Night Boating

Before setting sail on a passage which will involve sailing in the dark, thought should be given to how the dark will make the trip different to a voyage completed in daylight only.

Depending on the experience and ability of the skipper and crew a different safety briefing may be needed and the "rules" on board, for example when lifejackets and safety harnesses are a must, may need to be altered.

Night vision

A key consideration to maximise safety in the hours of darkness is night vision. It takes our eyes in the region of 10 - 15 minutes to adjust to their best level of performance in the dark but just a brief exposure to white light will re-set the adjustment your eyes have made. Therefore for any vessel which could be out during the hours of darkness, fitting a red light at the chart table (as a minimum) should be considered. Some vessels have red lights in every cabin, the galley and the heads to ensure that night vision is not compromised throughout the hours of darkness.

Caution must be exercised with white light on deck as well. If you look up from the job you are lighting with your head torch, to face someone and speak to them, the light will shine straight in their face. If this is white light, their eyes will have to start from scratch adjusting to the dark. Switching on deck lights should be avoided and torches / head torches should be red light wherever possible.

As well as briefing their crew on night vision and the danger of exposing your eyes – or those of the crew “on watch” - to white light, skippers should also be aware and brief the crew on the detrimental effect that glasses with photochromic lenses can have on night vision. Photochromic lenses reduce night vision significantly and to such an extent that the MCA issued MGN 357 stating that “they should not be worn for lookout duties at night”. 

Watch systems

In general when a vessel is at sea overnight, a watch system should be set up, to ensure that someone is nominated for the helm and an adequate look out is kept, whilst still allowing all of the crew have sufficient rest. For vessels undertaking longer passages, watch systems cover more than just who is at the helm. They should include keeping the log, making the dinner, washing the dishes, daily checks and maintenance i.e. a system which manages the running of the boat.

Where there is sufficient crew, such as on commercial ships the crew may be split into three groups each taking four hours on watch followed by 8 hours off some of which they may be standby or maintenance duties. On smaller vessels there is unlikely to be sufficient crew to allow such luxury.

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. Even if the skipper is technically “off watch” the crew should be encouraged to wake the skipper whenever they feel the need and the skipper should ensure that the crew are clear about any circumstance to which they wish to be alerted. Again, these will reflect the experience level of the crew but examples might be if a ship is sighted or a change in the sail plan is required. An inexperienced crew may benefit from these being written down as “standing orders” to prevent them from being forgotten.

Watch rota

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.  

Consideration when drawing up a watch rota should be given to ensuring that the crew will have blocks of sleep of sufficient duration and whether loan watches are 1. necessary and 2. safe, bearing in mind the experience and welfare of the crew members on board. Different watch systems may need to be adopted for different voyages, to suit the people on board.  

It could be as simple as 2 watches alternating with 4 hours on and 4 hours off (although this can become monotonous if it is continued for too long, and you will tend to spend every off watch moment in your bunk).

2 watches: 4 hours on 4 hours off

Watch rota

Suitable for: short passages of 1 or 2 days
Advantages: simple to follow
Disadvantages: can become monotonous and will result in sleep deprivation for many people

Other systems may change the times you are on watch each day or the people you are on watch with.

2 watches: 3 hours on, 3 hours off at night and 4 hours on 4 off by day

Watch rota

Suitable for: short passages of 1 or 2 days popular when sailing with just two people on board
Advantages: simple to follow
Disadvantages: will result in sleep deprivation for many people

Most people will only cope with systems like these for a short period and after three or four days their body will be functioning significantly below par. For voyages lasting more than a couple of days many people will need to be given the opportunity for a longer block of sleep each day to allow the body to regenerate. A daily off-watch period of at least 6 hrs should therefore be considered to help people maintain their regular sleep pattern and keep the body functioning properly. With sufficient people on board it may be possible to adopt 4 hour watches at night and 6 hours during the day.  

2 watches: 4 hours on 4 hours off at night and 6 hours on 6 hours off during the day

Watch rota

Suitable for: voyages where there are at least two people on each watch
Advantages: simple to follow and changes the times you are on watch each day
Disadvantages: not particularly sociable

If however you have children on board who are sleeping at night and up in the day time, it may be better for the adults to get longer spells of sleep at night when the children are asleep and not requiring attention.

In colder conditions, it is important that people do not stay on deck for too long - which in extreme conditions may be minutes rather than hours. The cold can necessitate a different approach to watch patterns which, together with the attention span often being reduced at night, is why there is a tendency to have shorter watches during the small hours.

Watch rotas do not need to be limited to two watches, if the crew is sufficient in number and or sufficiently experienced. With three adults capable of lone watches, could work 3 hours on 6 hours off.

2 watches: 3 hours on watch and 6 hours off watch 

Watch rota

Suitable for: voyages where there are at least three adults capable of loan watches
Advantages: simple to follow and changes the times you are on watch each day
Disadvantages: not particularly sociable

A standby category may be added to this to ensure the person on watch has an extra pair of hands to call on when required such as for changes in sail plan.

2 watches: 3 hours on watch and 6 hours off watch with standby

Watch rota

Suitable for: voyages where there are at least three adults capable of loan watches
Advantages: simple to follow and changes the times you are on watch each day
Disadvantages: the standby element can improve the social element, but at the same time can reduce the quality of sleep

With this arrangement, the right balance needs to be found between what the person on watch can do on their own and when they need to wake the off watch to maximise sleep in good conditions, ensuring the “batteries” are fully charged in case of bad weather.

With 4 or more adults a rolling watch system with two people on watch at all times and a person changing every two hours may be worth considering. The more people there are, the greater the time off watch becomes, but there is a danger that sleep is disturbed by the constant changeovers. This type of system is however easy to adjust if someone is sick and needs time out of the watches.

4 or more watches: 4 hours on watch with 2 hourly changes

Watch rota

Suitable for: larger crews on short passages of 1 or 2 days
Advantages: sociable
Disadvantages: the off watch is limited to 4 hours at a time which may be disturbed by crew changes

Having two people on watch will generally mean that whilst on watch they can cover all aspects of running the boat such as navigating, weather, cooking, cleaning, (childcare) and off watch time really is off watch and equals rest. Times should be set for dinner to be cooked / ready, the navigation lights to be turned on, the dishes to get washed etc. The less experienced the crew, the more formalised the duties are likely to need to be.

On longer voyages a “mother watch” may be utilised, to allocate “household duties” such as cooking, cleaning, washing-up etc. This is simply a slot where two watches are on duty at the same time, but for different reasons. As well as being practical it can make life on board more sociable.

A mother watch is also useful to enable preparation if heavy weather is anticipated, when having meals pre-prepared, ensures the minimal amount of time must be spent working in the galley and reduces the likelihood of having to just eat what can be grabbed easily.  

3 watches incorporating a mother watch (indicated in red)

Watch rota

Suitable for: any voyage when there is sufficient crew
Advantages: keeps the boat ship shape and offers each watch a longer off-watch
Disadvantages: may not be as easy for the crew to follow

The options are endless, however it is advisable to keep the pattern simple. If there is a watch system in place it needs to be enforced, but the skipper needs to be prepared to modify the system if circumstances dictate. 

In all but the most basic systems people will not be on watch at the same time each day and the number of hours on and off will change depending on the time of day. Ensuring it is easy to work out who should be on watch or off watch is a good step towards ensuring a smooth running and harmonious ship.