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Standing Watches On A Boat

DATE POSTED:May 14, 2020

Standing a watch is a given on a moving vessel but it can be tedious even on a sunny day and at night or in fog it can be truly challenging. Nevertheless, keeping a good lookout while boating is vital to avoid a collision, keep clear of inhospitable waters, and react to a possible crew overboard situation quickly. There are ways to stand watch that will make the process manageable and sometimes even enjoyable whether you’re boating for an afternoon or going offshore for a several weeks.

Prepare ahead

Arguably, watch standing starts before you ever leave the dock. Good preparation by the captain and crew will make a passage easier and safer. The captain should teach the crew how to use the boat’s electronics/navigation suite and asses the crew’s strengths and weaknesses, which will help create a duty roster to pair experienced crew with newbies when standing watch.

It’s important to refresh the batteries in all flashlights and handheld devices, top up with fuel and water and provision well with lots of snacks to keep people alert and engaged. If expecting a long or rough passage, pre-cook and freeze meals so watch standers can be fed quickly. Offer caffeine in whatever way the crew requires (coffee, tea, soda). When provisioning, it’s necessary to ask all crew for their specific health issues and allergies. Anaphylactic shock from an accidental nut ingestion won’t be fun under way at 0300.

Develop a watch schedule

Watches are either fun (small percentage of time), frightening (super small percentage of time) or boring (most of the time). Structuring a workable schedule or duty roster to get through watches depends on many factors including the type and complexity of the boat, the number and experience of the crew, the length of the passage, the weather and sea state, and whether you have a working autopilot. If you’re lucky, you’ll have 3-4 crew on extended passages but couples often take on even lengthy voyages with just two.

First, let’s not assume that standing watches is just for long trips. A four-hour voyage still necessitates that someone is a lookout even on a clear day with flat seas and ten knots of breeze. Mandating periodic rituals helps. These can include an hourly course plot and log entry, a visual check of the engine room, a quick walkthrough of the boat to see what may have fallen, come loose or started leaking, and maybe a stop in the galley to grab a snack or drink. This usually takes all of five minutes. Depending on boat speed, every few minutes the watch stander needs to do a 360-degree scan of the horizon and adjust the course for traffic if needed.

For longer passages, there are about as many opinions on watch schedules as there are boaters. Conventional wisdom dictates that humans are at peak performance and concentration for about four hours before they need a break. After that the likelihood of making mistakes increases sharply. The old standby is 4 hours on and 4 hours off, “dogged” or rotated with one shorter watch so the schedule moves people to different watches automatically. Four hours may be too long in extreme conditions like heavy weather and a nasty sea state, which can be fatiguing.

For passages of 24 hours or more, it may be better to stick to 4 hours during the day and 3 hours at night since it’s more disorienting and harder to stay awake in the dark. With a crew of two, that leaves around 3 hours of sleep per 4-hour cycle per person because you have to build in time to eat, clean up, use the head, dress, undress and potentially do some chores like cooking, cleaning, and attending to the needs of the boat. Depending on the circumstances, you can do six hours on during the day with 2, 3 or 4-hour rotations during the night. Most people will be able to sustain this schedule longer and remain fresher than using a rigid 4-on/4-off schedule.

An extreme but viable schedule for a crew of two on a long passage may include non-rotating watches of eight hours. One takes the 0800-1600 and the other 2000-0400. The remainder of the time, both are awake giving them time to socialize, communicate about boat issues and eat together. With the non-rotating watches on long trips, the body has time to adjust and develop a new normal without the effect of rotating shift work and that kind of schedule is easier to remember because it never changes. This arrangement relies on a working autopilot and benign conditions but the benefit is arriving at the destination in good shape and not needing to sleep most of the first day in port.

Schedules are adjusted when there is more than one person on watch at a time, when there is ample crew, when some crew is inexperienced and needs to be paired with other crew, or when the conditions are such that one needs to hand steer. Hand steering a large vessel in heavy seas can be taxing because wrestling the wheel makes the shoulders burn and the arms ache. Sometimes, it’s too hard to steer for more than an hour at a time.

Rotated or short watches can wreak havoc on the circadian rhythm (natural biological sleep cycles) and it typically leaves the crew a little off kilter every few days. If a dogged schedule is used, rotate watches forward not back. It’s easier to stay up longer than it is to get up earlier. In these systems, nobody gets stuck with the same middle of the night watch but it may be harder for people to remember when they need to be on duty.

True singlehanding can be dangerous but even if there are two aboard and one is seasick or otherwise incapacitated, the other is effectively singlehanding. In that case it’s best to slow down to less than 10 knots (especially at night), and stay warm, dry, and fed. A 360-degree scan of the horizon is done every 10-15 minutes because large ships move quickly and although they may not have been visible the last time you checked, they can be on you in a very short time. An egg timer can help keep schedule for these scans and can wake up sleeping or drowsy watch standers every 15 minutes.

Division of duties and necessary skills

It’s good to rotate chores so nobody feels stuck with the dirty jobs. However, it’s also good on long passages to stick with people’s strengths. If you can cook then you may get the bulk of the meal preparation and if you are mechanically inclined, care of the engine and systems will fall to you. Everyone knows how to clean, go through the vegetable locker to find rotting tomatoes, and attend to kids if they’re aboard. Sharing and caring is the only way to get through watch standing on long passages.

Everyone should be familiar with the navigation and electronics equipment aboard and be able to use the chartplotter, radar, AIS, and VHF radio. Develop a routine that includes scrolling up and down in range on the radar to see what’s near and check the AIS collision system periodically. Watch standing must be more frequent and active on near coastal passages or in shipping lanes. Set electronic proximity and engine alarms and make sure everyone knows how to use them.

Standing orders should be clear and specific as to what to do and when and under what circumstances to wake the captain.

All crew should know how to do an hourly log entry. This includes recording vital information (course changes, speed, traffic, hazards, weather, any developments with the boat like changes in engine temperature, fuel consumption, etc.). The highlights of this information will be relayed to the on-coming watch in a concise briefing. It’s important not to leave out key news but also to not overwhelm the next watch stander with a lot of superfluous detail.

Wake the next watch 15 minutes before their scheduled show time so they have time to dress, have a cup of something and get their bearings. The oncoming watch should repeat back all that was just said to ensure accurate communication occurred. A discussion and eye contact are necessary to ensure nobody is hiding feeling ill or exhausted.

Some people read on watch but that makes some people sleepy and it can make them lose track of time for the necessary scans of the horizon. Some people listen to music but that can mask the sounds of the boat or calls by others needing assistance. Light exercise during long watches can be beneficial. Pushups, sit-ups, flexing large muscles and deep breathing have a rejuvenating effect that keeps one focused and alert. Hand steering rather than using the autopilot can be a change of pace too. Don’t consume alcohol until arrival at your destination.

A special kind of watch is anchor watch. The captain will make a call for someone to stay up through the night while others rest. This is usually done if the holding ground isn’t good or the anchor isn’t set well, if the weather is expected to deteriorate through the night, if the anchorage is crowded and a wind or current shift could change the positions of nearby vessels and cause a collision, if the boat is experiencing issues such as water ingress that requires frequent use of the bilge pump, or in cases of security and fear of being boarded. It’s both easier and harder to stand watch on a non-moving vessel. It’s less exhausting but more boring so it may take some creativity to not nod off.

Staying awake can be challenging but it’s key to remember that the watch is responsible for the safety of the vessel and the lives of all aboard. Carelessness can be catastrophic or it can just be annoying because if the on-watch crew isn’t trusted, the off-watch crew won’t be rested.

Items to keep handy while on watch – day or night
  • Flashlight (red/white) in the pocket, and headlamp (also red/white) for hands free operation. To get someone’s attention, flash a light at their chest, not their eyes and use red light at night to preserve night vision.
  • Timepiece – a watch with a light or a cellphone
  • Binoculars and possibly reading glasses for the chartplotter
  • Knife or multi-tool in case of emergency
  • Book, music, games – whatever helps pass time
  • Appropriate clothing – foulies, boots, watch cap, gloves if the weather is cold
  • Harness with tether if going on deck at night or in rough conditions
  • Reference material like a light list, day shape cheat sheet, or cruising guide
  • Water bottle
  • Paper napkin – for dabbing at watery eyes, blowing the nose, or wiping spills without leaving the helm to deal with small issues
Dos and Don’ts of standing a watch

Do:

  • Do have standing orders as to when to wake up the captain.
  • Do have a standard briefing when changing watches including comments on weather, condition of boat/engine, sea state, traffic, course changes if any, etc.
  • Do have the new (and possibly sleepy) watch repeat back what they just heard.
  • Do prepare hot drinks (coffee, tea, soup) and snacks for the oncoming watch.
  • Do a 360-degree scan of the horizon every 10-15 minutes.
  • Do zoom in and out on the radar screen every 15 minutes to look near and far especially at night or in fog.
  • Do make sure all crew know how to use the basics of onboard communication and navigation electronics.
  • Do set alarms (radar and engine) but be sure to warn the oncoming watch about them.
  • Do keep an hourly log including position, course, weather, engine condition, etc.
  • Do plot an hourly course on a paper chart.
  • Do learn at least basic navigation lights and their meaning and keep binoculars handy.
  • Do periodic engine and bilge checks (a visual every 1-2 hours) or depending on the situation.
  • Do small physical and breathing exercises to stay awake at night.
  • Do assign and/or rotate daily chores on long passages.
  • Do deck checks during daylight hours to see if anything has come lose or has broken.
  • Do sleep when off watch, or at least try to rest.
  • Do stay dry and warm and have a change of clothes if necessary.
  • Do pre-cook meals if bad weather is expected.
  • Do file a float plan with someone back home if possible with estimated arrival dates/times and proposed passage information.
  • Do pretend you’re in a congeniality contest for the duration of the passage because tired people get crabby.

Don’t:

  • Don’t be afraid to wake the captain or more experienced crew if something goes wrong or you get confused, especially in the dark or fog.
  • Don’t be “that guy” by expecting the other guy to do something you could get done while on or off watch (like chores).
  • Don’t get dehydrated.
  • Don’t stay up when you should be sleeping because your next watch is still your responsibility and you don’t want to be overtired.
  • Don’t read if you normally consider reading a sleep aid.
  • Don’t consume alcohol – even a little, because it’s fatiguing.
  • Don’t make your watch-change briefing a novel. Disoriented crew won’t remember but a few key facts.
  • Don’t fake understanding the basics of the vessel command center including how to use navigation screens.
  • Don’t over caffeinate because you’ll eventually have to go down to your bunk and rest.
  • Don’t assume anything – verify.

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