Any kind of offshore voyaging is inherently a serious undertaking. Throw in the demands of a race, and this kind of sailing becomes even more of a challenge. Among the many items to attend to is choosing the right watch system to use, and that too can be tricky. If the watches are too long, then those on deck get fatigued too easily. If they're too short, the off watch doesn't get enough rest. The right solution depends on the length and type of event that you're sailing in.
For most of us, racing offshore doesn't mean doing a leg of the Volvo Ocean Race, but an overnight race to somewhere up or down the coast or to a nearby island. These races are usually immensely popular because they give the participants the feel of offshore sailing without the added commitment and complication inherent to longer contests. Depending on the speed of the boat, the weather, and length of the race, these events usually last less than 24 hours, which is why the more hardcore offshore veterans may refer to them as 'sprints'. They're often too short to justify splitting up the crew and having an on and off-watch, so some more creative solutions are needed to achieve optimal performance without having everyone get burned out. This is a particular concern in races of this type that typically start late in the day, so the crew has had a full day of activity without rest before the race even starts.
If you're signed on to participate in a race like this, and it looks as though the weather will allow the race to be fast—say, no longer than 10 hours—then it may pay to get your crew in a full-court-press mode, with everyone on deck and no off-watch, except perhaps to rotate the drivers. This way the crewmembers are in their primary positions, with the best people placed where they can be most effective. If the breeze is aft, then constant attention to spinnaker trim will usually help keep the crew energized, as will the proximity of any close competition.
But if the race is primarily upwind, or the course somewhat longer, or you'll be racing in weather that is demanding enough to require some rest, then some kind of rotation is in order. One approach is the ad hoc method, where those who feel tired go down below when they feel like it. Unfortunately using this method usually ends up with most of the crew down below in the important final stretches of the race.
A more successful method to try would be to first divide the crew into pairs, with each pair having a particular skill, such as trimming, bow work, driving, and the like. Then decide which member of each pair will remain on deck as the other seeks some rest down below for an hour or two. This short off-watch time is really insufficient to getting a good, restful sleep, but it is usually long enough to get enough of a recharge so that the person can stay fresh for the short duration of the race.
When a race begins to exceed 12 to 18 hours in length, that's when you should consider a more wholesale rotation of the crew. Usually this will mean dividing the crew in half along lines of ability, with equal talent on each side. The traditional four-hours-on, four-off scheme is not so bad, except that it doesn't allow for a rotation through the day without dogging. Another variation is six-on, six-off in the day, followed by four-on, four-off at night. The virtue of this pattern is that the watch dogs itself so that everyone gets to enjoy a different part of the day on deck.
Still more innovative is a rotation scheme wherein after the crew is divided in half, and one crewmember leaves the deck every hour, replaced by the other member of his pair. This method is desirable for several reasons: First, the crew is always changing, allowing more people the chance to sail with each other. Second, the disruption of talent on deck is confined to only one new crewmember every hour, rather than a wholesale change. And three, there's none of the noisemaking associated with wholesale watch changes, though the disruption does occur hourly. This method works great in tricky conditions where brand new sailors coming on deck get a chance to slide into their positions and get acquainted while the boat's being sailed by the remainder of the watch who are already adjusted to the particular demands of whatever the conditions are at the time.
Regardless of which watch system you use it's important that key roles such as trimming and driving are not immediately turned over to a newcomer on deck. Let the new trimmer or driver take a few minutes to stay on deck, converse with the off-going watch, and get accustomed to the conditions before taking over. Information that should be transmitted to the new watch includes such things as the trends that have been observed in the wind strength and direction, anything anomalous in the sea state, and the tactical situation relative to any competition within sight. Since navigators usually float between watch schedules, they should brief the new watch directly or have their instructions conveyed through the old watch.
Likewise, it's also a good idea to give the new watch a wake-up nudge15 minutes or so before they're actually due to be on deck. That way they can attend to whatever personal needs they've got, and then rotate into sailing the boat. In loger races particularly, it's important to try and keep these watch changes punctual so that no one feels as though they're shouldering more of the burden than anyone else.
And if you're on a big boat with lots of crew in relatively easy conditions, you may even be able to divide the crew into thirds and do a three-hours-on, six-hours-off rotation, giving everyone lots of sleep. This is a great watch system to use for non-racing passages, too as it ensures that those who are on deck are the most alert.
The Art and Science of Standing Watch by John Rousmaniere
Watchkeeping Advice by Mark Matthews
The Dogwatch Defined by Tom Wood
SailNet Store Section: Watches