’s Chair, which was essentially a seat attached to a yardarm by a block and tackle.
Here is where the relevance of increasing numbers in the cordon comes in: the younger and less rank you had, most likely, the lighter you were. Thus, a light midshipman or LT needed only two men on the haul rope, while an often very stout Admiral, with a forty-year career, tended to need eight men to pull them up.
Additional jobs, such as steadying the officer after getting them to the deck, and helping with the officer’s luggage, also necessitated a required number of hands.
Military Cordon Sizes
- President/Former President, 21 members
- Vice-President, 19 members
- Secretary of Defense, 19 members
- Chairman of the JCS/Chief of Staff, 19 members
- 4-Star General, 17 members
- 3-Star General, 15 members
- 2-Star General, 13 members
- 1-Star General, 11 members
- Everyone else, 11, 9, 7 or 5 members*
*Whatever number can be accomodated