Standing Watch

How do you like to set up your watch-standing system? How many hours on and off watch? Do you have a formal setup, or do you just wing it based on who’s tired and who feels like staying up?

Generally we use an informal watch system during daylight hours, just as long as there is one person awake and on deck to keep an eye out for traffic, trim sails and keep the autopilot steering us on course. At night, we run a more formal watch system, usually 2-1/2 to 4 hours, depending on how many we have on board. This generally runs from 8 or 9 pm till 6 am the next morning. This can be flexible if someone is particularly tired or seasick, and someone else feels like carrying on a bit longer. If I have more than four on board, I usually do a “monster watch,” which means that I take no formal watch slot, but do all the radio skeds and navigation, and take on one of the crew’s watches if they are tired and need a break. Over the years, I’ve found that having the same watch hours each night makes it easier for the crew to fall into a sleep routine. I prefer this system to rotating or Swedish watch systems and always use it aboard “Moonshadow.” Besides, it lends itself to the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid!).

Have you ever singlehanded on a long passage, and if so, what did you do about sleep?

I have done the odd overnight passage single handed, and they have usually been around coastal areas with a fair bit of traffic and navigational hazards. The only diligent solutions that I have found are lots of strong black coffee or energy drinks, loud rock music and toothpicks to keep my eyes open, or else setting the kitchen timer for 20 minutes and cat-napping between alarms. When the alarm goes off, I pop up, check the radar, scan the horizon with the night vision scope, check the chart plotter, and then snooze for another 19.25 minutes if all is well.

Has technology (i.e. radar alarm) made you feel less of a need to be

No!! Radar alarm is great, but it has its limitations. There are still sailboats out there that do not have radar reflectors, and thus do not show up on radar. In places like Mexico, there are pangas (small open boats) and commercial fishing boats made of wood, which sometimes show no lights, making them impossible to pick up on radar and difficult to see until you get very close. A boat heeling without a gimbaled radar dome can miss targets to leeward. I actually find the night vision scope to be more valuable than radar for spotting traffic at a distance. With the scope, I can see the glow of a ship’s lights BEFORE they reach the horizon and can provide any sort of a radar target. At the end of the day, there is absolutely no substitute for good sets of eyes and ears and a nose to smell something fishy.

What do you do to while away the time when on watch? Read? Watch DVDs?
Snack? Enjoy the solitude?

I mostly enjoy the solitude, think, daydream, gaze at the night sky and watch for shooting stars. I read voraciously during the day, seldom at night, but do enjoy an occasional snack. There is absolutely nothing like hot popcorn at O-dark-hundred on a cool morning in the middle of the ocean or a few bits of homemade fish jerky.

How do you protect your night vision?

First off, we use the masthead tricolor light whenever we are sailing so our vision over the deck is not affected by the running lights. Our masthead unit has the added benefit of lighting up the windex so we can easily keep an eye on apparent wind angles. Next, we keep all the instrument illumination on the lowest possible settings, and the chart plotting program, MaxSea, on it’s “night” mode. I have installed a rheostat on the binnacle compass light so we can adjust it down low when we are hand steering at night. We use a pen with a lighted tip for making log entries, eliminating the need to turn on the cockpit light. Inside, we have indirect blue neon “love lights” in the salon so we can see enough to move about without having to turn on cabin lights. I find that a head band mounted LED flashlight (headlight) is great for working on deck. There is less reflection and it keeps both hands free to work and hang on for your life.

Which hours standing watch are your favorites, and which are the hardest?

I find that any hours after 12 straight on watch are the hardest. Seriously, I don’t mind any particular watch slot, but when I’m passaging on “Moonshadow,” as skipper, I always pick the last watch where I get to see the sun rise on the new day.

How do you make sure you get enough rest during the off-watch time,
especially if you have kids? (I could use some advice on that one, and I’m not even on a boat!)

At my advanced age, I can operate pretty well on five or six hours sleep per night. If I have at least two crew in addition to myself, I can usually get that if conditions aren’t too crazy. That said, I usually put my head down for an hour or two in the afternoon so that I’m fresh for the sundown social hour.

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