From the Bridge: Yacht watch duty anything but standard

Aug 27, 2018 by Dorie Cox

From the Bridge: By Dorie Cox

Many things can go awry on a yacht. A watchkeep can be the first line of defense to prevent such things as flood, fire, collision, intrusion or more minor problems on board. Crew on duty as watch officer can be first to find symptoms and can prevent the escalation of issues.

With such importance, we figured there would be rigid standards or procedures, but most often, captains change duty details according to each situation. The Triton meets with a different group of captains each month to discuss a yacht issue, and after a high-profile incident with one this summer, we chose watchstanding for this month’s topic.

When a U.S. government official’s yacht was untied from a marina dock in Ohio in the dark of night and floated away, some captains took a look at their watchstanding procedures. Could that have happened on their yacht?

“Typically, we’re not up all night. You do the last check, arm the alarms, and there will be a junior officer up by dawn,” one of the captains said.

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion this month are, back row from left, Capt. Don Anderson of S/Y M5, Capt. Bob Terrell of M/Y Sea Falcon, and Capt. Tim Hull of M/Y De De; front row from left, Capt. Pierre Ausset of M/Y To-Kalon, Capt. Patrick McLister, freelance, and Capt. Joel Macri of M/Y Milagros. Photo by Dorie Cox

When docked in a marina known to be safe, there may not be a designated watch duty during the night, a captain said. “A lot of watch is made by assumption.”

“You make sure the vessel is locked, secured and the cameras are working,” another captain said. “Most alarms are tied into the phone, and the engine alarm will definitely wake you.”

In the case of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ yacht, the group had many questions. Was the boat tied to the dock or the dock tied to the boat, meaning were the lines accessible to untie? Was it untied from on board? Was shore power disconnected and did the air conditioner stop running, or was the yacht already on generator power? Did the marina have security?

They agreed that there must be more to the story.

“Did anyone do anything wrong? Probably not,” a captain said. “Was someone on watch 24 hours? That would not be normal in a stable country, in a situation like that. But knowing who owned it? There probably would be heightened awareness.”

The incident highlights some of the variables captains face when defining yacht watch duties. They consider yacht owner preference, marina security, type of guests, weather, sea conditions, age of yacht, maintenance concerns and more. All of the captains adhere to some of the same basics to keep the boat and crew safe. Watch schedules typically range from two- to four-hour shifts and include some common duties.

“Every 30 minutes they take a walk and check to see the boat and to be observed,” a captain said. He said it is important for people off the boat to see someone on guard. And to be effective, those times should vary.

“If a watch person is seen on the yacht, someone is less apt to be mischievous,” he said. “Go at various times to be observed.”

Standard procedures for most of the captains in the discussion include a posted duty schedule and a duty radio carried by the watchstander. All of the captains require engine room checks, as well as walks through the entire yacht and around deck. On such walk-throughs, several yacht systems require an entry to a log book. The marine radio is monitored and weather is checked. Most order lights off in the wheelhouse. One thing was unanimous: no wearing of headphones while on duty.

Incidents such as the yacht that was untied in the night brought to mind a variety of possible problems thwarted by alert watchstanders. But it turned out that the captains had few such tales to tell. One captain said a watchstander prevented a fire after noticing a new smell. And one prevented a boarding by a drunken man. Maybe the lack of dramatic incidents is the whole point of a watch.

But there are a few challenges.

“I think the only problem is the gung-ho crew,” a captain said. “You have to make them go to bed. Then you find on their off-time, they’re on Facebook. Then I have to shut off the internet.”

This can be a concern for yachts required to record crew hours of work and rest for compliance, a captain said.

“It’s 77 hours a week, and it has to be documented,” another captain said for sleep. “Time up and time down.”

One of the more challenging shifts is the 2 to 4 a.m. shift, a captain said.

“I often find crew asleep, so I do that myself,” he said. “That’s the worst shift, graveyard.”

Keeping crew alert and awake is another challenge. To combat sleepiness in crew, several captains compile an extra job list.

“It depends on the conditions. On a still watch, crew can do what they want,” a captain said. “Except during round time.”

“I realize they have to do something to stop them from falling asleep,” another captain said.

“They can read a book or listen to music,” a third captain said. But he cautioned that some online activities, like video games or movies, are off limits. “It is a risk if they get so engrossed in a screen, they’re not aware. They have to check the radar, the dock and a list of tasks.”

How do captains know what watch should entail? There is not one list for what duties should be, a captain said.

“There is no printed material that dictates watch rules,” he said. “There are suggestions how to do it.”

The topic of watchstanding is addressed by the governing bodies such as the International Maritime Organization and Maritime Labour Convention, and is part of a yacht’s International Safety Management Code (ISM) or mini-ISM. But the specifics of duties are usually pieced together from other yacht procedures, flag state or management suggestions, or information gathered throughout a captain’s career. Most adjust standards according to the yacht size, age or special features, and then add the description to the yacht’s standard operating procedures.

“Watch is covered in the Safety Management policy,” a captain said. “Crew have to read and sign it.”

As to whether a watch log is required, it depends on the ISM or mini-ISM, a captain said.

“Your procedures will be vetted and audited,” he said. “You have to log in and log out. I may wake you to log out if you forget, it needs to be part of the procedure. It can be looked at by Port State Control. It is part of captain’s standing orders.”

On smaller boats there are no regulations, another captain said.

Before the discussion, we thought insurance companies would play a large part in procedures and documentation.

“Insurance seems to care only if there is a problem,” a captain said.

“Insurance does want my crew changes, and above 30 meters it is required,” another captain said.

Occasionally, there is no watch, like on a smaller yacht tied in a safe place. In that case, one captain said, he would shut down all available systems and rely on remote alarms. This group agreed that when a yacht is at anchor, a watch is usually held.

Who stands watch has more to do with captain preference than yacht specifics.

“I do not stand watch,” one captain said. “I consider myself on watch at all times. So I’m not on official watch.”

Another captain agreed.

“It’s usually the captain who sleeps by the alarms,” he said.

“I will take watch when I need quiet to get something done,” another captain said.

Several captains said the chef or chief stew may be excluded from watch.

“You leave key people out because they are on-call,” a captain said. “It depends on the owner.”

“Our freelance chef is typically not in the watch, but I will ask if they would like to volunteer,” another captain said.

On yachts with fewer crew, captains said usually everyone pulls watch. One captain said his yacht’s program includes a watch until midnight for each crew, but when the yacht is on anchor, watch runs all night. While underway, some yachts hire extra crew to meet watch needs.

We had the impression that in certain situations, like after a long voyage, the person put on watch while the rest of the crew goes out for a dinner has been given duty for some previous transgression.

“In port, it can be a punishment sometimes, or it can be a very productive time,” a captain said.

Captains said there are a few challenges in teaching people about watch duty. Surprisingly, a captain said owners and guests are the most difficult.

“I think the hardest part is to educate the client,” a captain said. Guests may know a charter trip comes with a certain number of crew, and they may not understand that crew require rest and are not always available, he said.

“Guests see the crew and they say, ‘I want the chief stew,’” a captain said. “No, I’m sorry, you get the third stew. You may have to be repetitive and tell them over and over again. And you have to educate the crew. You have your hands full to educate everyone.”

Usually a department head or officer will show new crew around and train them for watch. The required abilities are not innate for many people, a captain said.

“It’s important to listen, stop and smell. Is this normal?” he said. “A lot of watch is going back to your basic senses. For most crew, it’s definitely learning a new skill. Whether they understand is a different thing.”

“There is an initiation, even for the skilled crew,” another captain said. “When you start, you stand with a qualified crew. Underway, you stand with me.”

Although there are a multitude of variables to duties, in essence, living and working on a yacht requires continual vigilance, a captain said.

“How do you accomplish this so the yacht is as safe as possible? That’s a good question,” a captain said.

“There is a second sense for us,” a captain said. “That is part of the education. In reality, everyone is on watch with boat living.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.


About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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