At sea a ship requires personnel to operate it on a continuous basis. In order to do this the crew have to work shifts or watches. The system of watchkeeping may differ from ship to ship, but the system usually employed is based upon a three watch rotation, ie four hours on and eight hours off. Whilst this may sound like a lot of time off, it does not work out that way. During daylight hours there are usually numerous tasks that require to be done and these are done by the off-watch personnel. It is only at night that off-watchpersonnel are truly off duty.

How does the system work? The day is divided into four hour shifts which means that everyone does two 4 hour watches in every 24 hours. In order to give the watchkeepers the opportunity of avoiding having to do the same watches every day and to assist the galley with providing dinner in the evening, the watch between 1600 and 2000 is divided into two 2 hour shifts. This means that the member coming on at 1600 only has two hours of watch and the one relieving him also only has two hours. The one coming on watch at 1800 has his dinner at 1700 and the one going off watch at 1800 has his dinner at 1800. Also , having an uneven number of watches, ie seven, means that watchkeepers will rotate through different watches each day. Each watch has a different title and are arranged as indicated:

  • 0001 to 0400 Middle watch.
  • 0400 to 0800 Morning watch.
  • 0800 to 1200 Forenoon watch.
  • 1200 to 1600 Afternoon watch.
  • 1600 to 1800 First dog watch.
  • 1800 to 2000 Second dog watch.
  • 2000 to 1159 First watch.

Emergency stations. In emergency situations, it is important that all personnel know where to report and what their duties will be. As a result, each member of the crew is either appointed as a member of a team or told where he should report under varying circumstances. For instance he/she could be appointed to a fire fighting team or he/she could be told to report to a particular position on a vessel where they could be used to provide back-up to one of the emergency teams. It also provides an opportunity to ensure that all crew members are accounted for. Two situations which could arise are; the outbreak of a fire or abandoning ship.

Harbour stations. When coming into harbour or going to anchor the deck division have certain duties to perform. The seamen are split into two sections, one to man the forecastle, the other to man the poop/quarterdeck. Their duties include the preparation for berthing/anchoring and the handling of the mooring lines when coming alongside. When sailing they again handle the mooring lines and secure the forecastle/poop deck for sea.

Life boat stations. Sea going ships carry a combination of life boats and life rafts. In the case of cargo vessels, only two life boats are carried, the rest of the life saving units being inflatable life rafts. In the case of passenger vessels, many more life boats are carried as well as inflatable life rafts. When crew or passengers board a vessel each member is allocated a place in the life boats and life rafts. They are also provided with a life jacket which they are required to wear in emergency situations. When the abandon-ship alarm is sounded all passengers and crew put their life jackets on and go to the position on deck where their life boat/raft is stowed, where they are mustered and given further instructions.