Four Hours Away From a Nap


Keep your crew’s awareness sharp by taking a disciplined approach to watchkeeping   (published August 2012)

We’ve all seen it: the excitement of departure has everyone awake the first night until midnight. But, as the biorhythms start to slow down for everyone in the wee hours of the night, people start nodding off. Awareness creeps lower. Sail changes aren’t executed with the same zeal. Everyone wants to go to sleep. Thoughts of a watch schedule are long overdue.

Of course, not every crew falls into the well-worn trap in which everyone gets tired at the same time. Most experienced crews develop a watch system long before they leave the dock. In order to determine which watch system is most appropriate, I review the kind of sailing I’m doing and the individuals involved. Will this trip be a cruise with friends, a delivery, a race with a full crew, or a shorthanded race? In any case, I want the watch to be alert, especially at night and when crossing areas with heavier than usual shipping or fishing traffic. Early planning combined with a disciplined approach to sleep can go a long way to avoiding mistakes and keeping crew in top form.

Watch systems are often a matter of personal preference. An open discussion about how to structure the watches is a good first step. Once decided by the skipper, however, the system should be adhered to. Modifications can be put in place if changes occur, such as extreme weather. Each watch should have a rough balance of talent, e.g. a primary helmsman, bowman, trimmer and navigator. Additional assistance may be required from the off-watch, but each watch should be moderately self-sufficient to minimize the number of times the off-watch is called into action when they should be resting.

While cruising or doing deliveries, I often favor a three-watch system of three hours on and six hours off. If additional assistance is needed for a sail change or other operation, the on-watch should call the crew that most recently went off watch. They are presumably the most familiar with the situation and may still be somewhat alert.

When racing long distances with a full crew, I usually prefer a two-watch system that stands four-hour watches at night and six-hour watches during the day. Watch changes take place at 0800, 1400, 2000, 0000 and 0004. That system, however, presents a potential problem when dealing with heavy weather situations. The oncoming watch is unfamiliar with how the boat is behaving in the extreme conditions, and they are immediately expected to come out of a deep sleep and drive the boat, sometimes on a dark, cloudy night. A modification to the two-watch system is to break each watch in half, and have a “half watch” report for watch halfway to the usual watch change (1100, 1700, 2200, 0200). Offsetting half of each watch allows the “newcomers” to acclimate to the conditions before driving or other critical tasks, while the people who have been up for half of the watch slip into active roles on deck.

Another way to minimize difficulty is to run a three-watch system for distance races, having an on-watch, a standby watch and an off-watch. If conditions are particularly difficult, the oncoming watch may be coming up from being on standby. They are supposed to be awake and ready to take over.

Occasionally I hear about watches that are essentially individual relays between paired crewmembers. When one bowman is tired, he makes sure his relief bowman is up and on the job. When that person gets tired, he gets his “other half” up to take over his responsibilities. I’m not terribly enthusiastic about this system. While it relies on a high degree of individual responsibility, often the watch captain loses track of who is supposed to be on deck and responsible for particular tasks. It can easily result in chaos.

It should be clear that everyone on board relies on the on-watch to safely run the boat. Lives depend on it. Meanwhile, the primary duty of the off-watch is to rest and be ready to go back on watch when it’s his or her turn. Situations may arise when questions need to be answered, or a little help will go a long way to avoiding more critical problems. In those situations, getting someone up from the off-watch should be done early. For example, if, during the night, another vessel is approaching and it’s difficult to tell whether or not they will pass ahead or astern, getting the knowledgeable opinion of an off-watch navigator, taking bearings on the approaching vessel, and discussing the situation early can help avoid problems and minimize confusion. Everyone benefits, and anxiety is minimized.

The objective is to maintain and maximize awareness. With smaller crews, this can be a bit of a juggling act if weather conditions degenerate or problems develop. While double-handing, each crew needs to be aware of not only his own physical condition, but that of the other crewmember. You depend on each other. It’s important that neither of you gets too exhausted to be useful in adverse conditions. There may be times when the one who has had a particularly difficult series of watches needs a little extra rest, and the rested crewmember should be observant enough to offer the help.

Overall, when the crew is rested there will be better attitude, fewer mistakes and more aggressive problem solving. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have a well-rested crew. Generally, the on-watch will wake the off-watch. He should do this in a timely manner—perhaps 15 or 20 minutes before the off-watch is due to become the on-watch. The time may be a bit longer if the weather is cold or conditions are extreme. If the on-watch not only awakens the next watch but also gets coffee or hot water ready, the whole process is sped along and the new watch has a chance to familiarize himself with the situation in a friendly rather than abrupt environment. A little politeness goes a long way in building teamwork and friendships.

Diet, exercise and training also help reduce dependence on sleep. Quite a few years ago, I completed a singlehanded transatlantic passage from Plymouth, England to Newport, RI. During the passage I ate a modified macrobiotic diet that essentially eliminated sugar, chocolate, coffee, dairy products, red meat and other foods that require a great deal of energy to digest or act as dietary stimulants. The result was that I required much less sleep than I normally needed. By starting the dietary regimen several weeks prior to that transatlantic crossing, my body was used to maintaining an even energy level, and if I needed to be especially aware or awake in a difficult situation, coffee was at hand.

The objective is to maintain an awareness of your surroundings the best that you can. For that reason, some people object to the very notion of singlehanded offshore sailing. To further help increase awareness, Claudio Stampi has introduced science to offshore sailing. Dr. Stampi is the founder of the Chronobiology Research Institute in Newton, MA, which conducts research on human alertness, performance, biological rhythms and sleep. The Institute also runs alertness and safety assurance programs to minimize human error, promote safety and enhance productivity in organizations involved with shift-work and round-the-clock operations. Dr. Stampi is also “the sleep doctor” to sailors like Ellen MacArthur, JP Mouligne and many others. Singlehanded sailors are encouraged and trained to efficiently check their surroundings approximately every 20 to 30 minutes, even during rest periods. This may not completely resolve the dilemma of a singlehanded sailor maintaining a proper watch, but it goes a long way toward that resolution.

In addition to doing a wide variety of sailing myself, I also help others in their pursuits. When routing vessels from shore, I remind shorthanded sailors to get extra sleep prior to approaching Georges Bank or other areas of heavy fishing or commercial traffic. Having a practical watch schedule that is adhered to and respects the needs of the off-watch should rank high on a list of offshore priorities. Being able to modify that schedule to suit a particular situation, however, can increase its utility.

Further modifications may also be necessary for people working outside of the watch system, such as navigators. I recently completed a transatlantic race, during which I was the navigator. The event was particularly competitive and had plenty of hurdles to be overcome—negotiating the Gulf Stream, racing into a North Atlantic storm, riding it as long as we could, and dealing with currents and low pressure systems around the northern tip of Scotland, to name a few. Wanting to stay on top of the evolving situation and collect all of the available incoming information, I slept one or two hours per day, occasionally a bit more. It was hardly enough for a protracted period of time. Had the race lasted much longer than 12 days, the probability of making mistakes would have only increased. Lack of sleep has the potential to turn a desire to be constantly aware into a disaster. Fortunately, I pushed myself to my limits but was not required to go beyond.

Sleep is a critical element in making safe and efficient decisions. Not only is a well-rested crew safer and more efficient, but it is generally happier and more congenial. There are a variety of watch systems, any of which can work in a particular situation. Make the time to rest. You’ll find that it’s not in conflict with your goals, but a way to help facilitate them.

Bill Biewenga is a navigator, delivery skipper and weather router. His websites are and He can be contacted at

Author: Bill Biewenga