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Ten Golden Rules for Standing Watch Under Sail

Learn to sail like a pro with these ten golden sailing tips. I believe nothing gives peace-of-mind to a sailing skipper when you know that the person on deck after dark will be alert, awake, and attentive to the duties of an effective watchstander. Follow these ten tips to keep safe and sound on the waters of the world.

What makes a guy or gal a valuable underway watchstander? It’s not years at sea or holding a professional license. Whether you are a licensed captain or brand new sailor, International law demands that you serve as a lookout at all times on watch. Nothing ranks higher in importance.

I personally will not sail offshore or coastwise on any vessel where you stand a watch steering the boat. Auto pilots and wind vanes are worth their weight in gold. Of course, there will be times when this gear may fail to function and you must steer.

But take the helm and you lose more than 50% of your ability as an effective lookout. And that alone compromises safety for all aboard in a big way. Why is this?…

Mount all the plotter info you want at the helm, but I’d be hard pressed to steer an accurate course, plot a position, determine visual (not just electronic) bearing drift on an approaching vessel, track a vessel on radar (manually and electronically, as required), trim sails, or scan the horizon through 360° with my hands gripped to the helm.

If you choose to use an autopilot, and find that you must steer part of the time to conserve power (electronic auto pilots can consume copious amounts of electrical juice), steer for 20 minutes; then place the helm on auto-pilot for 20 minutes.

Use that time to scan the horizon, track and plot visual contacts (by manual means–not just electronic!), trim sails, and rest your eyes and brain to stay alert. Follow this rotation to lessen fatigue and maintain alertness, in particular in the wee hours from 0200 (2am) on, when us humans are at our least alert.

In rough weather or fog when you must steer, rotate the helm watch every 30 minutes to prevent crew fatigue. Double up the watch if you have enough sailing crew aboard. This will lower the stress in fog and help reduce the incidence of seasickness associated with driving in heavy weather.

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