A look at a watchkeeping tradition

From Ocean Navigator #115
July/August 2001
Our editorial offices are often peppered with requests for information on subjects broad and sundry that apply to operating a small boat at sea. Most recently we were asked by a reader for more information on preparing her vessel with a good set of standing orders and a guideline for preparing night orders. These two sets of orders have a long history in the merchant and navy fleets of the world and are still in use aboard commercial and naval vessels, and even yachts.

Since we hadn’t published much on this subject in several years, herewith is a run-down of the basic differences between standing orders and night orders and a guideline in drafting some for use on a voyaging boat.

Standing orders are the rules that are posted, usually in the front of the log, by the vessel’s captain to be understood by each watchstander, especially by the mate or watch captain, which refer to general seamanship of operating the vessel. For example, standing orders might list general requirements like plotting targets’ closest points of approach (with a guideline for minimum CPA), making hourly boat checks, keeping a good DR, obeying the Rules of the Road, taking immediate action for the safety of the ship, and a checklist for things to check when taking over a watch – establishing position and depth, course ordered, machinery status, weather conditions, crew status, sail status, and traffic in the area.

Standing orders also typically include a list of items to keep in mind when considering calling the captain to the deck, or bridge – for example, mechanical failure, reduced visibility, targets with a CPA of less than 1.5 miles, increased wind speed of more than one force on the Beaufort scale, or if course changes and sail changes are needed. The general rule is, however, to call on the captain with any doubts whatever – before an emergency has developed.

In summation, standing orders are the general rules of the vessel, established by the captain, to be observed at all times by the watchstanders.

Night orders, on the other hand, are written out by the captain before heading to the rack each night; they apply the sense of the standing orders to the specific conditions – sails set, weather, sea height, crew health, geography – that exist that evening, whether on watch or underway in a seaway. For example, the captain might review the day’s sail, explain reasoning behind why a certain course and sail plan is being executed, and how the overnight watch can use this reasoning to make decisions in the hours of darkness. Such plans might caution of potential wind shifts if squalls are suspected, offer parameters for sail and course changes, and warnings of other vessel traffic as in the vicinity of sea lanes or fishing areas.

The captain drafting a set of standing and night orders walks a fine line between wanting to have his crew feel empowered to make decisions (and therefore not wake him with every basic question) but also to feel like the captain is available as a safety net.

“You want them to think,” said Ralph Weymouth, a retired rear admiral with the Navy who commanded various vessels, including aircraft carriers, in his 30-odd-year career. He now sails a Bill Tripp-designed sloop that was built by the Bristol Yacht Yard in Bristol, R.I. “How do you give the crew enough leeway so that they don’t grow to be too dependent? You want to encourage them to have good judgment, to think through a problem, so that if they have to call the old man they’ll be able to provide intelligent information. They shouldn’t lean on the old man, but they should call the old man before it’s too late.”

Weymouth said that in his night orders he avoided laundry-list scenarios for his crew to follow. “I knew lots of skippers who would write out all these things like, ‘Call me right away if …’ And that’s okay, but the writing needs to say, ‘I can count on you to do a good job. I believe in you.'”

For a look at some sample standing and night orders we’ve posted some excerpts on our website at Ocean Navigator Online: www.OceanNavigator.com

By Ocean Navigator