REMINISCENCES | The graveyard watch

Photo: IMO

Fatigue, I was reading recently, has become a major problem in our meanly manned ships of today. The obvious solution would be to increase the available manpower to a level that might make it less likely that people would fall over from exhaustion, but that fails to commend itself to the ruling bean-counters.

One cheaper solution – thought up, I understand, by teams of psychologists and medical experts who have been studying the circadian rhythms that govern our lives – would be to alter the watch keeping pattern and introduce a bit of variety into the lives of weary seafarers. You would need a chart (or more realistically an app) to actually understand it, but effectively you would be on watch at a different time each day and thus never fall into a pattern of endless boredom and general despair.

Looking back on my less pressurised years afloat, in retrospect we were spoiled rotten on our lavishly manned Commonwealth cargo liners. My future wife was then enduring 12-hour “watches” as a nurse and was never that sympathetic when I told her of our tough life. When up for tickets we would meet hollow-eyed folk who had endured years of working watch and watch on tramp steamers or short sea vessels, where there were a couple of mates on alternative four-hour shifts, as their ship wandered around the globe.

We listened to tanker hands who never ever broke watches on a monotonous run between the oil wells of the Gulf and Europe, as they only went to ports where the jetty was so long there wasn’t ever time to reach dry land. Thus they always seemed a great deal wealthier than us, who had endless opportunities to spend money around the coasts.

“The four-to-eight watch was easily the most interesting.”

On our ships there were four mates and the chief officer was permanently on day work, except for emergencies such as long periods of fog, when watches would double up. The hours we worked were written in stone, with the fourth mate keeping the eight-to-12, the third mate on the twelve-to-four, and the second mate as the senior watch keeper on the four-to-eight, morn and night. In theory that meant the fourth mate had a decent night’s sleep, the third mate had his shut-eye rudely interrupted at midnight, while the second mate was dragged out of his bunk before dawn each day.

Of course it never quite worked like that. We were sociable chaps in those days, so the fourth mate would invariably  chat to the officer he had just relieved at midnight and then probably go down and have a couple of beers with his opposite numbers from the engine room. The third mate would do the same at 04:00 with the third engineer and his junior and so an hour or so of valuable sleeping time went by unslept.

The poor old second mate probably thought that beer at breakfast time was not a good idea, but had to be alert for sun sights and other important duties during the morning. And anyway the second mate, who could have been tucked up in bed in the early evening, would be socialising with the passengers, playing a game of cribbage, or having a post dinner nightcap in the bar with all the other day-workers, reluctantly realising the time and eventually disappearing, rather too late.

The four-to-eight watch was easily the most interesting, with twilight stars to work out once you had rubbed the sleep from your eyes in the morning and thrown off the lassitude of the afternoon nap. Dawn could be lovely, the ship coming alive each day with the arrival of tea and toast and smells of bacon wafting through the accommodation, especially if your stars had worked out well.

“It taught you patience and possibly to think a bit more creatively.”

I spent several years on the twelve-to-four, which in the open ocean was not the most enlivening existence, trying to stay awake after being dragged out at “one bell” and sustained for the first hour by coffee and cigarettes. While the afternoon shift was fine, there was little about the graveyard watch to commend it. You could talk to the chap at the wheel, take the odd compass error and walk up and down in the dark, thinking about how nice it would be to be somewhere else. You could spend a little time taking the weather observations to distract Sparks when he was required to send them. It taught you patience and possibly to think a bit more creatively, as the empty hours ticked away.

On one ship I decided to become a super navigator and would try to take lunar reductions, like Captain Cook, on nights with a full moon, to while away the time. The master pretended to be impressed, but I think he was trying to humour me. Worst of all was having to turn in at about 05:00, when you were once again fully awake, a process that got progressively harder as the passage progressed.

But unlike those hard folk on trampships and tankers, watch keeping wouldn’t last forever and a more rational life resumed when we hit the coast. Mind you, we didn’t seem to get much more sleep then, either.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Each week, we will feature new personal experiences from across the globe. Submissions to: [email protected].

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.