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Living on a ship

The routine at sea

`Queen Elizabeth` at sea

Magnifying glassQueen Elizabeth at sea

A ship usually has to keep working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This sets the routine for those on board, determining when they work and what they do. The type of ship also decides the routine. Recent decades have seen changes in life for the seafarer, but going to sea is still an attractive and rewarding career.

The watch system

The working day at sea is divided into six four-hour watches. Traditionally, a bell was sounded every half hour, so `eight bells` signified the end of one watch and the beginning of the next. At the end of each watch there is a formal handover of responsibility. The relieving deck officer is told the course and is expected to check it. In the engine room, details of any problems experienced or anticipated are passed on. In both the bridge and engine room, logs are written up as formal records of such details as course, speed, and engine revolutions

Each deck or engineering officer will usually be allocated two watches throughout the day. The seamen who steer the ship, lookouts, the firemen in steamers, and greasers in the engine room would also be allocated two watches. All have to sleep and take their meals when off watch.

Certain officers and members of the crew work outside the watch system. The master and perhaps the chief engineer may not stand watches, although they would expect to be called at any time there was a problem. During his day the master would probably have a meeting with senior officers to plan the day`s work. This is particularly important in a cruise ship where all departments need to coordinate their activities, for instance if the ship is putting into a port, and passengers have to be got ashore.

Some of the work of maintaining the outside of the ship can only be done in daylight. So some of the seamen will not be on the watch, but on day work. Catering staff and stewards will also work to their own timetable, determined by the needs of preparing and serving meals.

Port schedule

Typically, the routine used to change when a ship was in port. Most people would go over to day work, with perhaps just a watchman on duty through the night. There was still plenty of work, however. The master would have port officials, agents and perhaps company representatives to deal with. The deck officer would be supervising loading or unloading. Engineers might take the opportunity to strip down and overhaul machinery. As port stays have got shorter, however, it is become less realistic to disrupt the routine in this way. Many ships will therefore continue with the watch system whilst loading or unloading.


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