What is a dog watch and how long does one typically last?
Tom Wood responds:
The romance of sailing's specialized jargon strikes again. Actually, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the dog watch—it has always conjured visions of Spot at the helm with the wheel in one paw and a Sherlock Holmes style pipe in the other. Unfortunately, the name derives not from Rover in the cockpit, but from the need to vary the crew’s routine (like putting a dogleg in it).
The short answer is that a dog watch is two hours long. Many watch-standing systems use four-hour (eight bell) watches with the 24 hours in a day divided into six watches. If you divide the crew into two halves (port and starboard), this means that the same group gets stuck with the same watches night after night. If you’ve ever experienced the 0000 to 0400 watch, you’ll know that it is a delight the first time, so-so the second night, and a real eyelid-drooper after that. So the "dog" is there to liven things up a little—a two-hour watch is stuck in to "dog" the schedule over so that the crew gets a little different perspective on the sunrise every other day. If this system is chosen, it is obvious that the watch rotates on a two-day sequence with a 1200-1600, 1600-2000, 2000-0000, 0000-2000, 2000-6000, 6000-1000, and 1000-1400 sequence. The second day will be off two hours until the watch is "dogged" again.
This may seem confusing, so many boats dog the watch twice in the late afternoon on the 1600 to 2000 shift—instead of one four-hour watch there are two, two-hour watches. This has the same effect of rotating the teams and allows time for the entire crew to socialize together during the cocktail and dinner hours. It shortens the off-watch so that both halves of the crew have time to get a good meal and a cup of tea, rest, and read a book, but not long enough to get any real sleep. I can imagine the sailors on the ships of yesteryear gathering on the fo’cs’le for a bit of gossip and possibly a shanty or two over their daily tot of rum on the dog.
Most cruising today is less formal. Many two-person cruising vessels have a watch system that varies with time of day and conditions. In bad weather or when navigating in close quarters a two-hour watch can seem like an eternity. And it always seems that at least half of each couple just can’t keep their eyes open from 0400 to 0600. In our cruising experience, many of the watches seem to be going to the dogs.