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Which Watch System is Best for your Yacht, Crew and Voyage.

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

Many sailors will rarely do more than short day-sails throughout their sailing career. And that’s fine. For the more adventurous, the idea of longer voyages soon becomes appealing. In fact, many students consider their night sailing to be the highlight of their course.

Even then, many night sails don’t require a watch system. But if your voyage is going to be over 18 hours or more, it’s worth putting in place some sort of watch system, especially if conditions are challenging. This helps keep people safe from exposure on deck and allows for equal rest for all, even if that isn’t always sleep.

For longer voyages and ocean crossings, a more formal watch system will be useful.

A strict timetable removes the chances of resentment if one crew member feels they are not getting equal opportunity to rest. And on longer voyages with disparate characters, an experienced skipper will do all they can to limit the opportunity for inter-crew friction.

I have used a variety of watch systems and I have preferences. In this video, I’ll talk you through a few of them and explain which ones I prefer and why.

First Principles

First, it’s worth noting a few things.

As seafarers, we are required by law to maintain a proper and effective watch using all means available to us. This means that as well as having at least one human on watch, we should use all other means necessary to aid that human. This might include radar, VHF, AIS, electronic and paper charts, the mk 1 eyeball and the enhancement of it through use of binoculars and even a powerful lamp.

Many yacht deliveries operate on the basis of one skipper, one relatively experienced crew member and one other. I would consider this to be the minimum safe manning level, and it allows for the incapacitation of the skipper or second in command in a worst case scenario. However, this configuration means that only one person will be on deck at any one time whilst the other two crew are sleeping.

As a general rule I always much prefer to have at least two people on deck at any one time. On larger yachts or when racing this might be three or more.

Second, it is important that the crew are sufficiently competent to stand watch without either constantly waking their colleagues or alternatively, not waking their colleagues early enough because they do not recognise potential dangers. This means that all crew standing watch must understand the IRPCS (or COL REGS) and also be able to either hold a course, trim sails, understand how to use the navigational aids on board and also be fully briefed by the skipper with regard to the skipper’s standing orders.

And third, it is useful to allow for unknown situations that might arise like illness, injury or sea sickness amongst the crew. As with everything else, the more redundancy you can build in the better, within reason.

Crew Selection

When selecting crew, the skipper will have several things to consider. Dependent on the nature of the voyage, the order of priority might change, so in no particular order, I list them as follows;

  1. Personality Type & Character

  2. Sex

  3. Age & Health

  4. Nationality, languages spoken & Visas

  5. Fitness

  6. Susceptibility to sea sickness

  7. Transferable Skills

  8. Personal dietary preferences & limitations

  9. Sailing & navigational skills

  10. Qualifications & References

Before most voyages there will be an element of preparation and this is a great opportunity to observe how your crew work together and perhaps even identify potential friction between crew or work-shy elements.


It’s a good idea to have all the crew meet beforehand and participate in all the preparation whenever possible. It’s also useful for everyone to help with storing supplies and time spent here will save a lot of aggravation later as if only one or two people packed away the food, don’t be surprised if you are woken on every off watch by someone looking for the sweet Chilli Sauce!

If possible, maybe have a crew meal together a couple of days before you leave. Of course, this might be practical for an Ocean Crossing but not for a weekend sail to France and back.

Crew Jobs

Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them, where they may stow their own kit, where everything else on board is stowed and set out the rules and the jobs necessary for the running of the boat. On larger crews, I might have a rota for jobs like engineer, bosun, cook, cleaner, etc. This would change daily, probably on the breakfast watch change. In such circumstances, the new engineer, cook and cleaner would know to prepare breakfast, do engine checks and clean the heads before breakfast watch change.

They would usually have a counterpart on the opposite watch ready to share those duties by perhaps washing up afterwards or doing generator checks before the evening meal.

On smaller boats the skipper might be engineer whilst the role of cleaner and cook rotates between the crew. Having a cleaner and cook on each watch is a good idea, if you want to eat on time and maintain clean heads and common areas.

I keep the jobs of cleaner and cook separate and I always keep the cleaner and the cleaning utensils out of the galley to avoid cross contamination.

Watch Systems

Most watch systems are based around meal times. This makes sense as the on-watch is too busy being on-watch and the off-watch want to rest. Therefore, except for very small crews, most larger watches revolve around breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In a warm, temperate climate, especially during the day, a long watch is very manageable. However, night watches can drag and be very tiring, especially when it’s cold or wet.

If you are on passage, boat time or local time might need to be adjusted by an hour every few days, as you sail either East or West. It’s worth remembering to make these time changes on alternate watches, otherwise, one watch will start to feel hard done by if they are always the ones losing an hour’s sleep!

Most navigators navigate using UT and have a LT (Local Time) next to it in the log, for watches and possibly for other periodic duties such as engine and generator checks, cleaning, meal times, etc.

Option 1 (4-ON-4-OFF)

The simplest of all watches, this will have two watches rotating every 4 hours. The first day watch is usually breakfast at say 0600 HRS LT. Lunchtime will then be at 1200 hrs and an evening meal at say 2000 HRS.

This is a simple system, but it has drawbacks. For a start, it only allows for short off watches, meaning crew have less than 4 hours to wash, eat and sleep. I say less than 4 hours because it’s usual for the oncoming watch to have eaten (if it’s a mealtime) and they should be on deck, appropriately dressed for the conditions, at least 10 minutes before watch change. This allows for a proper briefing of the new watch by the off going watch and allows for eyes to acclimate to the dark.

Meals are also no equally spaced throughout the day.

Option 2 (6 - 6 - 4 - 4 - 4)

This watch system has several advantages over the 4 - ON - 4 - OFF system. For a start, it allows the off watch to sleep for longer at least once every 24 hours. This is particularly useful if you have had rough weather, as it allows crew to catch up with sleep.

I usually have the long watches during the day when workload might be less and the temperatures are more comfortable. However, in the tropics, having the longer off-watches at night might be preferred by the crew as trying to sleep below deck in 36C+ during the day might be impossible.

Meals split nicely at 0600 HRS, 12 NOON and 1800 HRS.

Another great benefit of the 6 - 6 - 4 - 4 - 4 is that the watches are not symmetrical, meaning that each watch shares the extra watch on alternate nights and each watch gets to see the sun rise or fall every 48 hours.

Option 3 (5 - 2 - 5 - 4 - 4 - 4)

A variation on Option 2, this has each watch doing a slightly longer off watch once a day but there is an overlap watch over lunchtime where both watch are up and active. This is great for keeping the watches socialised. It is amazing how tribal we are as creatures and it’s easy, especially if morale is low during or after heavy weather, for watches to build resentment over silly things. Having a couple of hours over lunchtime for watches to chart and socialise helps keep the boat happy.

Some skippers will actually call this period ‘happy hour’ and whilst each watch may or may not eat together, they will sit together on deck or below for a while. This is also a great time for the skipper to update the crew on progress and to issue new orders or notices. For example, the forward heads is blocked and I need a volunteer to fix it!’

It’s also a great time for the skipper to raise issues that might have been brought to him by other crew. This helps to nip in the bud simmering issues that might otherwise blow up into a near-mutiny later!


Some skippers, especially with small crews, might be more relaxed about watches and allow crew to sleep when they are tired and make their own food. Whilst this can work, it’s worth noting a few serious drawbacks to this way of doing things.

  1. Everyone, especially at the beginning of a voyage and during bad weather, will become tired and cold at the exact same time. Obviously, someone needs to stay on watch and whoever does will already be tired before they start!

  2. Eating as a group is a great way of building a cohesive team. It is a distinctly social human practice and you avoid it at your peril

  3. If you allow everyone to snack, how do you know who is eating, who is not and what food you have consumed and/or have left?

  4. On larger crews, this sort of policy can become chaotic. I always have a roll call at every watch change. If you don’t do this, how do you know if you are all there? Especially if the watch is large, it’s dark and cold and everyone wants to get to their bunk?

Of course, these are just 4 options. There are many others. Personally, I feel options 1 and 2 are best, especially for larger crew. For very large crew (say 18 or more) it might be worth considering a 3 watch system. This allows for off watch crew to sleep for 8 hours at a time but it can mean that crew have to change bunks every watch. This is not always popular.

In an ideal world, the skipper will be outside of the watch system. This allows him to sleep when he doesn’t expect to be needed and to be available or on deck when conditions are more challenging. It also allows for him to rest after working for extended periods of time, due to poor weather or mechanical breakdown.

On commercial vessels, there is a legal requirement for the skipper and crew to monitor and log their hours of rest.

Whichever watch system you choose, make sure to mix the crew between each watch allowing for a spread of skills, fitness & strength, susceptibility to sea sickness and social compatibility. Make sure that all of your crew know what is expected of them and be sure to enforce any infractions quickly and without favour.

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