Dog Watches at Sea

Dog Watches at Sea: A Vital Aspect of Maritime Tradition with an Unexpected Twist

In the realm of traditional sailing, the concept of ‘dog watches’ is a crucial part of managing crew schedules. These watches, while essential, are often considered the most demanding in terms of maintaining a balanced work-rest cycle. Understanding the purpose and structure of dog watches is key to appreciating the complexities of life at sea, especially aboard the classic vessels we operate at Classic Sailing.

Understanding Dog Watches

A dog watch splits the standard four-hour watch into two two-hour segments, typically scheduled between 16:00 and 20:00 (4 pm and 8 pm). The first dog watch runs from 16:00 to 18:00, and the second from 18:00 to 20:00. This system, unique to maritime operations, has been a longstanding tradition in seafaring.

The Rationale Behind Dog Watches

The primary purpose of dog watches is to rotate the crew through different watches on a daily basis. This rotation is crucial for a couple of reasons:

Preventing Monotony: By changing the watch schedule daily, no single crew member or team is perpetually stuck with the less desirable shifts, such as the mid-watch (midnight to 4 am). This rotation helps in maintaining morale and fairness among the crew.

Balanced Workload: Dog watches distribute the workload more evenly over a period of three days.

Challenges and Adaptations

Despite their necessity, dog watches can be physically and mentally taxing. The frequent change in routine can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to fatigue. On longer voyages, some ships may alternate between dog watches and a schedule of four-hour watches. This approach allows for a more consistent sleep pattern, with the crew rotating through the watch schedule by advancing one watch period every few days. This gradual rotation ensures that each crew member experiences different watches throughout the voyage, promoting a fair and sustainable work-rest cycle.

A bit of a wag

Amidst the seriousness of maritime discipline and the rigours of life at sea, there’s always room for a bit of humour. In Patrick O’Brian’s novel “Post Captain,” a playful exchange captures the essence of this:

Jack Aubrey, the Captain, inquires during a meal, “This short watch that is about to come, or rather these two short watches—why are they called dog watches? Where, heu, heu, is the canine connection?”

Stephen Maturin, ever the wit, replies, “Why, it is because they are curtailed, of course.”

This light-hearted moment from O’Brian’s work (O’Brian, Patrick. “Post Captain.” 1972) not only brings a smile but also highlights the camaraderie and spirit that are as much a part of seafaring life as the discipline and hard work.


Dog watches are a quintessential part of maritime life, especially on traditional sailing vessels. They reflect the need for adaptability, resilience, and teamwork in the unique environment at sea. And as O’Brian’s work reminds us, a touch of humour can be a sailor’s best companion in navigating the vast and often challenging seas.

Voyages that may have ‘Dog Watches’

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