Crew and watches

Ships’ crews were divided into work groups called watches. There were typically two groups called the port watch and the starboard watch, named after each side of the ship.

They worked shifts that were also called watches. Most shifts were four hours long, so seafarers worked for four hours and then rested for four hours. However, the watch between 4pm and 8pm was divided into two shorter shifts which were called the first dog and the second dog. The origin of that name is not known but it was used from the seventeenth century. The purpose of the shorter watches was to divide the day into an odd number, seven watches instead of six, so that the crews did not work the same watches every day.

Shipboard time was marked by ringing the ship’s bell. It was stuck every half hour. One ring marked half an hour into the watch, two rings marked one hour into the watch and so on until eight rings marked the end of the four hour watch. Traditionally, seafarers spoke of time in bells.

A young officer, Edward Beck, recorded the daily routine for his voyage carrying passengers and cargo to Calcutta in 1826. He wrote that at 5am the crew scrubbed the decks, at 6am two hands and the junior officers of the watch pumped six pints (2.83 litres) of water for each passenger and at 7.30am the passengers’ bedding was aired in netting above the sides of the ship. The first watch then went to breakfast and they were followed by the passengers at 8.30 am.

The next watch was called on deck and given work maintaining the rigging or assisting the sail maker and the carpenter. At 11.30am the crew pumped the ship dry and the officers assembled on the poop to observe the sun at noon to determine their location. At noon the Captain commanded the boatswain to strike the bell eight and pipe the passengers to dinner.

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