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The Art and Science of Standing Watch

Offshore sailors are only "uncivilized" if their watch systems don't work.
It was in a junk shop in Newport, RI, where I found a drawing of a ferocious-looking Teuton who growls, "Can't understand these uncivilized fellows who go out of sight of land and sleep on board and don't wash and all that!"  This cartoon now hangs in my house because I'm one of those offshore sailors who struggles to keep myself and my surroundings civilized.  Washing up, picking up, and eating proper meals—all are crucial to a happy cruise or race, and all demand care and attention. 

However, what's most important is that the crew get their sleep.  Tired people don't attend to details very well.  They also make dumb mistakes, whether they're installing software, driving a car, or sailing.  Exhausted sailors steer the wrong course, forget to clip on safety harnesses, cleat lines carelessly, and light the oven without due regard for propane's potential to blow everything and everybody to smithereens. You name a mistake in a boat and a tired person has made it.

The macho attitudes that prevail in many crews ignore the proven fact that humans need rest if they are to function responsibly.  Muscles require it, but surely the brain needs it even more.  Rest and sleep are of utmost importance to skippers, watch captains, navigators, and others who must make decisions. A psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of military veterans, Jonathan Shay, in an article in the journal Parameters (Summer 1998), emphasizes the great danger of regarding sleep stoically as an act of self-indulgence.  He writes: 
"Sleep deprivation, in particular, promotes:
Catastrophic operational failure.
Fratricide and other accidental deaths.
Otherwise preventable non-combatant casualties.
Loss of emotional control and failure of complex social judgment—often the proximal causes of operational failure."

If that's true for the commanders of naval and military units, it's certainly true for the leaders of crews of pleasure boats, even in relatively easy conditions.

In whatever way possible, the off-watch should get the rest it needs.

The benefit of a rested crew is hardly a new discovery.  In the early nineteenth century, the Royal Navy suffered from exhausted crews as well as poor discipline, unwashed sailors, filthy ships, rampant disease, and high mortality (even in peacetime).  At mid-century, the navy addressed these problems in a number of reforms, among them a radical change in the system of assigning and standing watches.  Until then, crews were divided into two watches.  The starboard watch was on deck for four hours before it was replaced by the port watch, which took the next four hours, and then back to the starboard watch, and so on.  The captain, the cook, and a few others who had full-time responsibilities were exempted, but otherwise the crew spent 12 hours sailing.
The navy replaced this traditional "watch-on-watch" system with another one that (reportedly) was first tried by Captain James Cook during his voyages in the Pacific.  Here, the crew was divided not into halves but into thirds.  Instead of two watches there were three, and instead of 12 hours of sailing there were eight.  For every hour Jack Tar spent on watch, he had two hours off, which allowed more time for sleep, relaxation, meals, maintenance of personal gear, and cleaning the ship.  Rested sailors, it turned out, were cleaner, healthier sailors.  Shipboard mortality rates subsequently fell dramatically.  There were other causes (including advances in medicine and the rise of captains who were alert to them), but considerable credit was given to the new watch-keeping regime that produced rested sailors.  (My source is Christopher Lloyd and Jack L.S. Coulter's fascinating four-volume Medicine and the Navy, 1200-1900.)

That experience should inspire some reflection by sailors heading out overnight or even on short runs in wet, cold, or rough conditions.  But before examining alternatives in watch organization, let's see how a watch works.

The watch systems we use today evolved from those used aboard ships in the classic era of sailing.
As in ships of war, not everybody has to stand watch.  In boats with large crews or high ambitions for racing success, the cooks, skippers, navigators, or gifted helmsmen may stand out (keep their own schedule), and come on deck as they please. They are the vessel's royalty.  The working stiffs are divided into scheduled, organized watches. The head, called the watch captain, should be the most experienced, knowledgeable sailor on deck and also a good leader.  While individual watch members must be prepared to perform any necessary task, the watch captain appoints them to specific jobs according to their skills and aptitudes.  Someone prone to seasickness should not be assigned to wash dishes.

There's a well-tested routine for the change of the watch.  The members of the new watch are roused by the old, off-going watch in time for them to get dressed, have a cup of coffee or a snack, and go on deck with a few minutes left over so they can gain a feel for the conditions, develop night vision (if necessary), and be briefed about the boat's position, nearby vessels, and the weather.  A watch change takes at least 20 minutes in rough weather (when foul-weather gear and safety harnesses must be put on) and 10 minutes in good weather.  You don't do the other watch a favor by letting them sleep a little longer, for they'll have to rush to get on deck in time.  It's rude to your shipmates to be late getting on deck.  And it's dangerous and rude for the off-going watch to leave important chores (like changing sails) to the oncoming watch, whose coordination and alertness will revive slowly.

Regardless of the weather, as soon as the new watch is settled down they should inspect the sails and recoil and recleat all halyards and sheets to make sure there are no kinks in the lines.  The new watch should never assume that the old watch made no mistakes.  (Obviously, we're talking about normal cruising and racing.  On the most intense racing boats, the off-watch doesn't go below but, instead, rides the windward rail.  They're even more uncivilized than the fellows that the Teutonic critic in my cartoon was frothing about.)

Rough weather and a poor watch schedule can leave crews exhausted and unready for duty.

The length of a watch is guided by accepted rules of thumb about time and effectiveness.  The length of an average professional baseball game is a good guide: three to four hours. Most us can't function well at a high level for much longer than about five hours without a break.  And most of us also require six to eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour stretch—even more when under physical and mental duress.

Sleep may be a loose term aboard a moving boat.  In my experience, there's not much real sleep the first night out when my system is adapting to new conditions.  But that's no excuse not to lie down when off watch early in a passage.  Rest is almost as good as sleep. On the second night I'm usually sleeping fairly well, and on the third I'm enveloped by Morpheus.

Here are four successful watch systems, using a six-person crew as an example.  They can be used throughout a passage, or they can be alternated with changing conditions.

Watch-on-watch with regular hours  Here we have the classic arrangement of two watches, traditionally called "starboard" and "port," standing back to back.  In this schedule, each three-person watch is on deck for four hours, then off-watch for four hours before coming back up. This is called four-on-four-off.

"Sleep may be a loose term aboard a moving boat, but rest is almost as good as sleep."
While easy to arrange, this system can be exhausting, and unless the boat has a full-time cook and navigator, those chores may be neglected.  Another problem is that the system regards all watches as equally demanding; the dark mid watch (midnight to 0400, or 4:00 a.m.) is no shorter than the sunny afternoon watch.  This last problem can be addressed by shortening the night watches to three hours.  In fine weather, the morning or afternoon watches may be lengthened to six hours, though that stretch challenges the limits of human effectiveness.

Any schedule whose total number of watches is divisible into 24 (for instance, six, four-hour watches or eight, three-hour watches) will repeat itself day after day, leaving the same people to face the same grim mid watch, night after night.  In order to adjust the schedule, most boats "dog" the 1600-2000 (4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.) watch, meaning that it's cut in half with each watching taking two hours instead of the usual four. (That's a good time for the two watches to socialize.)

Watch-on-watch—the Swedish system   The Swedish watch system also splits the crew in half, but uses an irregular schedule to balance the varying demands of different times of day.  Beginning at 1900 hours (7:00 p.m.), the watches run on this schedule: five hours, four hours (mid watch), four hours, five hours, and six hours (afternoon watch). This system dogs itself automatically.

Three watches   Here we have the system that the Royal Navy instituted to allow the crew more time off to rest and clean ship.  Each watch of two people (in our example) is on deck for three or four hours-with six or eight hours off, respectively.  Splitting the crew into thirds is effective on passages when not much sail handling is called for.  One watch below must be on standby, ready to come on deck in a moment.  If there are a lot of maneuvers or you're setting spinnakers, you'll need more people on deck almost all the time.

Individual rotations   As Monty Python used to say, "Now for something completely different."  In the individual rotation system, only one sailor is replaced, and then at hourly intervals.  In a crew of six, three are on watch at all times.  But instead of changing as a group, a single fresh body comes on deck each hour.  In the recent Newport to Bermuda Race aboard Kirawan, our crew of seven used a three-hour, individual-rotation system with three sailors on deck at a time.  That meant each of us stood watch for three hours, then was off-watch for four hours. That was a nice balance in a four-day, somewhat undemanding passage.

The individual rotation system has its advantages and also its disadvantages.  Its pluses include providing a broader range of sociability and also less crowding below at the watch change—a boon in a small cabin).  But with people constantly coming and going, sailors can lose track of where they fit in the rotation and whom they're meant to wake up.  Even if they know who follows them, they may not know where to find their replacements unless there's a bunk for each crew member. 

Another problem with this system is that responsibilities for certain jobs may go begging. There are so many combinations of people that chores like cooking and washing-up may be left unassigned, and a careless crew may turn into the "uncivilized fellows" that our Teutonic friend complained about.  That won't be a problem if the sailors (like my friends on Kirawan) care about their shipmates and their vessel, and take the time to wash a dish, wipe up a spill, and clean the head when the problem first surfaces, instead of waiting for the other guy to pick up the mess.  At the heart of good seamanship always lies the rule "one hand for yourself, one hand for the ship." 

John Rousmaniere is offline  
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