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Further reading:

Overnighting on your boat

The Overnight Guest

Keeping a Watch Schedule


Keeping a watch schedule

Tips for transiting overnight to get farther afield.

As night falls, the magic takes effect.

Few of us, we hope, would be underway without having someone on watch on deck at all times.  Yet, we’ve heard many stories where someone set their gps for a seemingly uncomplicated route and went below for whatever reason and ran into something unexpected.  For good reason, one of the international rules of the road states that you must keep a watch at all times when underway.  Especially in coastal waters, there are countless hazards from rocks and shoals to ships transiting at all times of day and night. It is imperative to keep a close watch for hazards without fail.

This is not much of an issue when you are sailing with a full crew.  It can become an issue when sailing short- or single-handed.  In fact, the Irish Coast Guard picked up a solo sailor who was sailing in Irish waters for not keeping an adequate watch – he was asleep during a segment of offshore passage.  Other country’s coast guards have voiced similar concerns about solo sailors taking breaks to sleep in their waters. 

We often sail short-handed with just the two of us to share watch duties.  If we are just day tripping, that is not much of an issue.  Whoever is at the helm, has the watch.  Anyone else on deck is responsible as backup.

Transiting at night, which we often do to travel longer distances and thus extend our cruising territory, changes everything.  Being out there at night is magical, but everything looks different than it does during the day, so even familiar territory can be disorienting.  It is imperative to have experienced deck hands on watch who can discern the difference between a lighthouse and a moving vessel. Being offshore is actually easier than transiting via an inland route. There are fewer things to run into offshore.

Alex and I have made numerous night passages and feel comfortable with each other’s capabilities.  We prefer a three hours on, three hours off schedule.  We find that gives us a long enough stretch to sleep and a brief enough turn at the helm to stay alert.  We either flip a coin for first watch or give it to the person most rested at the outset because they will get the graveyard shift, which can be the toughest segment.  Our typical watch schedule can be as follows: 

  • Arrive at vessel at 6 pm and get underway immediately.  Alex takes first watch at 6 pm and holds it until 9 pm .  Daria stows gear and makes dinner.  Both take turns to eat while underway, alternating watch duties with feeding.
  • Daria takes second watch from 9-12 pm .  Alex goes right to bed.  If luck is with them, Daria will have the sunset display to ogle.  At 11:45 , Daria turns on the kettle for tea and wakes Alex. 
  • Alex get’s up and makes tea and dresses for night watch.  His watch extends from midnight to 3 am .  This is often the toughest time.  It is the only watch in the summer that is totally in darkness.  The watch before has sunset and the watch after has sunrise so there is diversion.  The watch at midnight has little diversion except when the moon is full and bright or interesting in some other way.  Once it rose shortly after midnight appearing like a burning ship on the horizon.  If there is a new moon or solid cloud cover, the night transit will be one of trepidation, with constant interpretation of visual cues and matching against charts because nothing will look like what it should.  You will have only the lights on shore and ATONs to work with, and they can be a puzzle to make out.   Radar can be helpful in picking up beacons as corroboration of position.  Finally, the watch is over!
  • Alex turns on the kettle and wakes Daria at 2:45 .  She dresses and makes coffee for her shift.  This is usually the most exciting watch because you get to see the sun wake up and everything along with it. It’s the most quiet and peaceful of the watches.   It’s when the earth changes from two-dimensional black and white to multi-dimensional Technicolor.  Everything comes to life and transforms before your very eyes.  Your demeanor goes from watchful borderline fear of the darkness to joyous embracing of the light.
  • Alex takes the 6 am watch and usually at this point, Daria will make breakfast for them both.  After eating, Daria goes to sleep and Alex continues on watch.  This watch tends to go until 10 am which gives Daria a full three hours of sleep after breakfast. 
  • Subsequent watches are shared during the day, with primary responsibilities continuing in three-to-six hour increments, depending on the day’s duties. 
This one is not too bad to make out although there are some confusiong elements. With the all around white light at the masthead it's clearly a sailboat. The white stern light and red bow light indicate it is moving away from us. The red light in the cockpit is probably an instrument light. However, it is clearly under power and should have a steaming light on but it does not.

One of the most important aspects of the change in watch is a complete briefing on deck from the person going off watch.  They review everything that happened on their watch and brief the person coming onto watch as to the exact chart position, visual identification of visible lights and marks, and position of any vessels that are being tracked.  Included in this briefing is always any observation of weather anomalies, radio transmissions, and boat performance.

To this point, we make it a policy to note position at least every half hour while underway.  Our logbook will contain lat-long coordinates, visual sightings of lights and marks, communications, and vessels encountered.  Position is noted on a paper chart as backup.  That way, should the electronics fail, we will have enough information to continue safely under dead reckoning.

The other really important thing that allows us to sleep is that we have rules to which we adhere while underway short handed especially at night.  First, no one goes on deck without a life jacket.  No one leaves the cockpit without a harness with tether clipped in.  And no one does any foredeck work like changing sails or fixing something broken without waking the backup.  Period.  And if there is any question about weather, something possibly amiss, or anything else, we wake the other up. Period.

When crew join us, we make it clear that we’ll sleep better if we know that someone will wake us up at the first sign of trouble or any confusion.  We don’t want bravery, we want smarts.  We know the boat, most crew members don’t.  We have found that if someone has the intuition to know something may be going wrong, it usually is but can be prevented or corrected or caught early.  We’d rather lose sleep than anything else!

Usually having two more people doesn’t make that much difference because we still tend to pair them with one of us so the schedule does not change.  The optimal situation is to have six total crew.  That way, each pairing gets three-hour watches and a full six hours’ sleep.  Six hours makes a big difference if you are going for longer than 24-36 hours.  You get fairly rested in 6 hour increments and you don’t get overtaxed with 3 hour watches.  The question is does the third team know enough to keep us all out of trouble. And that question is never answered until the shift is over.

Although beyond the scope of this article, some things to keep in mind include:

  • If you are not confident of your skills, do not attempt it without having an experienced hand along.
  • Learn to recognize navigation lights. The specific combinations tell you alot about who's out there and what they are doing. Keep a nav light guide handy like the laminated cards most marine stores carry.
  • Monitor channel 16 on the VHF to hear important safety messages issued by the coast guard, as well as distress calls, and calls from passing ships. It's the law.
  • If you have radar on board and it is in working order, you are required by law to use it for collision avoidance.
  • If you see a ship and cannot make out it's intentions, hail them on channel 16 or 13 if it's a commercial vessel. Ask them what their intentions are and negotiate an aggred upon passage.
  • Keep a flashlight on deck to light up your boat and make it more visible to a passing ship (just realize it will impair your night vision for a period of time). I like to shine our search light on the sails to get people's attention.

Thanks for listening and have a great passage!

So what's the story here? Two boats passing each other bow to bow with improper lights on each?

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