Tips on Watch Standing
“He’s got the whole world in His hands, He’s got the whole world in His hands……”
Traditional American Spiritual
And so it is for watch standers on small boats at sea. You need to stay alert. You need to pay attention. Your shipmates sleeping below deck are counting on you to keep them safe and alert them to any dangers.
Remember, five things are very important:
- Keep the water on the outside
- Keep the people on the inside
- Keep the keel pointed down
- Keep the rudder in the boat and steering in good order
Everything else is secondary. That said, you will be expected to keep the boat headed in the direction we want to go, keep it moving at a speed appropriate for the wind and sea conditions, and keep us away from hazards that might impact any of the “five things” highlighted above.
Coming on watch:
When you come on watch and before going topside, check the bilges (“water on the outside”). Review the log entries from the time you were last on watch. Check any “standing orders” from the skipper. If it’s night time, run through the radar scans. Note the barometric pressure. Has it changed in the last few log entries?
Check the electrical distribution panel. At night, lights on? Bilge pump to “AUTO”? Day tank on “AUTO FILL”? Check the voltage level in the battery banks. Is a charge needed? If the engine is running, check the operating gauges and fuel level in the day tank.
If you’re hungry, grab something to eat or drink before going up. Do you need to use the head?
Before you go on deck, get fully dressed -- and dress as if you were going to go stand your watch outside fully exposed to the weather. Assemble your diversions: iPod, book, etc.
Don your PFD. Before climbing into the cockpit (in rough weather) or going aft of the wheel (in any kind of weather), clip on with a lanyard. (“people on the inside”)
Get a briefing from the off-going watch stander as to what’s going on with the boat, the weather, ships in the neighborhood, anything noteworthy.
Before letting the off-going watch go below, do a visual inspection of the deck, sails, rigging and the mast. Is there anything that needs changing or fixing before the watch is relieved? Better to do it now than to have to awaken someone later.
When you’re satisfied that all is well and you understand what’s happening, tell the off-going watch: “You are relieved.”
Every few minutes:
Have a look at the chart plotter. Any new AIS targets? Are we on course? Speed holding up?
If the engine is running, glance at the instruments. Everything normal? The following are considered “normal”:
- Cruising RMP should be in the range of 2200 – 2600
- Engine temperature: 180-185 deg F
If we’re sailing, what’s the angle of heel? As it begins to approach and hold near 20 degrees, it’s probably time to reef.
Check the steering / handling. How hard is the autopilot working? Is the boat holding course? Where is the braided knot on wheel? Anything greater than 90 deg either side of center is an indication that it’s time to reef.
Every 20 Minutes:
Stand up and scan horizon for other vessels, hard objects, land or breaking seas. Use binoculars or the night vision scope at night, if you think it will help. Lanyard on the binoculars goes around your neck before you stand up.
Is the weather changing? If it starts to rain, or the seas get up and are putting water on the deck, you will need to check that the hatches and ports are closed and dogged down. (“water on the outside”)
At night after the horizon scan, go below and check radar for targets. At night, the radar is kept “ON” but in “STAND-BY”. Once every 20 minutes or so you should hit “TRANSMIT” and let the system do 4-5 sweeps at each of the range settings from 16 mile to 1 mile. Monitor anything with constant bearing and decreasing range (“CBDR” and the best indicator of a collision course). Use the EBL (electronic bearing line) and VRM (variable range marker) to track target motion. Correlate radar with AIS information on the chart plotter. If the target is holding a CBDR over a ten – twelve minute period and is within 5 nm, and is not on AIS, wake the skipper. If a target gets within 3 nm and is not visible on AIS wake the skipper. If it is visible on AIS, check the CPA (closest point of approach). If the CPA is less than 1.5 nm, wake the skipper. If greater than 1.5 nm continue to monitor the target on radar. When you’re not actively using the radar, put it in “STAND-BY” to conserve electrons.
Repeat all above items.
Check the barometer. Has it changed?
If motoring, check the fuel level in the day tank. Lift the top step and use a flashlight to check the engine room for smoke, oil or coolant in the bilge.
Every two hours:
Repeat above items.
If within 50 miles of land, make the log entry and plot your position on the chart. Draw the course line heading out from the plotted position.
As you change the watch:
All the above.
Wake the next watch 10-15 minutes their scheduled time to relieve you.
When the watch stander comes up, ask them if they checked the bilge. Observe that they have done what you did when you came on – e.g. had a look around, checked the radar, etc.
Brief them on events of your watch.
Ask if they need any help with anything before you go below. Offer to make coffee or a sandwich for them.
When relieved, go below and make the final log entry of your watch and, as necessary, plot the boat’s position.
Check the level of charge in the batteries. Is a charge needed?
When to Advise (Wake) the Skipper:
Average wind speed increases by more than ten knots or consistently exceeds 25 knots.
You need to change course by more than 20 degrees for more than a few minutes.
Need arises for a sail change or reefing.
The barometer drops by more than one mm in an hour or two mm in four or fewer hours.
Any vessel / object or other target with constant bearing and decreasing range (CBDR) closes to with 5 nm and not showing on AIS
Any vessel / object that comes within 3 nm and is not showing on AIS
Any vessel on AIS that shows a CPA of less than 1.5 nm.
When the boat comes within ten miles of any land, reef or shoal water, or is projected to come within ten miles of anything in the next two hours.
Any engine gauge readings change significantly from normal settings.
Any system or gear is breaks or malfunctions.
When the boat is not holding course or the autopilot is laboring or veers off course suddenly.
You become disoriented, fatigued, seasick or are unable to stay alert, think clearly, concentrate or see clearly. We do not need heroic watch standers.
You see any smoke, oil or coolant in the engine room or anywhere else on the boat.
You smell anything distinctly out of the ordinary.
You discover more than 3” of water in the bilge sump.
Boat speed falls below four knots when sailing.
You are unable to sail the assigned course due to wind shifts or sea conditions.
Battery charge drops below 12.3 V in any of the three battery banks.
Anytime you need to chat about something you consider important or you are concerned about.