• Paul Curtis


My book editor asked me to try and explain the watch system on ships. Here goes: This age-old measurement of a sailing ship’s time is still in use today. Originally, a glass timer was used with just enough sand to take a half-hour to run into the bulbous chamber. At the end of the half hour, the ship’s boy would ring the ship’s bell to denote a half hour had just passed and the glass had just been turned over. It also assured the crew that the boy had not fallen asleep. Starting at midnight, on the first half hour, the boy would strike one bell and on the second half hour would strike two bells and so on until at the end of four hours a total of 8 bells were tolled. And that meant that the standard four-hour watch for bridge officers was completed. They then needed a break as they probably had a headache from all that bell ringing. Then the system started over for the next watch. So, if you were in a deep sleep, and you heard two bells, you knew it was 1.00am, or, possibly 5.00am or, if you had been into the rum and really overslept, it could be one o’clock in the afternoon. The light streaming through the porthole gives a clue. Nowadays, the ship’s boy has been allocated a new duty: to wind the brass clock once a week so that never goes to sleep at all. Simple enough so far? Okay. Now we come to the ‘dog’ watches. To give each man a different watch each day and allow the entire crew to eat an evening meal, the hours between 16:00 and 20:00 are divided into two ‘dog’ watches with the first dog watchmen eating at 18:00. No canines are involved. If you ever hear sixteen bells being struck, happy new year! At midnight it’s eight bells for the old year and eight bells for the new. Accurate time keeping is particularly important for successful navigation and to make sure you never miss the sun going over the yardarm. This should always be kept as low as possible as we wouldn't want to miss that, would we?