Watch Keeping

Yachting World magazine did a survey of the skippers of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers and published results in the April 2011 edition. One of the aspects they asked questions about was watch keeping.Skippers reported that the most common watch system was a single watch with one crew at a time on watch. A number of different schedules were used:

  • 4 hours on, 4 hours off continuous
  • 6 hours on, 6 hours off by day; that is, 2 watches (e.g. 0600-1200-1800). And then 4 hours on, 4 hours off by night; that is, 3 watches (e.g. 1800-2200-0200-0600).
  • 3 hours on, 6 hours off continuous. This schedule requires at least 3 crew.

Most skippers adopted a system with shorter watches at night to cope with shorter attention spans that tend to occur when it’s dark and the rest of the crew are bunked down.

For me, when there is only two or three on board, I adopt a schedule that fits myself and the other crew. I try to take into account people’s normal sleep habits and preferences. For example, I’ll always try to take an early morning watch starting around 3-4 am because my body naturally fits in with being awake at that time. Some people can function on short bursts of sleep, while others need longer. When you’re short handed the danger is in the crew becoming weary over time, due to not achieving the deep sleep (REM) that the body needs to recover itself.

It is also important to remember the key objective of watch keeping – it’s to ensure the safety of the yacht. It’s not about following a structured timetable.While structure helps to set expectations and to set a routine it is not the only way to achieve a good outcome, especially when there are only two of you.

So my key principles in setting a watch system are:

  • Watch keeping is to ensure both the vessel and the crew’s safety;
  • Use one of the structured systems as a starting point and be flexible.
  • Be aware of the individual. Balance each crew member’s sleep needs against the yacht’s watch keeping needs – adjust the system to suit the crew and the vessel’s safety.
  • Shorter watches at night.
  • Sleepy crew = safety risk. Monitor for increasing weariness over time; if necessary adjust the watches either temporarily or permanently.