Skip Links

How To Stand a Proper Watch

Maintaining a vigilant watch is crucial from both a safety and legal standpoint. Here’s a primer on how to do it right.

Man at the wheel of his vessel at sunset out at sea

Good preparation will ensure a safe and successful overnight passage.

Nothing epitomizes good seamanship like standing a proper watch. For smaller boats, it can be as simple as the operator maintaining situational awareness and keeping a good lookout. Larger vessels involve more, but the goal remains the same: being aware of what’s going on around you and taking appropriate action as required.

Let’s look at an overnight trip that will require someone to be at the helm and/or on watch at all times. For the purpose of this article, we’ll assume all of the watch details (e.g., rotation, number of crew members on watch) have been settled. Our focus here is how to prepare for your watch and how to do it correctly, be it an overnight trip or a voyage around the world.

1. Read the captain’s orders.

Most captains will have written rules or standard operating procedures (SOP) to provide guidance and assist the crew with decision-making while the captain is below decks or otherwise not immediately available. Now is the time to familiarize yourself with them and ask any questions.

Common things contained in an SOP include safety procedures when standing watch (such as staying clipped in the cockpit at night), frequency of and reasons for logbook entries, and when to alert or wake the captain (weather changes, equipment problems, or collision-avoidance issues). Regardless of the reasons listed, always alert the captain if in doubt or you have a question that affects the safety of the vessel and crew. Confidence in your ability to stand a proper watch is crucial to the captain, as is the knowledge that you will alert him or her promptly should the need arise.

2. Familiarize before going on watch.

Make time to familiarize yourself with all navigation and electronics equipment before going on watch. Learn how to operate the VHF radio, chart plotter, radar, and AIS, as well as how to scroll through and access various functions for each. Good examples of this include how to change ranges for the radar and how to set electronic proximity warning alarms (or interpret them if set by the captain).

In addition to navigational alarms, knowledge of vessel monitoring and warning systems you may hear or see (smoke alarms, CO detectors, high-water bilge alarms) are also crucial. Is it normal for that bilge pump “on” indicator to come on every 10 minutes or stay on constantly? Ask about engine alarms – not only what they mean, but what to do should they occur. Familiarity with normal engine gauge readings (such as temperature and oil pressure) can help you spot deviations more quickly and hopefully address potential problems before they become emergencies.

3. Get rest. Easier said than done.

Try to get a minimum of five to six hours of sleep prior to going on watch – longer if your watch rotation allows it. This is particularly good advice when standing a night watch. Even if you can’t sleep when off watch, you should still rest. If standing a day watch, try taking a 20- to 30-minute power nap an hour or so prior to going on watch.

4. Dress appropriately.

Nothing makes a watch more uncomfortable than being hot, cold, or wet. The sea is dynamic and ever-changing, so when dressing for watch, plan not only for current conditions but for the weather that could happen. A warm summer evening can quickly turn cool after dark, while a squall can bring high winds and torrential rain to the sunniest of days. Handling either starts with being prepared and properly outfitted with the correct clothing and foul weather gear when reporting for watch. Good practices include dressing in layers (so you can easily adjust for varying temperatures) and investing in good quality clothing and foul weather gear. Don’t forget necessary accoutrements such as hats, boots, and gloves.

5. Have proper personal gear.

Required personal gear will be based on the situation at hand and can be a wide-ranging topic, but the following is a good start:

  • Waterproof flashlight and headlamp (for hands-free operation) with red and white light options (to preserve night vision)
  • Knife or multitool
  • Timepiece — Sure, you can use a c­ellphone, but going old-school with a waterproof watch eliminates phone disasters
  • Personal life jacket and harness (or even better, a life jacket with integral harness) and tether
  • Water bottle and other beverages (such as electrolyte drinks)
  • Light snacks
  • Sunblock
  • Timer to make sure you are awake to scan the horizon for ships, set for every 15 ­minutes at most
  • Seasickness medication
  • Sunglasses
  • Binoculars
  • Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
Photo of a vessel navigation and communication electronics, large freight boat, debris in the water and shore

Top left: Every watch stander must familiarize themselves with the vessel’s navigational and communications electronics. Top right: Keeping a proper lookout is the prime ­directive for everyone on watch. Above left: Vessels are not the only hazards to watch out for. Above right: Scan the entire horizon, 360 degrees, every 10 to 15 minutes.

During the watch

1. Maintain priorities.

There’s no ambiguity when it comes to what your priority must be when standing watch. In fact, the COLREGS (Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea) define it in a single sentence: “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 or the risk of collision.”

While the term “all available means” includes collision-avoidance methods that seaman have used for centuries (i.e., staying alert and maintaining a good lookout), for today’s mariner it also encompasses the use of modern electronics like radar, AIS, and VHF radio. Get the most from these devices by developing a routine of scrolling through the radar ranges, zooming in and out on the chart plotter, and checking the AIS system throughout your watch. Avoid overreliance on electronics and the complacency it can generate, however. Never let a glance at the radar or chart plotter replace making a visual sweep of what’s going on around you.

2. Scan the horizon.

Develop a habit of conducting a 360-degree scan of the horizon every 10 to 15 minutes, both with and without binoculars. The use of good binoculars is especially important at night, as their light-gathering qualities will help pick out difficult-to-see objects in low-light conditions.

3. Mind your helm.

While they are a boon to shorthanded watches, autopilots make it easy to forget or stray from something as simple as maintaining course. Like their human counterparts, they are not perfect and can subtly introduce navigational errors due to issues such as low power or human error. My own autopilot earned the nickname “Crazy Ivan” after sneaking a broad circle during one trip due to an improperly stowed boombox near the fluxgate compass. No matter how well they seem to be working, always verify your magnetic compass course every 30 minutes.

4. Maintain the log per the ­captain’s SOP.

Logbook entries underway are typically made every hour on the hour and can include everything from engine temp and oil pressure, to navigational information such as vessel speed, heading, direction, and position. Maintaining written position information may seem quaint in today’s world of instant electronic navigation, but in the event of chart plotter failure or a loss of GPS signal, this information would be crucial in plotting a course to safety.

White vessel sailing the open waters at sunset

Always brief the oncoming watch on things such as vessel traffic and weather.

Going off watch

1. Brief your relief.

Your watch is done, but it’s not over until you pass on your knowledge to the oncoming watch.

“Always have a standard briefing when changing watches,” says Capt. Zuzana Prochazka, owner of Zescapes custom charters ( Keep it simple, but precise and clear. What’s the course and speed? Sea state? Current and expected weather? Any radio contacts? Vessels sighted and, if so, where are they now?

“Include comments on items such as weather, condition of boat/engine, sea state, traffic, course changes, and any engine or proximity warning alarms you may have set,” advises Capt. Prochazka. “Then have the oncoming (and possibly sleepy) watch repeat back what they just heard.”

2. Put on the kettle.

Want to stay in good with the oncoming watch? Lay out some snacks and put a kettle of water on the stove a bit before waking them (but don’t let this interfere with your watch-keeping). Some people abstain from caffeine when trying to get some sleep for watch, but everyone can appreciate having hot water for a cup of coffee, tea, cocoa, or instant soup to keep them warm during a long night watch.

Related Articles


Click to explore related articles

seamanship navigation boat handling


Frank Lanier

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Capt. Frank Lanier is a SAMS Accredited Marine Surveyor with more than 40 years of experience in the marine and diving industries. He’s also an author, public speaker, and multiple award-winning journalist whose articles on boat maintenance, repair, and seamanship appear regularly in numerous marine publications worldwide. He can be reached via his YouTube channel “Everything Boats with Capt. Frank Lanier” and website