Offshore Sailing - How to setup a watch system

Day sailing close to home is one thing, but when you are on passage a good skipper will give serious thought to the best watch system for his boat and crew.

An effective system should be designed with the following goals in mind;

  1. Talent - It should efficiently divide the talent pool available on board so that each watch has a good helm and someone with good awareness of IRPCS (rules of the road) and buoyage and navigation. Mix experience too so that it's shared between the watches.
  2. Fitness - If you have the luxury, also consider each individual’s physical fitness so as to ensure things like sail changes and mast climbs can be done without having to wake the off watch. 
  3. Sea Sickness - Try not to fill one watch with sufferers or you'll not be thanked by either watch when the system breaks down!
  4. Morale - On long passages, it’s sensible to try and keep abrasive characters away from each other but, over time, try and mix up your watches so that cliques are avoided!

The best type of system will depend upon personal preference, type of voyage, weather and location, as well as crew numbers and boat type. A short handed delivery skipper will be looking at a very different watch plan to a large offshore race boat. Make sure you staff watches sufficiently and sail the boat within the capacities of the crew.

4 on - 4 off
Probably the most common system, this is largely equitable, predictable and simple. However, on a long passage no-one has a longer off watch for sleep and, because of its symmetrical nature, if you are doing the dog watch on day one, you're doing it on every day forward! 

6 on - 6 off 
Too much at night, this can work well during the day and allows the off watch to enjoy more uninterrupted sleep at least once every 24hrs. I like to revert to 4on - 4off at night. This reduces night watches and also swaps the dog watch every 24 hrs, making it more equitable for crew.

5 on - 5 off 
One of the problems with long passages is that watches hardly see each other, like ships passing in the night. By amending the 6on - 6off slightly shorter day watches allow for a changeover period (perhaps at lunchtime) which allows crew to do larger boat-related tasks as well as meeting together for a shared lunch or a chat and catch-up. The asymmetrical 5 watch per 24 hour period system again allows for night watches, dog watches and day parts to swap between crew every day.

Other Tasks

Sometimes watches will be large and in this case it's worth considering a rota within each watch to allow for specific responsibilities to be shared. This might include cooking, cleaning, engineer / bosun duties, etc. A revolving ‘mother watch’ (one for each watch) means that the onwatch are always concentrating on sailing, being serviced with food and warm drinks as necessary. More enlightened crews might prefer a non-sexual stereotype - but the duties remain the same.

Unlike really mothering though, once dinner is over, most mothers get to sleep in until the next watch system begins (at say 0600hrs). On a long, hard, cold and wet voyage this is luxury!

When shorthanded it's worth considering an overlap system so that whilst you might spend 4 or 6 hours on deck, your fellow watch member changes watch on a staggered basis offset by 2 hours. This allows for a change in conversation as much as anything else, and also continuity of communication between watch changes. 

Some shorthanded vessels rely on one person on deck at any time. The downsides are obvious. The potential danger is, of course, that the crew member on watch falls overboard. In this situation a positive outcome is unlikely. Therefore, put a plan in place. This might include technical solutions based on AIS or wireless technology or strict rules about when they may leave the cockpit. 

On larger boats, feeding watches at watch change makes sense and is very efficient. Smaller crews might have a more informal catering solution. Whatever you choose, make sure it's robust. Food is always important at see and good, regular and well prepared food will make a voyage memorable for all the right reasons.

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