The naval, or nautical, watch system, existent since the earliest days of seagoing craft — whose journeys lasted longer than a crewmember could remain awake — ensures the smooth and safe operation of ships at sea. The modern system, which comprises six four-hour watches, theoretically allows the watch-keepers to rest for as long as they work. On a two-watch vessel, the system is often called watch on, watch off, and the groups are referred to as port and starboard or, aboard U.S. Naval vessels, blue and gold watch. Three-watch vessels carry enough crew to afford the luxury of providing two uninterrupted watch periods for the off watch, and are often called red, white and blue watches.
The only drawback to this system is the repetition it produces for the serving crew, each member standing the same watch over and over again. In order to upset this monotony, it is necessary to dog the watch by injecting two two-hour watches in place of the 1600 to 2000 watch. Thus, there are five four-hour watches and two two-hour watches. The designations and times for these watches are, beginning at midnight, 2400 to 0400 (midwatch), 0400 to 0800 (morning watch), 0800 to 1200 (forenoon watch), 1200 to 1600 (afternoon watch), 1600 to 1800 (first dog watch), 1800 to 2000 (last dog watch) and 2000 to 2400 (first watch). A landlubber would reveal himself to his shipmates by referring to the last dog watch as the second dog watch.
The origin of the phrase “dog watch” is unclear. Some suspect it is a corruption of the words “dodge watch” or is associated with the fitful or light sleep experienced by most sailors, called dog sleep.
Accompanying these watches were the customary bells: eight for 1200, one for 1230, two for 0100, and so on, until eight bells were struck at the end of the watch, 1600 in this example. This signaling allowed all standers of a watch to know how far along they were in their duties without the benefit of a pocket watch, a luxury that was either unavailable or unaffordable.
An interesting wrinkle in the watch-and-bell system is the non-sequential bells that are struck (bells at sea are always struck, never rung) during the dog watches. At 1830, which marks the end of the first half hour of the last dog watch, one bell, rather than the customary five bells, is struck and then two bells at 1900, etc. However, the normal eight bells are once again struck at 2000 rather than four, marking the return to the ordinary watch-and-bell system, as well as the completion of the last dog watch.
The late 18th and early 19th centuries were times of considerable unrest in the Royal Navy. Bligh’s Bounty mishap occurred in 1789; there were 12 courts-martial for mutinous offenses in 1805 and another 15 in 1813. The well-documented Spithead and Nore mutinies took place in 1797 and represented the height of discontent in the Navy. Some estimate more than 1,000 individual and mass mutinies from 1793 to 1815.
The Nore Mutiny, named for the Nore naval command, which itself was named for the sandbank at the mouth of the Thames, was particularly onerous. Led by midshipman Richard Parker serving aboard HMS Sandwich, it involved nearly all the ships of the Nore command.
Much like the mutiny at Spithead only a month before, the demands of the Nore mutineers were for more shore leave, higher pay and a greater share of prize money. Unlike the Spithead mutiny — which could be termed a success in that nearly all of the mutineers’ demands were met, with no floggings, hangings or disciplinary measures of any kind meted out in the aftermath — the Nore mutineers eventually surrendered, and Parker and 24 of the conspirators were, after the proceedings of a court-martial, hanged from the yardarm.
Because no form of clandestine ship-to-ship communication existed in this era, the agreed-upon signal for the commencement of the mutiny was the striking of five bells at 1830, the start of the first half hour of the last dog watch. Subsequent to the Nore Mutiny, however, the unusual dog watch series of bells was adopted. Legend has it that this change was instituted so that the same series of mutinous bells could never be struck again, for that particular watch, aboard any ship in the Royal Navy.