Cruiser Watch Schedules

Get 8 Hours of Sleep at the Same Time Each Day

This article is a slightly edited version of the original which first appeared on the Banderas Bay Portal website.

For cruisers planning an offshore voyage of more than two or three days duration, the subject of watch schedules should be at the top of the priority list for thoughtful consideration. Having discussed this topic with many experienced sailors over the years, I have yet to discover any widespread consensus about what is the optimum arrangement. What we've found even more surprising is that no one we've talked to has adopted the plan we routinely used for extended passages offshore.

Since it worked so well for my lady, Teri, and me, perhaps others will be interested in how we did it. First, we have two main criteria for a good watch schedule:

  1. For safety reasons, the person on watch must be able to remain both physically and mentally fit throughout the duration of the watch
  2. All persons on board should arrive at the destination without feeling deprived of sleep

How do we meet these requirements? It is our experience that the best pattern is one which allows each person on board to get a full eight hours of sleep during each twenty-four hour cycle and—very important—the sleep period should be during the same hours each day.

Since Teri doesn't have good night vision, she stands her watch from about 0400 to 1200 hours each day while I sleep. We are both awake from 1200 to about 2000. I then stand the night watch from 2000 to 0400 the next morning while she gets her sleep. Teri's watch correlates closely with her normal hours of sleep in port or at anchor. For my watch period, I think of it like adjusting to a graveyard shift at work; after a couple of days, I adjust to the routine and have no trouble staying awake and alert throughout the night.

Before elaborating more on our unusual watch schedule, I should mention that we used this system during fourteen years and over 60,000 n.m. of cruising. Included in that mileage were ten return "Baja Bash" trips from Banderas Bay to our original home port of Santa Barbara, California—all of which were traveled offshore, voyages that averaged about 2-3 weeks in duration. (See my article entitled The Baja Bash for a description of the long offshore northbound voyage from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego). Our longest offshore passage during our travels was a 32-day trip from Panama to Zehuatanejo, Mexico.

O.K., I can already hear the shouts: "What! An eight-hour watch! That's ridiculous!"

Yes, it would be ridiculous if we modern cruisers were still subject to "tyranny of the helm," as sailors of old were. But we aren't. It's a rare vessel nowadays (approx. 2010 a.d.) that is not equipped with either an autopilot or a self-steering rig, or both. I'll confess: our own arrangement depended entirely on such equipment. In fact, having at least an autopilot was so critical to our plan that we carried an extra control head and four backup drive units, as well as several replacement belts. We used the Autohelm 3000 autopilot, not because it's an especially reliable and robust unit—in fact, it isn't—but because it's relatively cheap and each of the major units (control head, drive motor, belt) can be changed out in a matter of minutes. Also, over the years I've learned to tear down and service the drive unit, which is the most likely component to fail (as it often has).

Without the necessity of having to be constantly on the helm, the watch stander is able to relax, keep a good eye out, read a book (perhaps several), eat, etc. Also, when traveling a good distance offshore, traffic is light and coastal hazards are non-existent, both of which facts contribute to a more relaxed watch. If you're one of the more compulsive types who worries about neglecting the need to take a scan of the horizon every fifteen minutes or so, consider buying a cheap digital alarm device to hang around your neck. Having a radar running with an alarm set will also contribute to your comfort zone.

How about the energy drain from the autopilot? In our case, the Autohelm 3000 doesn't draw much current, especially if the sails are properly trimmed for the desired course and the wind doesn't shift much. We carry two Honda 1000W portable generators to replenish the batteries when necessary. But, to be honest, this is more needed because of frequent use of my large mid-tower computer than it is for the autopilot. Bottom line: almost all cruising boats today have enough energy producing equipment to cover the relatively minor power drain. Of course, a sturdy self-steering vane is an even more efficient steering system. Besides requiring no power, such vanes respond to changes in wind direction much better.

As I've mentioned, our system has worked very well for us during many thousands of miles of sailing offshore passages. I've heard countless admissions from people who have adopted three- or four-hour watch patterns about how they've arrived at their destination totally fatigued and in bad spirits. Our plan makes offshore passages no more stressful than sitting in an anchorage sipping rum and coke. We've also managed to read an amazing number of books during our many passages over the years.

This system works well for crews of two or more people. For single-handers, however, the story is quite different. Basically, as far as I'm concerned, single-handed sailors on long offshore passages have no choice but to put themselves and others in their vicinity at risk in order to get those few precious minutes or hours of needed sleep. At those times, there's no one on watch! My advice for such people is to arrange to make those long passages with a "buddy boat." The idea is for the two boats to stay within sight of each other during the voyage. Then they can adopt our plan: one person keeps the watch for both boats while the other gets sleep. The sleeping sailor should have their VHF radio tuned to a pre-determined channel (not Ch. 16 or any others likely to have frequent traffic) with the volume up very loud. If the person on watch needs to communicate with the sleeper, a quick call on the designated VHF channel should be enough to rouse the sleeper. I used this same system during a long single-handed offshore passage from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego, and it worked well.

I'm interested in hearing about other watch patterns that have worked for others, as well as any comments or criticisms of our method. In any event, give a lot of thought to your plans for standing watches before you embark on a long offshore, multi-day passage. I'll look forward to comments or tales from any of you who have made, or want to make, bluewater passages, or who have more questions that I haven't answered here. You can contact me via email at


—Gary Albers, S/V Ishi