Best Practices in Watch Keeping Procedures

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By: ChaseKeepingWatchDaria Blackwell

1: Follow the Vessel’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)

Most skippers have rules they adopt for their vessel on passage. Those rules tell you how often to make entries into the log (e.g., at least every hour and for every radio contact), under what circumstances to wake him/her (e.g., change of weather, sail change, gear issues, boat crossing issues), and safety precautions to take (e.g., STAY ON THE BOAT which means lifejacket and tether offshore, clipped in before entering cockpit, always someone else on deck if going forward). It might also include guidelines about when to run the engine or generator.  Ask questions if you are not clear. The most important thing for the skipper is to know they can trust that you will alert them if you are not certain of something.

2: Get Plenty of Rest

When off watch, make sure you rest even if you can’t sleep. Short naps just before will keep you alert longer while on watch. Get a minimum of 6 hours sleep if you can.

3: Wear the Right Gear

Wear layers for warmth and comfort, always bring foul weather gear with you, and always wear a life jacket and tether offshore. Clip in to a secure deck fitting before leaving the cockpit. Consider carrying a personal locator beacon.

4: Hydrate and Snack

If you are prone to seasickness, stay well hydrated and replenish your electrolytes, vitamins and minerals with supplements.  Eat light snacks to maintain alertness.

5: Check the Course and the Sail Trim

Our silent crewmembers, the autopilot and wind vane self-steering, are lifesavers for short-handed crew but they can on occasion be quite mischievous. With a wind vane set to a particular wind angle, you can be doing circles and never know it.  Autopilots can sometimes wander off course without any warning.  Check the compass every 30 minutes to make sure you are still on course. Adjust the sail trim accordingly if there is any change in course or wind direction and speed.  

6: Use Your Binoculars
Scan the horizon every 10-15 minutes.  Ships can move very quickly out there. Scan through a full 360 degree arc with binoculars. The horizon can be difficult to find on a dark night. If you can see stars, scan just below the lowest stars. Scanning with binoculars helps pick out objects in low light. Remember that collision avoidance is a primary objective of keeping watch. Note any approaching weather as well.  While you are at it, use the binoculars to check the rig and sails for wear or any problems.


7: Check Electronics
Check battery levels every half hour, and make sure that electronics are all functioning properly.  The international collisions regulations are clear that if a ship has radar, it must be used for collision avoidance. This applies to AIS today as well. After scanning the horizon, check the AIS and radar systems to see if there might be any ships you failed to identify visually.


8: Update the Ship’s Log 

Enter vital information in the ship’s log book at least once per watch. Once per hour can help you stay alert and note any issues before they become problematic. Enter time, course, speed, position (lat/lon), and weather conditions, as well as battery, water and fuel levels. Note any sail changes and ships spotted. Log all radio contacts.  Check and note water temperature and oil pressure if the engine is running.


9: Put on the Kettle 

Just before you wake the next watch keeper, put on the kettle for that all important hot mug of tea, coffee or soup. Some people avoid caffeine so they can sleep better while off watch, but everyone likes something warm especially during the night.

10: Give a Thorough Briefing

The most important part of passing the baton is to provide a thorough briefing. What did you see, what did you change/adjust, what should the next person pay particularly attention to. Were there any vessels or fishing gear, and where are they now. Has there been a change in wind or sea state?  Did you hear any radio contacts? Did you see any wildlife? Keep it simple and easy to remember.

Daria and Alex Blackwell are the authors of “Happy Hooking – The Art of Anchoring.” It covers every aspect of anchors and anchoring in a fun and easy to read format with lots of photos and illustrations. It is available from good chandleries, Amazon & CoastalBoating.net

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