Pip Hare explains why efficient and well-planned watch handovers are vital to ensure a happy crew and a well kept yacht on passage

On longer voyages, and passages with larger crews, a good watch system is essential to the efficient running of the boat. But the same watch system can also hinder good communication and sharing of knowledge leading to poor performance, technical problems being overlooked and at times a discord – even tribalism – among the crew. These problems can all be avoided through efficient and well-planned watch handovers.

Whether sailing double-handed or in a crew of 20, the time two watches spend together is critical to the smooth running of your boat and watch handovers should be briefed and executed in the same way throughout a trip.

Crews should understand that allowing enough time for a handover is expected for both the incoming and outgoing watches, and arriving late for watches or scuttling off deck as soon as another crew person shows up is never acceptable.

Watch handovers & smooth transitions

Here’s how a well-executed watch handover works:

  • The new watch arrives on deck 5-10 minutes before they take over, appropriately dressed with equipment, drinks and snacks for the watch. They acclimatise to the conditions, talk to the previous watch crew about how it has been on deck, get their night vision.
  • A formal handover between the two watches takes place.
  • The two watch leaders, if relevant, agree parameters for waking the skipper, even if these have not changed since the last watch changeover.
  • If there is a sail change or manoeuvre that has been saved until the change of the watch, this can be performed with the old watch leader still in charge.
  • The new watch takes over during a 5-10 minute handover. With larger watches this means leaving one or two crewmembers on the deck to support the old crew while the others go down and get ready for the off watch. Crew members who are early off watch can check that the new watch crew have everything they need, and an offer to pass up hot drinks or extra clothing if required is often appreciated.
  • Off-going crewmembers go below, being careful to use red or low lights at night while preparing to rest.
  • Information exchange

Sometimes there will be little to report between watches, while at others there will be a lot to go over. It’s useful to have a checklist to work through to make sure nothing falls through the gap and is forgotten. Work through the list each time and confirm that there is nothing to report against each heading. This list could be put up by the chart table.

Don’t rush handover, take some time to acclimatise, particularly if taking the helm as oncoming watch crew. Photo: 59° North Sailing

An example watch handover list could be:

  • Safety considerations – navigation, weather, traffic.
  • Condition of crew – sickness, fatigue, morale.
  • Condition of boat – any problems, damage, other concerns.
  • Wind report – past, general trend, expectations.
  • Sail plan and anticipated changes.
  • Steering characteristics, pilot settings, pilot performance.
  • Trim notes – agreed parameters for waking skipper or waking other watch.
  • State of batteries – charging schedule.
  • Routine tasks to be completed during watch (eg weather download).

Depending on the makeup of your crew different items can be briefed between crewmembers. Explain how you have been using the instruments and what each one is displaying, particularly if you have changed the size or data set on any of the screens. Talk through any alarms that have been set.

Watch timings

Before starting an offshore passage, it is important to agree with the crew watch timings and make sure all understand that the length of the watch is the length of time on deck and in command of the boat – not the length of time in your bunk asleep.

Repeatedly arriving on deck late for a watch will quickly start to generate bad feeling among a crew and fatigue for the other watch. If your watch system is three hours, this will equate to between two and two-and-a-half hours of sleep, depending on how efficiently you are able to get from the deck to your bunk and back.

Watch handover can be a good time for planned manoeuvres or all-crew briefings. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Make sure you allow a realistic amount of time to get in and out of foulies, use the heads and prepare food and drink – remember for a larger watch this will mean sharing common areas so space may be an issue and some crew may need to get on deck early to free up room to change.

Items such as head torches and phones should be charged up when you are off watch, so leave enough time to plug them in before going to your bunk. Agree a time with the outgoing watch at which they can wake you if you have not appeared for the changeover.

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Preparing hot drinks can slow things down so in smaller watches make sure you light the stove as soon as you are up. With larger crews a member of the outgoing watch could go down below down and light the stove 15 minutes before the handover.

If you wake up late, or need to take more time to get on deck, then let the other watch know straight away so that they can adjust their expectations for getting off the deck, especially if the weather is bad.

All hands on deck

Rather than a handover period, think of this watch changeover as an opportunity to sail the boat fully crewed. When cruising you can plan to tack or gybe at the watch handover, or to change up to a bigger sail. When racing this will be a chance to recap on strategy and performance, to pass on information about how the boat is performing and where other competitors are.


On night watch. Photo: Richard Langdon

On a racing crew each position will hand over to their counterpart individually while the watch captains will exchange an overview. Larger racing teams may have navigators who are not part of the watch system, but will aim to be present at the watch handovers and brief the incoming watch on what they want them to achieve over the length of the watch.

These handover times are a good opportunity for skippers to learn about the health and welfare of crewmembers, but also of the boat itself. If there is something wrong with the boat then the watch leaders can agree how to manage the situation and when and how it will be fixed, taking into account daylight and weather conditions. If a crewmember is unwell or if there is discord within a watch this can also be addressed and a timeline to swap or rest crews can be agreed.


Whether fully crewed or short-handed, you will often find that the appearance of a fresh face or new people on deck leads to a burst of energy from the outgoing watch. These times are not only valuable for an exchange of information but they can be crucial to keeping spirits up and enhancing a crew’s enjoyment of a passage.

Don’t be too quick to rush off the deck – a quick bit of banter or some kind enquiries about how the others slept are as important as the more technical details. If you are a skipper involved in the watch system this could be an opportunity to check on the welfare of another watch, and for any nervous or novice crew members appearing on deck the reassurance of normal conversation will start their watch well.

Ensure the space below is left clean and dry for the next watch, dishes are washed up, wet gear hung in the agreed place, and if hot bunking stow your personal kit away. Leave the deck well organised, with ropes coiled and tidied.

More than anything, try to encourage an atmosphere of support and kindness between watches. If you make sure the team on deck are happy and have everything they need before you turn in then they will treat you in the same way.

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