The Triton


Crew do stand watch onboard


When it comes to standing watch, yacht crew know what to do, despite what some old-time sailors think.

This month’s survey idea come in from a business person — a long-time sailor — who seriously doubted if “crew today” knew how to stand watch, what tasks to complete without a checklist or how to handle problems without the captain.

(Also read crew comments to this survey here.) 

Turns out, that person was wrong, at least according to the 156 captains and crew who took our survey this month.
“Crew on watch are the front line of defense to ensure the safety of the other crew and the vessel,” said the purser on a yacht larger than 220 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Our crew are valuable watch standers. I’m offended that a business person would have any say — or even have a clue — about what the demands on crew are like in our industry today.”


We must preface these results with the caveat that we asked in general about “standing watch” and did not distinguish between the types of watch or the sea or weather conditions surrounding a watch. Many respondents found it challenging to provide one answer to our questions, noting that it could and would depend on where the yacht is, under what weather conditions, if there are guests aboard, and how many crew are on the vessel.


So in an effort to avoid getting too many “it depends” responses, we tried to ask broad questions, starting with the basic When do you stand watch?
We enabled respondents to choose any or all of the circumstances that would require them to stand watch. All but seven (96.9 percent) said they stand watch while under way. Those who don’t are a mix, including two captains, one first officer, three chief stews and a chef. (Though they did not check this answer, all three licensed crew noted that all crew are involved in all watches so perhaps they just didn’t check the corresponding boxes. One of the captains, in yachting more than 25 years and on a vessel 80-100 feet, replied that he/she does not stand any watches.)


“Watchkeeping does not take on different definitions, but does take on different levels of concern,” said a captain in yachting more than 10 years on a yacht 100-120 feet. “A vessel is not likely to be struck by a freighter doing 20 knots while on the dock but can be struck by another vessel docking. Watchkeeping is not changeable in terms of responsibilities but is adaptable to the circumstance and dangers.
“There is a specific difference between the three types of watches, and each one carries specific responsibilities,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet.


The next largest group (67.5 percent) stand watch while at anchor, followed by 41.7 percent who stand watch while at the dock. About 20 percent stand watch when the yacht is on the hard.
“Standing watch” doesn’t always mean standing and watching, so we asked What do you do on watch?


The tasks may seem obvious on first glance, and indeed most respondents stated the obvious duties of navigating (and watching out for flotsam), monitoring the weather, monitoring the radio and radar, checking the engine room and monitoring gauges, and keeping the log.


But captains and crew do much more than that.
“Review the pass-down log, review present weather instruments, review forecasting weather data, consult with off-going watch as to changes in ship’s course, weather, mechanical equipment status and performance, ship traffic, and any observations,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Check all engine gauges, radar, GPS position, ship’s course and speed, any upcoming course changes, check for closest point of approach to land, observe closest harbors if needed for emergency refuge, maintain proper lookout at all times.”


“Under way, it is indeed standing and watching and, of course, monitoring the route and taking care of traffic,” said the first officer of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “At anchor, it means being on the bridge and checking that the vessel doesn’t go adrift. At the dock, it means responding to alarms and checking the lines, fenders and gangway regularly.”


“Standing watch is taking responsibility for navigational concerns such as position, weather, current, stationary, dockage, basically all matters that can put vessel, passengers or crew in danger,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet.
“When under way, duties will vary based on proximity to land, but include navigating, log books, etc.,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “When at the dock, which is referred to as ‘on watch’, it is typically 8 a.m.-8 p.m., flag duties, phone, passarail/boarding ladder, paperwork, etc.”


“Under way, you have two crew working, one at the helm doing hourly log entries and fix on the chart, the other doing hourly walk-arounds and engine room checks,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet. “At the dock a crewman has specified duties/responsibilities outlined in a crew manual. While on anchor, in situations that dictate, a crewman is in the bridge monitoring the vessel’s position, weather conditions, etc.”
Other respondents were much more vague, though equally thorough.


“Maintain an awareness of the safety and security of the vessel at all times during your watch,” said a captain in yachting more than 15 years.


“Always being aware of smells, sounds, feelings aboard,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years.
“Being awake and alert, able to respond to emergency situations,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years.
Beyond the obvious safety and security duties, captains and crew perform a variety of tasks while on watch, including making sure doors are locked/unlocked as required, lights are on/off as required, the flag is up/down as appropriate, the refrigerator is stocked and dishwasher emptied, the freshwater tank is full, the trash has been emptied and the crew mess is tidy.


Several captains also have extra chores for their crew on watch.
“As necessary, depending on the watch, but I always make sure that whoever is on watch has more than enough to keep them busy,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet. “On a steaming watch it includes log books, planning, paper charts and dead reckoning.”
“You watch where the boat is going and watch for objects floating ahead,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “You watch for traffic ahead, port and starboard, and astern. You alert the captain if anything is not clear to you. You will not leave your post for even one second. You will not watch videos on your phone. You will not read, even at sea out of sight of land. If you need to read, watch the radar. You will watch the radar. You will not leave your post to pee, even over the side.”


Not every yacht has watch standers all the time.
“On our vessel, standing watch is considered when we are under way at night,” said the first mate on a yacht of 80-100 feet. “That means on watch of any traffic on the radar and keeping to our course. On our vessel, the captain and owner see no need to do anchor watch, dock watch, etc.”
A few were honest enough to note that, once their long list of responsibilities were fulfilled, they did take time to do some personal things.
“At least hourly, walk around deck to inspect boarding area, lines, fenders, water around the boat (oil or diesel sheen, sewage), checking the surroundings for odd sights or sounds (security), checking all camera views; staying aware of weather and tide; often responsible for cleaning the crew mess or emptying the dishwasher and taking out the trash; at least one check during the evening of the entire interior including guest areas and the engineering spaces; ensign down and outside lights on at sunset; making sure vessel is locked or secured at the designated time per the standing orders or captain,” said the first officer of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 15 years.


“In between these duties is time to watch a movie, read my book, work on my computer, paint my toenails, whatever, as long as I can hear and see what is going on in general.”
“Check your cog, sog, radar, sea conditions, weather, radio, engine monitors, engine room check, then relax in between with a book, TV, movie, conversation, etc.,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet.
“Watch the radar, identify targets, scan the horizon, play/use the night vision equipment, maintain log, engine room checks, daydream, read/write,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet.


When not under way, the task list is less severe.
“At anchor or dock, we can do chart corrections, accounts, business for itinerary planning, etc.,” said the captain of a yacht 200-22 feet.
“Listen to music, talk to the other person on watch with me,” said the chief stew on a yacht 100-120 feet.
And there was one respondent who perhaps believes what our old-time sailor does when it comes to duties of a watch stander.
“Put up the flag, turn on lights, clean crew mess, take out trash, vacuum crew mess, clean up after everyone’s stink for a day, stay on the boat, check fenders, or you could do what most do: sleep and watch TV and do none of the duties but the flag and lock the doors,” said a chef in yachting more than 10 years who only stands watch at the dock.


At a minimum, our respondents said watch standers should be a lookout, maintain position and control, follow standing orders and alert the captain when in doubt. A few noted that there are no minimum duties, just standing orders and industry regulations, and referred back to their complete list of duties in the previous question.
“The bare minimum of a less experienced watch stander is a good feel for when they should ask for help and be able to intelligently answer a radio call,” said a captain of more than 30 years. “We wouldn’t expect some watch standers to solve many alarms or unusual situations, and we shouldn’t expect them to stand watch when there isn’t someone awake and close by to help them.”


“Know the rules of the road, know when to call the captain, have basic understanding of the bridge electronics, be responsible and alert, have common sense,” said the captain on a yacht 200-220 feet.
More than a few suggested that at a minimum, watch standers stay awake and keep their watch partners awake.


Our objective with this next question was to see if the interior staff are trained to handle all the navigation, safety and security issue the same as the deck and engineering crew, or if there were exceptions for unlicensed crew. So we asked Do all crew stand watches, including the chef and interior staff?


In general, 57.8 percent of respondents said all crew participate in watches.
“All members of the crew, including non-deck, must be trained in STCW-95 basic safety training, which includes watch standing,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “There is shared responsibility when at dock or anchor. When under way, watches are manned by deck crew.”


“I have always implemented a split watch,” said a captain in yachting more than 10 years. “There is a watch leader rotating every four hours, and on the split of their watch the lookout person also run four-hour shifts. So 12-4, 4-8, 8-12 for watch; 2-6, 6-10, 10-2 for lookout, which is junior or interior crew.”
“Watch keeping duties are part of the employment agreement,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet.
“Everyone stands watch on the dock/on the hard; only deck personnel stand watch under way and at anchor,” said the first officer of a yacht 160-180 feet.


Just 10.6 percent of respondents said only deck crew stand watch.
“Watch standing at all times are essential duties for all deck crew, and possibly others as needed,” said a captain of more than 30 years.


That left slightly less than a third who indicated that not all but most crew stand watch.
“Watch leaders are licensed deck officers; other crew form secondary part of watch team,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet.
“Only those I feel are experienced enough to do the job,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years.
“When applicable, cross-train all crew members in all departments,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet.
What was most interesting, however, were the comments respondents had the option to leave on this question. When we gave the choice of “most, but not all” we meant stews and chefs. We didn’t expect captains to be excluded, as they were by two respondents.

Do deck crew have different responsibilities on watch than interior crew?
Almost 60 percent said they do.
Interestingly, the results were exactly the same when we asked Should they?

We were curious to know Are junior crew given a checklist to follow while on watch?
Most — about 70 percent — said the the junior crew on their vessels get a checklist, and most of those are made part of the yacht’s official log.
“Crew need to be trained to stand on watch, and learn what to watch for,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Newbies should have a checklist. Anyone on my boat is trained to function in the highest capacity, especially on watch.”
“Overlap watches with junior crew so they are never alone on watch, especially at night,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet. “I emphasize to never hesitate to wake me if they have any questions.”
“Junior crew are supervised until they are of a standard that they can do it safely alone,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 25 years.


The remaining 30 percent said junior crew are not given a checklist, but they have been trained what to do.
“If you use a checklist, it provides focused items that could cause oversight of what’s not listed,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years.
Many respondents noted that our “checklist” is really the standing orders for the vessel, and that all crew are expected to follow them.
“Watchkeeper responsibilities and standing orders apply to all,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet. “The second person on watch is normally there to learn. There’s always two on a steaming watch.”
“There are very specific standing orders for all watch standers to follow,” said the first officer on a yacht 160-180 feet.
Do all crew know how to handle various alarms?
Nearly two-thirds of our respondents — 62.6 percent — indicated that all crew can identify various alarms and are instructed to alert the appropriate department head.
“Chain of command,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet. “Watchman notifies engineer or mate and then captain.”
“If an alarm activates, redundancy in reporting alarm is always safer,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “Station bill determines how crew handle alarm issue.”
“It’s crew’s responsibility to identify and know the location of an alarm when it sounds, to respond by being on a damage control party to the area of concern, and to use other means of alerting the bridge and captain,” said the captain on a yacht 200-220 feet.


Just 22.1 percent said their crew have been trained how to address and correct (and turn off) alarms.


About 15 percent said if an alarm goes off, the engineer or captain handles it.
“There is always an engineer on watch to deal with alarms while under way,” said the captain on a yacht 120-140 feet.
Mostly we wanted to know if standing watch was a rigorous, high intensity time, or Are crew able to continue working while on watch, for example, doing laundry, doing maintenance on the personal watercraft or prepping for tomorrow’s lunch?


We offered the “it depends” option here and nearly half of our respondents chose it. To be fair, the intensity of the watch certainly depends on the circumstances at the time (being under way, with guests aboard, etc.) Many of these respondents said these other duties were not permitted if the vessel is under way, but often acceptable at the dock. Not everyone agreed how to handle watches at anchor, though. Some considered it as serious as being under way, others considered it as relaxed as being at the dock.
“While on anchor, some chores might be allowed, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the watch and as long as they’re not alone on watch,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting 7-9 years.
“If on the dock and no guests, yes, crew can work, but they must be aware and visible,” said the engineer of a yacht 120-140 feet. “They are not allowed to go to their cabin and spend the day in there. They must be present and aware of what is happening on the yacht.”


“At the dock, crew are allowed to do other things as long as they are able to hear and respond to alarms,” said the first officer of a yacht 140-160 feet.
Even so, 36.6 percent of respondents said no, crew are not permitted to work in other areas.


“Being on watch is a job and should be treated as such,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Way too much distraction in performing other jobs in most cases.”


Just 17.1 percent said crew can keep doing their regular job and stand watch at the same time.
“The deck and interior crew can continue working and must fill the checklist as indicated,” said the first officer of a yacht 100-120 feet.

We received a similar breakdown of responses when we asked Are crew allowed to have personal items during watch such as phones, computers, books, etc.?
A slightly larger group said “it depends” to this one, but the split between yes and no was a little more balanced, with only about 27.8 percent saying no.
“It not only depends on where we are but who they are,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Someone with less experience may have their hands full watching for traffic and monitoring navigation. More experienced watch standers may even benefit from a book or other minor distraction in staying awake on an offshore night watch.”


“During the day, we might have a magazine but not involved in a novel or concentrating on the computer,” said the chef on a yacht of 100-120 feet.
“When on open ocean passages away from known commercial traffic lanes the crew may spend time with a PC, listening to music or performing ship’s work during the day, but must always be alert for other vessels, taking the time every 20 minutes to perform a 360-degree scan and check radar and AIS,” said a captain in yachting more than 10 years.


“Personal items are allowed in open ocean but not in confined waters,” said the first officer on a yacht 140-160 feet. “It must not interfere with the proper watch keeping of the vessel.”
“Phones are obviously great tools of communication, folks,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “While at anchor, it would be cruel to ban books.”


“Reading is OK on anchor watch, personal items are never OK during navigational watch, TV is never OK on any watch,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years.
There was no such balance in responses when we asked <<BOLD>>Are crew allowed to sleep while on watch? Nearly 80 percent said no.
“Can’t imagine it,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “If you are asleep, you are not on watch. Period.”
Slightly more than 18 percent said “it depends”.


“At anchor, crew are given specific responsibilities to be carried out and logged at timed intervals,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years and on a vessel 100-120 feet. “Depending on the conditions and location, sleeping is allowed between the logged activities.”
“If at port, no guests are up and work is done, watch standers go to sleep,” said the engineer in yachting more than 25 years. “If under way, no watcher stander sleeps.”


Just three respondents — a captain, chef and deckhand, all on vessels larger than 140 feet — said watchkeepers are able to sleep.
“Yes, able to sleep if at the dock and it is off work hours; no if we are under way,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet. “Yes, phone, computers and books on watch at the dock off work hours; no, if under way and on a bridge watch.”


We concluded our survey by asking captains and crew Do you feel “crew today” are valuable watch standers? Most said they are.
“Yes, crew today are very valuable watch standers,” said the first officer of a yacht 140-160 feet. “If they were not, we would have many more accidents. I have not heard anyone suggest that today’s crew are not capable of providing a good safe watch.
“Ultimately it is the captain’s job to ascertain if the person to stand watch is capable of doing so, as per his standing orders,” this first officer said. “It is also the job of other crew — either the lookouts or the watchkeepers — to report any concerns as soon as possible, in a professional manner, to the captain. This is what creates trust amongst all parties involved and helps the captain sleep at night.”
“If they are trained properly for the vessel they are on and trained according to the captain’s expectation, then yes, they would be of value to that specific vessel and captain,” said the first mate of a yacht 80-100 feet.
“As a captain, we are all responsible for the safety of vessel and crew and it is imperative that any crew who assumes the responsibility of standing watch be adequately trained in proper watch procedures,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet. “I, personally, sleep better under way when I know I have a competent crew who know the importance of safe and responsible watch keeping.”


“Yes, if they take it seriously and understand others are at risk if they fail to follow the rules,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “I always promote that if the vessel is safe, then we are, too. Also, the boat is filled with so many systems. Since the keel was laid, it is trying to do two things, 24 hours a day: sink and catch fire. Our job is to not allow this to happen.”


“Training, good ship’s knowledge and clear instructions are the keys to a safe, well-run vessel and good crew,” said the engineer on a yacht 180-200 feet. “Resources, time and understanding have to be available to achieve this. Bad watchkeeping is not just the fault of the individual; it reflects on the whole crew and the system employed on board.


“Anyone can be a good watch stander,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years. “It all depends who they work for and the training provided. Yes, most crew are good watch standers, after they have been trained.”
“Today’s crew are better trained and more professional than those of 10 years ago,” said the engineer of a yacht 120-140 feet.
“The standard is set by the captain and usually maintained by the mate,” said the first mate on a yacht 140-160 feet. “I have made sure watch standers understand the importance of having the ship and the lives of the crew and guests in their hands. It’s a responsibility and a trust of the highest importance.”
“Properly trained, almost all crew prove to be good watch standers,” said the engineer of a yacht 120-140 feet. “New or young crew seem to be more conscientious than older crew. However, being on watch does not mean a day to sleep off a hangover. Watch keepers must be wakeable from their sleep to answer alarms and alert officers to any problems. It is sharing of responsibility to allow other crew to stand down for R&R.”


But some respondents did have reservations about younger generation crew.
“Most crew are distracted by personal devices such as iPhones whilst on watch when they should be looking out the window,” said a first officer in yachting more than 10 years.
“Some crew tend to think of watch night as movie night or I’m-stuck-onboard-as-punishment night,” said the first officer of a yacht 160-180 feet. “Many confuse being on watch as being the same as being on board. Big difference. It is actually a huge responsibility that requires you to get out of the crew mess.”
“I haven’t met a crew member yet who knew how to properly relieve the watch … until I trained them,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “There are literally no crew with prior military experience, and it shows.”
“Some are [valuable], some aren’t but experience is the key to good watchkeeping,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years. “Today’s young crews have a high opinion of their abilities because they can pass exams, but they lack practical experience.”


“It is clear that the up-and-coming generation has many distractions and rely heavily on the electronic aids that have become so pervasive,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years. “Captains, next time you are under way, pull the plug on the wifi and the navigation displays and discreetly watch what takes place. I know all of these things are here to stay but maybe an occasional sea trial with our crew to let everyone practice what to do when the power goes out wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”


Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at We conduct our monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t been invited to take our surveys and would like to be, e-mail to be added.

About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

View all posts by Lucy Chabot Reed →

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