by Pete Green
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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