The classical watch system is 4 hrs. on – 4 hrs. off.
That’s what it used to be in the ‘old’ days. For me that never really worked. 4 hrs. for me is just too long and if it’s too long for me, I don’t really want to impose that on my crew either. A 3 hrs. system for me works way better, even if it means you get to sleep less then 4 hrs. after you come off watch.
It all depends of course on how many crew you have. Ideally would be 4 crew, including myself, for a longer passage. By a longer passage I mean a passage of three days or more.
Obviously it also depends on where you’re sailing. An ocean crossing going west, downwind, it’s way more relaxed than crossing the Bay of Biscay where the winds vary more and you’re sailing parallel to shipping lanes.
And last but not least it depends on the abilities of the crew. Can they do watches on their own or do you want/need two on deck all time.
On my ocean crossing I worked out a watch system that worked perfectly for a very capable crew of 4, having 2 on deck most of the time.
I use that system ever since, adjusting it to the number and abilities of crew but always based on a maximum of 3 hrs. on watch. It’s my 1-1-1- hr. watch system.
In this system crew 1 is cooking and doing the dishes till 8 pm. Then he/she can go to sleep. Crew 2 starts his/her watch at 7 pm. From 8 pm till 9 pm he/she is on his/her own. At 9 pm crew 3 comes on deck to accompany him/her for an hour after which crew 2 can go and lie down and so on and so on.
Each crew then gets at least 5 hrs. of continuous sleep while the hours on watch tend to pass very quickly, just because it’s 3 times just 1 hour.
You can change who’s taking the first watch every day. Also you can change the order so you do your watches with all crew members over time.
When I’m doing deliveries, I usually have 3 crew, including myself. Normally I then have capable crew, able to stand watches on their own. Still, whenever I sail with new crew, I often use the same 1-1-1 system the first night. Obviously you then get only 3 hrs. sleep after your watch. However I find it very important that the crew feels totally comfortable and by using this system we can sort of get to know each other to feel more comfortable. The next day I then change to 3 hr. watches on your own. (of course I’m on call at all times). Then you get 6 hrs. sleep after your watch.
Also, crossing the shipping lanes in the North Sea can be a reason to use (keep using) this system because you want 2 crew on deck most of the time.
For deliveries I only sail with just 2 crew (including me) for trips less then 100Nm and obviously only with very capable crew. Depending on where we sail (crossing shipping lanes in the North Sea) and the weather conditions, I then use either a 3 hr. on – 3 hr. off system or a 2 hr. on – 2 hr. off system. If it’s only for 1 night, that’s okay.
Only at night time
I normally only use a formal watch system at night. During the day it’s more relaxed and depending on the conditions, motor sailing, using the autopilot. As long as it’s clear who’s on watch and that somebody is indeed on watch, it’s sorts itself out.
Last but not least
Whatever watch system is in place, I’d like to start at 7 pm. In that system the one who’s going to sleep first, also in in charge of the cooking AND doing the dishes. If you’re at sea for a longer period, it’s important to avoid any kind off irritation rather then to solve them. Cleaning up your own mess helps. You can use whatever you like or need while cooking, as long as you clean it yourself afterwards, it’s no problem! You don’t wanna go to sleep being annoyed because you’ve to clean someone else’s mess…