Watch systems to set up on offshore passages.
Before you set sails on a longer passage that includes night sailing, you should have an effective watch system set up to ensure that everyone is well rested, navigation and steering is carried out, adequate look out is kept, weather is checked, meals are prepared, maintenance is undertaken when necessary and so on.
There are no hard and fast rules for watch keeping patterns or rotas. Depending on the number of crew and their levels of experience, the skipper may or may not opt to be included in the watches. There is no right or wrong way of setting up a watch rota. The “right” one is the one that works for that particular voyage, on that particular boat, with that particular crew. The perfect watch system probably does not exist.
One important consideration when drawing up a watch rota is to ensure that the crew have blocks of sleep of sufficient duration. Getting a full six hour break once a day is probably the biggest boost there is to crew morale and energy levels. Different watch systems may need to be adopted for different voyages, to suit the people on board. Whatever system you decide upon, you need to stick to it. If the day is sunny and nice, there is always the tempattion to stay up on deck, that’s what we are all after - enjoying sailing. But you need to ensure that you get enough rest, especially as a skipper, because you never know when a situation could develop that requires all hands on deck. Another consideration is to time watch changes to coincide with mealtimes wherever possible so that we do not have to wake people up just for the meal. It also makes it possible for the crew to meet up and chat.
When deciding on whom to put into each watch, it is essential to have an experienced sailor on each watch and a mix of physical strengths. Someone up there needs to know colregs, weather and sail management. These people are usually assigned a Watch Leader positions to make sure the operation of the boat is smooth. Having more experienced sailors in each watch is also a great way learning opportunity for less experienced crew. Once you set a watch pattern, try not to change it unless you need to. Changing a system could disrupt sleeping and the crew can get exhausted very quickly. But if the weather is going to be challanging do not hesitate to change things around to ensure that you have sufficient crew on deck.
Example watch systems (pdf)
RYA recommendations for watch rotas
Even if the skipper is technically “off watch” the crew should be encouraged to wake the skipper whenever the crew is concerned or want a second opinion about something. The circumstances in which the skipper want to be alerted are included in the so called “Standing Orders”. This will vary depending on the boat, passage and experience level of the crew. Skipper might employ additional standing orders during a passage if needed (e.g. wake captain 2 NM from TSS).
Sipper standing orders (pdf)
Fair Winds and Following Seas!