Thursday 12 January 2023

Watch keeping what does it mean to you.

Look Out, or not, what's the worst that can happen. We asked a collective group of cruisers what they do and how they operate. Some of the results scared us, and if this is the general consensus then the rest of us really do need to keep a very good look out. 

International Collision Regulations, Rule 5 – Look Out. Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.

While its great to have Rule 5 it isn't going to help these guys see you when more than half of their bridge windows are obscured by cargo, see and be seen its a two way street, and the chances that your yacht that's so close to the water will give a big return on their RADAR is debatable. 

While at anchor not far from a busy marina we were listening to the radio chatter. Out of the blue we heard a call announcing a friend of ours was returning to the marina he had left over a month and a half ago. It really came as a shock for us to hear that he was back. The last time we talked to him he was headed home to Australia and we expected he would have been well over a thousand miles away by now.

We launched our tender and went to the marina and as we rounded the marina break wall we saw why he had to come back. His bow sprit was pointing to the sky, the head sail furler's were mangled and the main mast was held in place by halyards and lines in a network not much different to a messy spider’s web.

We were anxious to see if there was any other damage and how it happened. We saw most of it, the bowsprit, furlers, head sail, shrouds and a spreader. Paint work was damaged and the toe rail wasn’t fitting the way it used too. What happened mate was the question? His response: “Bloody crew ran into an anchored fishing boat in the middle of the day while I was catching up on sleep. Two of them in the cockpit on watch. As it turns out one had his ear phones in listening to music and the other was self-absorbed in a game on his phone. Neither heard the fishermen yelling nor saw a thing until we T-boned the fishing boat. The fishing boat hung around for a while, they picked up their anchor and followed alongside of us, I think they were only there to make sure we didn’t sink”.

As it turns out watch keeping means different things to different people and recently while not asking the question directly, we quizzed a broad spectrum of people (both coastal and long distance cruisers) about their techniques. The replies were all diverse as you would expect, however a large portion of the replies scared us. We didn’t quite realize that a lot of people out there are not actively watching or on watch. In a high percentage of cases they are in the cockpit or at the helm station but are really only killing time before they are relieved. We even heard one couple head off to bed and pop their head out the forward hatch every 20 minutes or so to have a look around.

In the blend are people sorting music or photos on the laptop, phone or tablet, phoning home and even using the time to catch up on correspondence while they don’t have any ‘distractions’ OMG I think they have it the wrong way around. We didn’t realize the safety of the vessel and crew is so low a priority for some crew. For me, it is hard to understand why some people don’t recognise that there could come a situation from their actions (or lack of) that becomes inescapable and can cause the loss of the vessel or worst case, all on board including themselves.

350 metres long at 20 knots you don't want to miss seeing this early on, the sailing vessel may have right of way but he wouldn't be able to stop or manoeuvre to stop a collision, and talking from experience it takes a lot to get out of the way from one of these. 

I know a lot of people believe they will be seen by the other ships/vessels and are so very relaxed in their watch keeping. Not a good attitude to have, what if the other vessels watch keeper has the same line of thought. Even if you think you’re not going to encounter another vessel because you’re out of the shipping lane what’s to say someone else won’t be as well. If there is enough water to float a boat, you have the possibility to find one crossing your path.

 After coming from a couple of years traveling in Asia it’s not always lighted or unlit beacons or boats to look for, it’s set fishing nets, long lines and fish attracting devices of various designs. Keep in mind even with all the fishing activity by the locals going on there are also illegal fishing vessels in the mix and these guys can be a real problem. In an effort to not be seen their gear is well camouflaged.  Their vessels certainly wont be motoring around with the AIS on and timber vessels will try to minimise the RADAR signature to remail undetected. 

The anchor is now up so its full steam ahead and there is a lot happening on the bridge when getting under way. Keep an eye on this vessel as they might not see the yacht right in front of them due to the newness of the situation. 

Do the crew members on your vessel know and understand rule 5? This isn’t just a pass the time until we get to the next port understanding. Perhaps it’s lack of experience, training, or lack of enthusiasm displayed by the crew. Now is not the time to be complacent, shorthanded sailing can be tough and both parties have to do the job at hand. Watch keeping can sometimes feel like a chore. However, if it starts to become more and one or both are nodding off from time to time while on shift, work out strategies to get it functioning smoothly, the safety of those on the vessel is at stake.

While it is good to have a rule to tell us what we need to do to for fill our legal obligation, being on watch encompasses the rule but doesn’t relieve the crew of other obligations. On a sail boat there are numerous tasks that can and should be carried out while under way. Keep busy and the time passes quickly, consequently reducing the risk of boredom and the creeping tendrils of drowsiness. Sit for too long and even the most alert crewmember can start to feel lethargic.

Some targets are only visible occasionally

Watch keeping isn’t just looking out, there is a lot more to it, and really it does involve all the senses. What if the motor was to start making a strange noise? Or a sail started to flog? If caught early the damage would be negligible but if left for some time it could become unrepairable damage?

A chart open on the chart table during the passage so every one has the big picture. Sight bearings taken can be used to check your position 

We do know of one skipper who was having a running battle with his crew. The crew would turn up to go on watch with his earphones hanging around his neck. Many times he was asked not to listen to music through earphones on watch. Unfortunately, he just did not get it and would wait until he thought he was alone before cranking up his phone/MP3/MP4 player. On several occasions the skipper was able to come out of the cabin and walk right up to him, he was so caught up in what he was doing he was oblivious to his surroundings. With the music in his ears he didn’t hear any external sound and his night vision wasn’t what it could have been due looking at the bright LCD screen on the player. The final straw that brought him undone was when he ran the boat into and got tangled up in fishing nets that were still in the process of being laid, yep big boat with crew yelling out.

Hearing plays an important part of watch keeping on any vessel. I know of several vessels that have missed shoals and reefs because the watch keeper heard the breaking surf. The motor noise of the small fishing boat traveling in front of you or a small or large ships bearing down on you from astern may be heard if the back ground noise is minimalised. I even narrowly missed running over a canoe in the dark when I heard “mister mister watch out, I am here!” as he then held up his lit cigarette lighter.

Silent but deadly and there is hardly a ripple Even this close the sound is minimal and if you cannot see the bridge windows they cannot see you, and you as a RADAR target not likely at this range and being lower than the bridge. A great heart starter, it was almost time to change the underwear after this encounter. 

Sound has been relied upon to keep vessels safe for centuries. In some circumstances when moving about in limited visibility, it is worthwhile to post someone on the bow away from the noise of the motor. Get to know your requirements for watch keeping and operating in limited visibility. Remember the sound of fog signals from other vessels are not an accurate indication of size, direction or distance, however they do let you know something is out there.

Don't be afraid to get on the bow for a better look

The sense of smell can help keep you safe, on several occasions I have become aware that something is not right. Smell is a very strong sense and can find fuel leaks, electrical and motor faults amongst other things early. I do know I have been able to detect smaller vessels by smell or sound on several occasions, the RADAR certainly wasn’t seeing the small wooden boats. The smell of exhaust/fish or the noise from their motors made the task of spotting them easier. But one thing I have noticed when making land fall, the closer you get the stronger the smell. The same can be said for islands, if you smell land follow your nose and take your time to have a good look. Reefs also smell, if you pick up the scent of a reef and there is nothing close on the chart you do need to be on high alert and find out where it is. Keep in mind you will only smell something if the wind is carrying it in your direction. So I guess what I should say is don't dismiss the smell, investigate until you have a good idea what is happening.  We have even noticed that whales when they come up for a breath can make the air suddenly smell like a trawler has turned up close by. 

While FADs are an ever present danger no matter where you are in the world, and require a keen eye to spot, depending on the wind direction its possible to get a sniff of wet bamboo and the sea life growing on the poles as it is exposed when the waves pass

Old school navigation tools Still necessary on any vessel doing passages.jpg

An important part of watch keeping is navigation. Keep the crew briefed and up to date. The crew really should be part of the passage planning process if at all possible. In these days of electronics, a chartplotter will collect tracks of where your vessel has have been. I have even seen automated log books which removes a task the watch keeper could be doing. To keep the crew in the loop, marking the track on a paper chart wouldn’t go astray so everyone has the big picture. If this isn’t possible, then perhaps hourly notation of the vessels position and heading taken from the GPS in the log.

Lots of vessels to keep an eye on and then a SAR transponder set off in the middle of the mayhem in some ports. 

Your destination should be of primary importance. What are the hazards and how are we going to minimise the risk. We keep a hand held GPS unit in the cockpit on passage, besides positioning it can give up to date statistical information of the passage instantaneously. We can also cross check the position with the main systems to make sure we are indeed on the same playing field where we think we are. Hazards can also be stored in the handheld and if passing with-in a predetermined distance an alarm is raised due the proximity of the hazard. This of course is only useful if the hazard is indeed in the correct charted place, but that’s another story.

Clear decks and high cut cruising sail allow better vision

Sail trim should be taken seriously, this sets up how the boat is traveling in the prevailing conditions. Do we need to trim, reef, or put up more sail? Even though we are not racing we need to keep the speed up to shorten the passage time. However, on the other side of the equation the boat shouldn’t be carrying so much sail it’s heeled over so far it is uncomfortable to move around. How is the gear looking? Is there anything out of place, a line loose or some obvious chafe? If it’s moving it’s wearing. Look over the rig with a torch from the safety of the cockpit at night, this is best done just before shift change before your relief is up on deck, just to minimise the impact on their night vision.

When motoring, checks on the primary systems should be carried out regularly. This will vary from boat to boat but things like sighting the water separator fuel filter regularly and if fitted, check the vacuum being pulled by the fuel pump, this will increase if a primary filter is becoming blocked. Is there sufficient fuel in the tank for the next leg? How is the charge current/battery voltage/oil pressure/temperature? Are the readings stable? Even without the motor running keep an eye on the battery voltage, charge current and check the battery switch position before all the batteries are flat. A column in the log will help keep an eye on things.

Other primary systems could also be looked at, things like the steering gear if it is easily accessible. Over time, once familiar with the equipment something out of place will stand out. We had the housing on the auto pilot motor come loose and during course adjustment would move. We caught it early and the fix was to tighten up the screws holding the motor together. If we didn’t hear/see this and catch it early we would have destroyed the motor. While a replacement motor was on board the job of replacement while under way would not have been easy.

Boat maintenance in exotic locations, auto pilot motor service after the anchor was down

Weather look out, if you have a barometer an hourly notation is useful, any changes can signal the onset of a new weather pattern. Increase the range on the radar, and check for rain or approaching storms, catch them early enough and you might be able to avoid them. We certainly like having an electronic barometer connected to OpenCPN and this way we can have a graph for the last six hours to keep an eye on the trend. 

Track the storm and you may be able to avoid the worst of it if you get in early.JPG

We regularly check the AIS targets around us, it’s another fantastic tool, but still does not relieve you from looking out over the water and seeing what’s out there. Not all vessels are required to carry an AIS, as an example, domestic tugs with tows. You certainly don’t want to be caught in between one of those, I have seen a vessel that did and it wasn’t a pretty sight, everything was taken off at deck level.

A tug and tow, this one being a domestic traveller doesn't require an AIS due to its size.

ais targets
Your going to have a good look at this AIS target to work out which way he is actually going. Don't just rely on the screen. 

This is just an example of a fault we have seen a couple of times and in this example didn't pose a threat to us but we have had others like this that did pose a threat if their course continued. Get to understand course and heading on the AIS.  Spend a bit of time work out which way they are actually traveling, don't just rely on the AIS or Chartplotter to alarm. 

Vessel Setup

How is your vessel set up? and how does this relate to watch keeping?  Does it make it easier or harder for those on watch to do their job? This is a personal choice, a lot of people inherit the set up from the previous owner or use the discretion of the installer and don’t give it another thought and work with it either good or bad. Perhaps it’s time to give it some thought. A lot of the time it all depends on how your going to use the vessel or how you think your going to use the vessel. Some moving from racing to cruising may not see the need to now not have the chart plotter attached to the steering pedestal. 

Chart plotters with touch screens are lovely, however they do have limitations. If mounted with the instruments on the steering pedestal, it will require the crew to be aft of the steering pedestal to see the instruments and chartplotter. The crew, even the short crew members need to have an unobstructed view over the steering pedestal with mounted chart plotter and instruments. On several occasions I have seen shorter members of the crew on different vessels who have to poke their head around the side of the pedestal mounted instrument pod to look forward. The steering pedestal mount for the chartplotter and instruments may all sound good in the sales room, however, out in the wild they may be a liability.

On a long passage, whether up the coast or across an ocean the auto pilot is on and a lot of time can, or will be spent forward of the pedestal. Even if it’s just to get cover out of the wind, rain or cold under the spray dodger. If the chart plotter and instruments are placed in this area you can keep an eye on what’s needed. Even if the weather is good to stand behind the steering wheel, the crew will consistently be refocusing to look out, then refocus to look at the chart/instruments, this can quickly become tiresome, and tiring. The reality is anything we can do to reduce fatigue is of paramount importance. Keep in mind those who wear reading glasses may find the consistent refocusing a pain, especially when the glasses start to get a salt spray coating. If you can mount the chartplotter and instruments forward of the pedestal, then those off shift in the cockpit can also keep an eye on what’s going on. 

Night watch keeping

I don’t know of anyone out there sailing who loves night watches. That said, we do have a love hate relationship with them. We love those clear moonless nights away from the shore where the sky is literally ablaze with stars and those bright atmospheric flashes light up the sky like a fireworks display. Then as the boat moves through the water the phosphorescent sea creatures disturbed by the boat create a glowing green trail astern. We don’t however, like the disrupted sleep the odd night passage can bring. The other side effect is our perception of the surroundings is always distorted in the dark.

Night vision is crucial, so prepare your vessel to reduce the impact on night vision. Simple things like red lights in the walkways at night and in areas used by the crew before and even after shift if it can impact the watch keeper on duty. Light dimmers can also be a great place to reduce the strength of instrument panel lights, even dim red lights to reduce light flooding the area of off shift crew. These units are available for relatively little on EBay and can be quickly fitted by a handy person. While setting up your vessel keep an eye on switch panels with all those bright different colour LEDs, while they look fantastic in the showroom, in the cabin, on a dark night they very well could be too bright.

We have selectable red/white ceiling lights throughout the boat, now a couple of years on after installation we noticed they were not as red as they once were. The red lights are still filament bulbs, and red paint used to colour the bulb has burnt through. Just this small detail was reducing our field of vision in the dark when out on deck later.

The use of any electronic device with an LCD screen including instruments can quickly ruin your night vision. Chart plotters and instruments that have screen dimming should be turned down early, preferably at twilight. Some charting programs for PC’s don’t cause problems if the night palette is also selected early in the evening. However phones, tablets and PC’s with-out dedicated night palette will quickly ruin your night vision, and recovery does take time.

We try and keep our cockpit as dark as possible, this increases our depth of vision into the night. The first night watch we did on our vessel highlighted a flaw with the stern light placement. Once we recognised the problem of the background light it created in the cockpit, it sent us searching for a blanket to hang up to stop the light coming forward. Then we had to re-mount the light in such a way as to eliminate the problem. Most cockpits have too much background light, it will take a dedicated effort to reduce it to a low level. Even go as far as closing the curtains down in the cabin to stop light from inside the vessel causing light pollution on the decks outside.

While still on the subject of light pollution, I don’t want to sound like I am not in favour of LCD screens, yes they are great to look at. Yet, some do give off too much light even if turned to the lowest setting. If you find this to be a problem then squares of red Perspex can be cut to place over the screen at night.

Cartesian rhythm, or commonly known as the body clock. Use it to your advantage, try and organise shifts around crew sleeping patterns. No sense having someone who is no good in the morning doing the early shift. You need to try and get at least 10 hours rest a day, that’s not all sleeping unless you want it. Have one block of 6 hours and break the rest up. Six hours in one go would be best done in the day and use shorter shifts during the night. We found that at night three, two, two, three hours on and off worked for us, once we were in the groove it was great and the night goes past quickly. To help the person off shift get sleep make the accommodation as quite as possible. The other positive is that any time a new noise is heard then you know something has changed, whether good or bad it’s up for your investigation.

The bright orange glow is an indicator the red bulb needs replacing, red light in the cabin at night certainly help keep night vision, inspect your globes regularly.

Use binoculars at night, good ones will let in a lot of light and if you have never done this I am sure you will be amazed at just how much more you can see into the night. Instead of only seeing lights with the naked eye, in most cases looking through binoculars will allow a view of the whole ship, so as to get a better idea of their orientation. The same goes for unlit objects, a scan of the horizon through the binoculars can turn up objects you just can’t see with the naked eye.

Binoculars good for use on watch during the day or night

Do night watches require the biggest and brightest spot light you can purchase? Yes the brighter the better, we have found it’s more the reverse, a relatively cheap plastic waterproof torch gets used the most and works wonders. Leave those metal cased laser beam 1000 lumen torches capable of shining a kilometre in the cabin. We found it isn’t long until corrosion of the case renders the torch useless. If it’s not the corrosion, remember turning on such a bright light just so you can quickly look at something will take away your night vision instantaneously. The dimmer small torch will give enough light to do most jobs, we even had a small piece of thin clear red Perspex to put over the lens, and if you don’t have this, adjusting the light by shining it through gaps in your fingers can also give enough light to do the job at hand. We haven’t found head torches to be much good for small tasks while on watch either. Don’t get me wrong I love them and we have two. Yes they are great for breakdowns or work requiring lots of light but for normal watch keeping a head torch really needs to be low low power. Unfortunately most manufactures try and get as much light out of them as they can so it’s difficult to get a useful product for our night watch purpose. We have since found some cheap head torches and use rechargeable batteries in them (lower voltage) and these are acceptable. A normal AA battery is 1.5 volts however a rechargeable version is 1.2 volts which a significant drop. 

Head lights. Torches and High power spot lights

Now back to the high power spot lights, we have a couple of them, however, we have found that a really high power spot light can certainly have trouble shining through the sea mist or light fog. The reflected glare renders them impractical for distance. What we have found works is a spot light with a filter, the filter helps stop the reflected glare and cuts through the sea mist or rain to give a better range than the spot light with more power. While we have both a clear high power light and a filtered light we use them appropriately, unfortunately it’s not always easy to pick the right one first time every time.

Our filtered spotlight the filter helps greatly reduce reflected glare when shining the light into rain or fog and or even through a closed port hole or window.  I have seen one of these lights where one of the crew scraped the filter off, and it never did work as it was intended ever after. 

Before setting off, its time to come up with the rules for harnessing on and running jack lines and tethers. There is a lot of personal choice, and there are good arguments for different setups. At night we harness on in the cockpit and no one is allowed forward out on deck without another person present. The harnesses we use are built into manually inflated life jackets. Again there are pro’s and con’s for choice of harness and lifejacket type, but from first hand experience, harnesses built into wet weather jackets are dangerous.  

I have seen one slip over the head of a person wearing one while we tried to get them back into the boat, luckily we were in a small RIB not moving. Keep in mind that should the wearer fall overboard, during retrieval its not just the jacket that peels off, its taking the harness with it. This will mean that there is now no tether to the vessel. Of course there may have been design changes over the years but I would certainly not risk it.

What else to help do the job? Take a look around the decks, do all those bits and pieces need to be stored on deck. We found our main sail cover hanging down was blocking our vision past the mast. It did take a while until we actually realised it, but all that was required was to undo it differently and the increase in forward vision was very noticeable. We also try and keep any item stored on deck out of the way or stored behind other items to minimise blocked vision.

The situation is resolved or under control
If a manoeuvre or a very complicated situation is under way it is best if the crew on watch does not stand down until the situation is resolved or under control and the oncoming crew is in full understanding and control of the situation.

I have heard it said, the experienced watch keeper will know when to call the captain for something he needs to deal with, and when he can be left to sleep. In reality, the captain would rather be called early, rather than have a developing situation evolve into something that threatens the vessel and crew.

Yes watch keeping is a job that should be taken seriously. Keeping in mind crossing an ocean or cruising up the coast from experience certainly requires different strategies. Every vessel and crew are different, so it’s up to you to work out what works to keep you and your crew safe.

Finally, don’t forget watch keeping is a 24 hour job. I think some people get so consumed with night passages and working through the night, they forget there should be someone assigned a shift at all times during the day.

Stern lights 

A small note about stern lights, check your flag pole placement. We almost ran over a French boat that had his flag pole next to his stern light. The stern light was totally covered by the flag on certain angles. The same can be said about tenders left hanging from davits covering the stern light totally.

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