Not since high school have so many paid such close heed to the ringing of bells. We're surrounded out here by electronic gadgets -- computers, digital cameras, satellite phones, radar -- but we answer first to the dulcet tones of two brass bells.

Life for the crew of a tall ship comes in four-hour watches. In the hard old days it was three watches a day, 12 hours on, 12 off; for us in the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge, with a full crew of 70 on a 252-foot square-rigger bound for England, it's more civilized: two watches a day, eight hours on, 16 off.

Still, four hours can drag on, particularly at night. When the Chesapeake Watch takes the deck at midnight to black seas sweeping along under blackened sky, it's met by eight bells, the signal that the watch on deck is finished. A half-hour later, one bell signals time for the newcomers to shift duties as helmsman, lookout and other key jobs rotate.

So it goes through the long graveyard watch, three bells, five bells and on till eight bells, when we leave the shooting stars and waning moon behind at 4 a.m. and go back below to hot cider and warm bunks.

The bells are of polished brass and rung by hand -- one at the helm amidships, the other, larger, up on the bow. Before they had digital watches with luminescent dials, sailors aloft in the rigging measured their workdays by the ring of the bells, and no sound was sweeter on a harsh, stormy night than eight bells. So it remains.

Twenty boats left New York on May 22, bound for the Lizard at the southern tip of England, seeking to break a 100-year-old record for fastest transatlantic passage in a race. Stad Amsterdam, largest and heaviest in the fleet, was first to retire from racing after two days of frustrating calms left no chance of breaking the mark.

When Capt. Pieter Brantjes fired up the engine and powered to a fresher breeze, he abandoned all chance of winning, but 2,500 miles of North Atlantic still stretched ahead, full of mystery and the usual offshore dangers. First to succumb was New Yorker Claudio Marzollo, who was pulling on his foul-weather trousers before dawn one stormy morning when the ship lurched and he flew backwards through a doorway, fetching up with a crash against the ship's cannon.

Blood gushed from his head and the ship's doctor, Dutchman Charles Boissevain, was called from his bunk, grumbling at the disruption. He glued the fissure closed and fashioned a bandage. When he was done, he issued a report. "A guest crashed into the ship's cannon with his head," it said. "We have inspected the cannon and it seems to be working all right."

Later the same day, crewman John Sheather was dangling from the bowsprit, working on a loose chain plate, when the ship dove 20 feet into an aqueous gully, then came roaring back up, shaking frothy sea from its mane. Sheather, hanging on with one hand, managed to smack himself in the mouth with the wrench he held in the other. "I came up spitting sea water and teeth," said the grinning Briton, opening wide to show two freshly shattered incisors.

It could have been worse. Sojana, another contestant in the race, reported by radio it was heading back to St. John's, Newfoundland, to drop off a crewman who had broken his arm in two places.

We are now halfway to England after eight days at sea, with 1,500 miles to go. Last night we left the Grand Banks of Newfoundland astern, with its famous fog and icebergs. It's getting cold as we barrel northeast on a following breeze. When the wind gets light Brantjes fires up the engine, but for the most part we bowl along in 20 knots or more of southwest breeze, with all square sails full and pulling.

The big steel ship was chartered for the race by 40 members of the Storm Trysail Club, a group of 700 veteran offshore sailors from around the world. Youngest member of the crew is 24-year-old A.J. Evans of Atlantic Highlands, N.J., who's been racing sailboats offshore since he was 8. Oldest is 83-year-old Bruce Lockwood of Groton, Conn., who reckons he's been in 8,000 races.

Lockwood's big claim to fame is that he rescued Albert Einstein from a capsized dinghy in Long Island's Peconic Bay -- three days in a row. "He didn't have common sense," said Lockwood. "His mind just didn't work like yours and mine."

Lockwood said the third time he and his mates pulled the genius from the water, they explained to him that he wouldn't be so likely to flip in strong winds if he shortened his sail by taking a reef in it. "The next day he was out there again and he'd put a reef in," said Lockwood. "Of course, that day there was no wind at all and he was going nowhere."

"It's called common sense but it ain't that common," famous fly-fisherman Lefty Kreh is fond of saying. Einstein was also said to be so poor a piano player, his teacher once threw up his hands in despair, blurting out, "Albert, you can't count!"

Unfortunately I can, and I hear from above a clarion call: Seven bells on the 8 o'clock watch. Time to get my gear on.