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Old 05-17-2002
Mark Matthews Mark Matthews is offline
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Watch Keeping Advice

My boyfriend and I are starting to do some cruising. While we are both experienced racers, we are less so when it comes to cruising. When we have cruised there were at least four peole on board, allowing us to rotate shifts. The first trip we plan is from Daytona Beach to Miami, which we aniticipate will take about three days. Our main concern is sleeping. What do you recommend? We were going to take naps during the day so that both of us could be awake at night. How would you suggest we handle this situation?

Mark Matthews responds:
Thanks for the question. Staying up at night is probably one of the hardest things about offshore sailing. If it’s just the two of you on board, you’re likely to develop your own informal watch-keeping system, regulated by your body’s ability to stay up. I’ve found that two four-hour watches at night, followed by two three-hour watches in the wee hours of the morning is my preferred watch rotation while underway with just two people on board.

There are a number of combinations that might suit you and your crew better than my scheme. Also, keep in mind that having a way to pass the time—while still keeping a good look out—is always a benefit, so long as it isn't overly distracting. Some cruisers have small red lights they can use to read a book, glancing up every five minutes or so to keep a lookout while offshore. Others use books on tape, some drink tea, hot chocolate, listen or play music—whatever works to keep them alert and avoid drifting off into zombie land.

Usually, your first night out is an exciting occasion and that alone has the potential to keep both of you up all night due to the mere novelty. But beware, if you do that, there's a strong likelihood that you'll both to drift off to sleep right before dawn. The obvious objective of any watchkeeping system is having part of the crew rest while the others tends to the ships needs. Should a ship be sighted or sail need to be changed or other on-deck chore require action, the other person should be woken up. They can help you confirm that course needs to be changed, the sail shortened, or whatever the case may be. And waking them up also keeps them apprised of on-deck developments. Unless you possess cat-like abilities when it comes to trapsing around on deck, you’re likely to wake your crew up anyway, so you might as well keep them in the loop.

When I’m cruising with my mate, we usually alternate taking naps for as little or as long as we can during the day, and then switch to a loosely-structured system at night. It’s not always possible to sleep aboard a pitching boat or one that's hot down below, so if you find yourself tossing and turning in your bunk while your crewmate is drooping off into never-never land on the helm, it’s a good time to switch places. Sailing with only two on board puts the person on watch in the role of a single-hander, but with the benefit of a better lookout when it’s time to get some shuteye.

For additional information on this topic, I’d refer you to several articles here on the SailNet site. John Rousmaniere’s The Art and Science of Standing Watch  offers a description of several watch-keeping systems to help prevent fatigue and the errors in seamanship that it often produces. Also, Beth Leonard's Someone to Watch Over Me surveys active cruisers and the watch systems they use. You might also consider reading Sue and Larry’s Overnight Passagemaking, which offers hands-on advice on how to pass safely and comfortably through the night. After that, take a look at my article, Avoiding Collisions at Sea, for some safety advice on keeping out of the way of commercial traffic.