24×7 Rhythm: Watchkeeping


One of the things we learned from our trip to Alaska is that 24×7 operation with a double-handed crew is achievable for us, and with reasonable comfort. We arrived at the end of the run feeling alert and well-rested. In planning for the trip, we researched aspects of running a boat 24×7, ranging from watchkeeping to food preparation. Most of the literature is written by and for sailboaters who were crossing oceans. Although much did apply in our case we, found that some of the concerns, such as watch comfort, were less of a concern for us because our helm is inside at the pilothouse where conditions are comfortable, warm and dry.

For watchkeeping, we wanted a system that would allow someone awake and at the helm at all times. Although the ocean is lightly-enough populated that some cruisers, notably single-handers, sleep for short periods and leave the boat to run on its own, we don’t view that as sufficiently safe. Our decision is to have someone at the helm all the time.

In The Voyager’s Handbook, Beth Leonard interviewed 13 cruising couples on their watchkeeping practices. Many started off with a 2-hour shift schedule for the entire 24-hour period, but as they gained experience, most evolved to scheduled watches of 4 or more hours overnight and no strict schedule during the day, so long as someone always was on watch. The Dashews use a three-hour system, while the Flanders use a four-hour schedule. Both have informal watches during daylight. The sleeping habits of the crew also can influence the schedule. For example, some people can get sufficient sleep in 2-hour chunks over a 24-hour period, where others need to sleep for longer periods at a stretch to feel sufficiently rested.

We initially planned to do 3 4-hour night watches and informal day watches, using the Flanders’ model, with James taking the first watch at 8pm. In practice, we ended up doing the opposite. It turned out that I could sleep pretty much anytime, day or night, whereas James had difficulty sleeping during the day. After a couple of days, we evolved to a schedule where we’d run a formal night watch schedule of 3 4-hour shifts between 8pm and 8am. I took the first and last shifts, and James took the helm from midnight to 4am. After I came off-shift at 8am we’d have breakfast together, then I slept for 2-3 hours, we’d have lunch together, I’d sleep for another 2-3 hours, and we’d have dinner together before starting formal night watch shifts. We kept this same schedule on the way back down, and likely will adopt it on future trips.

We also were concerned about someone drifting off when on watch. To avoid this, we used our autopilot watch alarm set on a 5-minute interval. It sounds a beep whenever the control panel isn’t touch for 5 minutes. We also purchased a backup alarm, but in practice didn’t need it.

James found the graveyard shift, from midnight to 4am, a little tiring. Spitfire, however, loved it. In foggy conditions, we turned on a large floodlight mounted high on the stack. Our experience with fishing boats is that the spotlight is visible from much greater distances in the fog than the navigation lights. Particularly when the floodlight was on, seabirds buzzed the boat and Spitfire charged back and forth along the dash top chasing them. Both James and Spitfire were ready to sleep by the time 4am rolled around. Pictured below is the graveyard shift crew, sleeping off watch.


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2 comments on “24×7 Rhythm: Watchkeeping
  1. Good question Weldon and we spent some time coming up with a solution we liked. This is where we ended up and its working out very well: //blog.mvdirona.com/2010/05/03/NightrunningMonitorCovers.aspx

    James Hamilton

  2. Weldon Burton says:


    When you were operating at night how did you "dim" your monitors to preserve your night vision?


    Weldon Burton

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