The Perfect Watch System

05 Sep The Perfect Watch System

Professional yacht delivery skipper in the galley preparing lunch for the crew

I think we would all agree that a yacht should be well organised, clean and prepared for the passage ahead. When sailing on a journey that takes you offshore or on an overnight trip it is absolutely crucial to establish an effective watch system early on in the journey. A fair and well thought out watch system will help the crew to understand their responsibilities and will ensure that everyone is well rested enough to perform effectively. It is a matter of both safety and comfort.

The Traditional Watch System

The Royal Navy have used a traditional watch system for hundreds of years. They have a system whereby you work for 4 hours on and 4 hours off. To ensure a rotation around the clock they have two dog watches.

A chart showing a 4 on 4 off traditional nautical watch system

Whilst this system may work well for large crews, it is less popular with yachtsmen as we will often sail with less than a hand full of people on board.

Sharing Duties

As well as indicating who is at the helm, a good watch system will also detail who is responsible for duties including cooking and cleaning. In my opinion the person who cooks should also clear up after themselves. This encourages people to take responsibility for their own mess. The biggest difference with cooking onboard a yacht compared to at home is that you simply can’t leave dirty pots and pans or half used tins lying around. Life in the galley is much easier when you tidy up as you go along.

Professional yacht delivery skipper in the galley preparing lunch for the crew


A clear and concise handover is extremely important. The person coming on watch maybe slightly bleary eyed and will need a few minutes to adjust and catch up. I prefer that the person coming on watch fills out the log book and checks the bilges. It is in their interest to learn where they are and gain a sense of what is going on with the weather etc before they take over. The off-going crew will be more interested in going to their bunk as fast as they can. The off-going crew must be patient though and should fully brief the on-coming crew before they disappear. I like to do a full circle of the horizon with the on-coming crew to show them any contacts I am aware of and give them a little background. Also an update if the weather has changed or is forecast to change, or indeed anything else that is important for the new watch keeper to be aware of. If any alterations are required to the sails (shaking out a reef for example) then the handover period is a good time to do it.

The Perfect Watch System

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the perfect watch system. As the skipper of a yacht it is important that you have a rota in place that works well with the crew that you have, the boat you are in command of and the voyage you are undertaking. With so many different systems publicised and discussed it can be hard to know which route to go for. Having tried many variations over the years I have become a huge fan of the following three watch systems:

2 hours on 4 hours off (a watch system for 3 people)

3 hours on 6 hours off (a watch system for 3 people)

2 hours on 6 hours off (a watch system for 4 people)

Please feel free to download our sample watch systems by clicking this link:

Halcyon Yachts Sample Watch Systems

With theses examples you get a full rotation around the clock so that sunset/sunrise watches are shared fairly. You also have the option to shorten the watches with ease if necessary. When sailing in either extreme heat or cold it is good to have shorter watches to minimise exposure to the elements. These watch systems are used by most of our yacht delivery skippers and they can be sustained for weeks on end without the crew becoming fatigued or overtired. With several shorter sleeps a day most people will actually feel more awake throughout the day than if they sleep just once for a longer period.

A girl sailing a yacht into the sunset

Be Careful

Some people like to use a Mother Watch system. This is a system where one person effectively has a day off from watches but becomes responsible for cooking and cleaning. I’m not a fan of this as you break your sleeping routine and will find it difficult again when you go back onto the watch system the following day. When you are in a good routine it’s best to stay in it until you stop in the next port!

If you are doubling up on watch then always make sure one of you is the primary watch keeper. You could alter every 30 minutes or hour, but without doing this you risk a situation when both people are assuming the other is keeping a look out. Things like lobster pots can come up at you very quickly and without at least one person looking ahead at all times you could easily end up in a difficult or dangerous situation.

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  • Geoff Crowley
    Posted at 10:33h, 05 September Reply

    Good post!
    Any good ideas for a 2 handed watch system for offshore, >1 week?

    • Richard
      Posted at 12:16h, 05 September Reply

      My wife and I sailed from Mexico to the Marquesas, 21 days on a 3 hours on, 3 hours off system. We found 2 hours wasn’t enough time to get much sleep and 4 hours too long to keep alert ! But it’s what works best for you

  • Carlos Leitao
    Posted at 11:45h, 05 September Reply

    I usually sail across the Med for all the summer racing season, from Spain to Malta, transporting the boat with other crew member. We usually use 6 on/6 off, starting at 20:00.
    This will give us time to have dinner and go to sleep, for 6 hours. At 02h we change until 08h in the morning. Both of us get 6 straight hours of sleep.
    During day time, we sleep as we feel like it.

  • Jenny
    Posted at 12:43h, 05 September Reply

    What we do (just two of us) is I like a longer watch after sunset and I usually do fine 7 pm til 11 or 12. When I’m tired I wake my husband who wakes me when he’s had enough (around 2am) then I go til I’ve had enough, (4 am) then he likes the sunrise and I sleep til 7. Once we have our groove we stick with that basic schedule so our bodies get used to it.

  • Fred de boer
    Posted at 13:48h, 05 September Reply

    The dog watch is from midnight to 04:00

    • Sean
      Posted at 01:38h, 06 September Reply
      • Fons Dorrestijn
        Posted at 14:57h, 06 September Reply

        Hi Sean,
        One theory is that the name “dogwatch” was derived from a similar name in Dutch/German. We call it “Hondenwacht” as it referred to that time of 24hrs where all dogs would be asleep…..that’s one theory. Fact is that on Dutch flagged ships, the Hondenwacht or Dogwatch is from midnight to 4am. This link explains it… Dutch though.

        Different flags, different practise I guess.

  • Savely Rosenair
    Posted at 22:38h, 07 September Reply

    When sailing double handed, my wife and I have been using a pretty unusual watch system. The reason is that not everyone has the same sleeping patterns. She can only sleep at night and I am a bit of a night owl and can do fine with daytime naps, so we devised a system where I sleep from 2100 to midnight and go on a 7-8 hour watch, letting her get a solid chunk of sleep. Then it’s 3-4 hour watches throughout the daytime, with me getting more time off. This may sound strange, but it is really the only thing we can do to avoid her getting exhausted and actually works quite well, especially on long ocean crossings, when there is a lot of time to fall into the rhythm.

  • John Crill
    Posted at 20:42h, 08 September Reply

    I used to run an Ocean 71, sailing Turkey and the Eastern Med in the summer and the Caribbean in the winter crossing the Atlantic in the autumn and the spring. We probably did a hundred nights a year including night passages around the Med and the Caribbean to get to charters in time and this for many years. I found that a rotating watch was absolutely draining, completely ruining the body’s circadian rhythm.. , I always preferred to do the 2-5 morning watch than to change the watch system every night, always
    .arriving in the Acores, Gib, Antigua, Piraeus etc relatively fresh.

  • Db Pilot
    Posted at 15:08h, 26 June Reply

    I’m single handing across the Atlantic and was thinking about doing 3 on 3 Off,, but by the time I’ve had a beer to decompress after watch and cooked a meal I’m not going to have much time to sleep, so was thinking about maybe doing 3 on 6 off to allow me time for other activities as I quite quickly become bored with watching the sea and would much rather be down below watching a dvd. The other idea I had was 3 on 3 off but counting cooking and drinking beer as my watch time so it doesn’t take up valuable off time? You guys have thoughts on this?

    • Cameron Springthorpe
      Posted at 08:16h, 30 July Reply

      When solo sailing you cant afford to have an actual off watch… you need to always be aware of weather / traffic around.
      Best bet is make sure you have good radar alarms set, and wind strength / direction if you have them and then snooze for as long as you feel safe in the current conditions, I used to get no more than 30 mins on average but mid Atlantic you may improve that a bit.
      Also there is no need to be ón´ watch for 3 hours as you will be checking more regularly than this..

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