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Sitting down on watch? Tradition aside, it’s the smart option

Apr 29, 2020 03:41 PM

I remember the day my letter of acceptance to the California Maritime Academy (CMA) arrived at my apartment in Spokane, Wash. I called my dad with the good news, and accepted his offer of a celebratory pitcher of something cold and a large combo with extra cheese at our favorite pizza place that night. My dad sailed as an able seaman and boatswain for years, so I wasn’t surprised that after toasting the beginning of my maritime career, he then started giving me advice on what he thought made a good mate at sea — things like relieving the watch on time and not drinking alcohol while at work. He was especially adamant that sitting down on watch was verboten, admonishing me not to turn out like the second mate he stood watch with on a freighter bound for Cape Town, South Africa, who got fired after the captain caught him sitting in his wheelhouse chair one night. After I entered the academy, I soon found that the prevailing viewpoint was the same as my dad’s — that sitting down during an underway bridge watch was as unprofessional as it was unthinkable, and any mariner who did so risked getting fired and sullying his or her reputation as a result.

I got the chance to see firsthand just how serious some people were about the whole “sitting down on watch” thing when I was the deck cadet on a containership during my last year at school. It was just before sunrise, not far from Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands, when the captain came up to the bridge with his morning coffee. He greeted us and then went over to his chair — a big, sturdy, barber-type model permanently attached to the deck. Putting his free hand on the seat to steady himself as he hopped up on it, all of a sudden he stopped and turned toward the second mate. Glaring, he snarled, “Any idea why the seat of my chair is warm, Mr. Mate?” Looking down at his shoes, the second mate mumbled a weak, “No, captain.” “That’s good,” the skipper continued, “because you know from signing my orders that anyone sitting down on watch will be fired.”

The idea that no one should ever sit down on a bridge watch was spawned from practices developed on deep-sea ships, both naval and merchant marine. Though never formally included in any navigation laws or regulations, it has been a nautical custom for hundreds of years. From a safety perspective, the thinking has always been that no matter how fatigued a mariner might be, standing up for the entire watch supposedly ensured that he would never fall asleep while on the bridge. By the time my graduation from CMA drew near, I thoroughly accepted what I had been taught: A deck officer on an oceangoing ship should never sit down on watch. After I started working professionally, however, I became aware that other sectors of the maritime industry didn’t necessarily think the same way.

When hired by a large West Coast towing company based in Long Beach, Calif., I soon found out that it was considered OK for watch standers to sit down while underway. I asked Jeff, the chief mate on my boat, why it was considered all right on tugs but frowned upon on deep-sea ships. He told me that a major factor was the motion of the vessel. A 100-foot tugboat got battered about much more by the wind and weather than a 1,000-foot ship, which made standing up for an entire bridge watch virtually impossible if there was any kind of swell to deal with while underway. From my perspective, sitting down was also more user-friendly. The tugs I worked on had a chair in the wheelhouse set up so the watch stander could monitor the radar, adjust the throttle, and call and monitor traffic on the VHF radio — all while still keeping a good lookout.

After I moved on from tugs and began working on other commercial vessels, including tour boats, oceanographic vessels and fish factory ships, I found out that sitting down on watch was OK on those as well. One summer I was hired by a company operating high-speed passenger vessels between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia, and was assigned to one that was specifically designed for deck officers to sit down while underway. The sleek new ship had two comfortable bridge chairs in what resembled an airplane cockpit, with an unobstructed view ahead of us. At the speeds we went, there was no time to go back and forth between various pieces of bridge equipment as you could on a large, slower-moving ship. It was more of a navigation station than a traditional bridge, where we could do everything we needed to do from our chairs.

Besides operational reasons why sitting down on watch makes good sense, medical researchers have found that standing for long periods at work can actually be hazardous to your health. Studies out of Switzerland and Canada have determined that on jobs where workers stood for five hours a day, the subjects were at higher risk for back troubles, foot problems, varicose veins, and serious heart and circulatory issues. This certainly applies to bridge watch standers on commercial vessels, who routinely work eight to 12 hours a day — 200 to 250 percent more than the baseline in the studies. The researchers concluded that alternating between standing and sitting over the work period was optimum for promoting good health and minimizing fatigue. This research medically makes the case for at least giving watch standers on deep-sea ships the option to sit down some of the time they’re on the bridge.

That day my dad first warned me about sitting down on watch, I remember asking, “Why is it all right for airline pilots, train engineers and truck drivers to sit down on their job, but not mariners?” Agitatedly, he answered, “Because it’s tradition, that’s why.” With ever-smaller crews working more and more hours, coupled with recent medical findings and the trend toward one-person navigational watches, never sitting down on a bridge watch no longer makes sense. I believe it’s time that we leave this “tradition” where it belongs — in the history books.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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