Sailing to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean 1500

Watchstanding Procedures

Jeff on watch during the day and night.

CiCi heading out to the cockpit to stand watch during squally weather.  

I consider a good watchstanding schedule to be essential and it should start right away, as soon as you leave the marina. The main reason is to ensure that all crewmembers stay as well rested as possible. It can be difficult enough to sleep during a voyage due to rocking and rolling and boat problems, in other words, the usual stresses and strains of a typical voyage. It's important to avoid building up a "sleep deficit" due to inadequate rest, because the chronic tiredness can be very hard to undo, especially if the voyage is difficult. If you do build up a sleep deficit, this can cause a mental fog that not only impairs the enjoyment of your adventure but can also impair safety by affecting your judgment.

A good watchstanding schedule also lets crewmembers rapidly adapt to the daily cycle of running the boat 24 hours a day. It's alright to have informal unscheduled watches for an overnight trip, but that won't work for a voyage of a week or longer. That's a long enough time that it might as well be forever, since you won't be able to avoid regular sleep and therefore need a workable schedule that can go on continuously, as long as the voyage takes. From a watchstanding schedule point of view, there's not much difference between a seven-day voyage and a seventy-day voyage.

Personally, I also like the regimentation that a formal watchstanding schedule provides. I want to know exactly when I'm on watch, and exactly when I'm off watch. When I go on watch, I'll make it my business to be ready for duty and to stand my entire watch. But when I go off watch, I want to be free to do whatever I want, such as taking pictures, writing in my journal, or sleeping. With informal watches, there's never a time when I feel free to do whatever I want, so I always feel at least a little bit "on" and it's hard for me to get good rest.

After we left Portsmouth, we started out with a somewhat informal watchstanding schedule. We split up the 24-hour day into day and night, 6:00 am to 6:00 pm being day, and 6:00 pm to 6:00 am being night. During the day, there were no formal watches. At night, there were three four-hour watches, with each watch having two people on duty. Jeff and Greta stood the first and third night watch, and CiCi and John stood the second night watch.

Here's why we started out with two-person watches: At the beginning of the trip, we weren't used to working together as a crew and only Jeff was familiar with operating the boat. Jeff wanted to start out with two-person watches so there would always be two brains to think about things and two sets of muscles to operate things.

I thought this was a pretty tough watchstanding schedule. Jeff and Greta regularly stood two night watches, whereas CiCi and John stood only one, which wasn't fair. I also find "four hours on, four hours off" to provide inadequate time for good rest during the off-watch periods, at least for me. It was difficult during the day to take a long rest break, because during the informal day watches everybody was always "on", at least a little bit.

Within a few days, we changed our watchstanding schedule to one that CiCi had used before. Initially it was oriented around the same 6:00 am / 6:00 pm cycle but we quickly modified it to line up with the 7:00 am / 7:00 pm radio schedule. By having a watch change at 7:00 am and 7:00 pm, there would always be at least two people on-hand to man the radio and stand watch.

I thought it was a great schedule, and it's one that I'll keep in mind for the future. The basic schedule ran on a two-day cycle, and it accommodated four crewmembers having equal amounts of watchstanding time, standing solo watches. Day watches were three hours each, night watches were two hours each, and every other night, you got an uninterrupted six-hour block of time at night in which to sleep. When we set up the schedule, everybody got to pick what watchstanding time they liked best, and it worked out well.

Here's what our watchstanding schedule looked like:

Watchstanding Schedule
Day 1Day watches
(three hours each)
7:00 am - 10:00 amJeff
10:00 am - 1:00 pmGreta
1:00 pm - 4:00 pmJohn
4:00 pm - 7:00 pmCiCi
Night watches
(two hours each)
7:00 pm - 9:00 pmJeff
9:00 pm - 11:00 pmGreta
11:00 pm - 1:00 amJohn
1:00 am - 3:00 amCiCi
3:00 am - 5:00 amJeff
5:00 am - 7:00 amGreta
Day 2Day watches
(three hours each)
7:00 am - 10:00 amJohn
10:00 am - 1:00 pmCiCi
1:00 pm - 4:00 pmJeff
4:00 pm - 7:00 pmGreta
Night watches
(two hours each)
7:00 pm - 9:00 pmJohn
9:00 pm - 11:00 pmCiCi
11:00 pm - 1:00 amJeff
1:00 am - 3:00 amGreta
3:00 am - 5:00 amJohn
5:00 am - 7:00 amCiCi

At this point, the schedule repeats from the top. Notice how the crewperson order stays the same throughout the voyage, so I always came on watch after Greta and CiCi always followed me. Also, on day 1, I could sleep from 1:00 am to 7:00 am, which gave me a six-hour rest period at night. On day 2, I could sleep from 9:00 pm to 3:00 am, which is still six hours, but getting up at 3:00 am wasn't as nice as getting up at 7:00 am. During the day, we continued to follow the formal schedule, so everyone knew when they were on and when they were off.

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