Off watch.

This is the continuation of an older series within the blog where i talk about the actual life at sea from the rough and tough southern ocean days to gentle and relaxed cruising . Its partially an answer to another question i was asked recently at work along the lines of what we do (at sea) when we aren’t sailing the boat.    The first answer of course is “sleeping” and the second “eating”.    I was thinking about this aspect of life at sea  today when i had a ‘soogee’ wash out on the deck here after a hard mornings work collecting (rucking) and cutting firewood….nothing quite like stripping off straight after hard work and having a good sluice down just like i used to do after a days work at sea. Some time i must explain what a soogee wash is !.

Essentially on a long voyage or race the life we lead is stunningly simple and that could be explained by being on watch and sailing the boat :hand, reef and steer in sailing parlance or being off-watch and either sleeping or cooking and eating.  For a lot of the time i spent ocean sailing we also used to run a separate system called ‘mother-watch’ in which a crewmember from each sailing watch would be out of their watch for the day but would spend a day just doing the domestic jobs ie the cooking and inside cleaning and would then get the night off for a long sleep.  On long voyages sailed watch-on and watch-off chronic sleep deprivation and fatigue are a real problem and the mother watch system is one way to give people a recovery sleep.

My experience of being at sea professionally as mate or skipper on bigger sailing boats is that non-sailors don’t know how to use their time well : ok so its tiring and disorientating at first to work a watch system and get roused out of a nice warm bunk at oh dark-thirty and even stranger for most to have to sleep for some of the day.  What i found though is that most non-sailors almost seem to vegetate after a few days and neither do watch duties well or seem to know what to do within their own mental space.  Sailors with some amount of ocean or offshore experience always seem to have a job to do/can find something to do or will for example be deep inside a book when they aren’t working the boat.    With those things in mind i often ran ocean voyages along more traditional lines, for example by turning the electronics off and having all the navigation done by sun and star sights and insisting that every watch had to work up a position during the watch : with that we also used to teach traditional navigation often as an afternoon masterclass.


On long trips once the crew (guests) were re-engaged mentally and physically and were working well within the new routine the whole atmosphere on the boat would improve and i found that a watch would often take on a personality of its own and find its own pace and rythym : once as mate my oppo’s watch became obsessed with trivial pursuits (the game) and would play night and day : hilarious that when they challenged my watch to an inter-watch match we spanked them hard !.

On many long trips we would write a ships newspaper and both myself and another nurse that i sailed with would write a ships medical coloum based on 2 fictional nurse characters : one (mine) was a psychotic and despotic ward sister of the old-school who believed in cold showers, hot enemas and carbolic soap for everything else.  My opposite , who was also the cook played the role of sister ‘suzie’ who didn’t like being called sister anyway and wrote as a modern non-directive, non-hieararchical ward management facilitator …ie a total drip.   And then on one trip the cook created the idea that we should write a spoof sailing story based on the Whitbread round the world race but it had to be as ridiculous as possible.  I seem to remember that every member of crew had to have some element of boat or sailing lore just as part of their name : i think the cook on one boat was of course called gale and the skipper of another had to be called storm, the skipper of the fictional German entry i am sure was Gunter Block and there was definitely a shag somewhere (there is always a shag at sea !).


I think that it was Sophie the cook who introduced me to the idea of product placement for the story ie that each sentence and paragraph had to mention highly desirable clothes and accessories.  This came about because i had tried to write a race start sequence and at one point in the narrative had the navigator on the lead boat glance at his watch : wrong ! says Sophie and what it should have said at the least was glanced at his Rolex or even better glanced admiringly at his brand new stainless steel submariner…..people in the know would be expected to of course understand that this would be a Rolex.  I think i learnt to write entire ‘spoof’ paragraphs in that manner : Rolex this, Dubbary that, Henri-Lloyd other.


My contribution was to add a completely spoof hippy/alternative world within the race where a complete outsider boat take part : at one point that was going to be something like a pilot cutter skippered by a reprehensible northern ‘git who didn’t have a ships cat but rather had the ships ferrets (usually in his trousers) wore a flat cap and kept a greyhound in the forepeak.  The boat was to be sponsored by the  Newcastle brown brewery and the makers of Rizla (cigarette papers) but  i eventually changed the boat to a James Wharram-esque catamaran with hippy’s , dope and lots of nudity but kept the skipper character as i quite liked him.  We eventually agreed that the Wharram would actually win the race but the crew would  never turn up at the prizegiving : i think they were all stoned at stonehenge at the time.  Going back to watch and mother watch though i think the boat was officially sailing as a temporary autonomous zone and didn’t actually have a skipper….rather a decision making collective who only made deciisions during shamanic encounter sessions and mother watch was of course ‘earth-mother’ watch. Sometime i must try and rebuild that story and see if i can’t publish it here maybe as an ongoing serial within the blog.


  1. One thing that tends to happen is the enormous amount of “stuff” that gets discussed in the middle of the night from absolute rubbish to quite serious discussions about, well anything really.


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