An Introduction to the Watch System in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

Mr. Midshipman Marryat serves tea.

This is a simplified version of the watch system as operated in most ships, where the crew were divided into two watches, the larboard and starboard watch. In practice when meals were served a small percentage of the watch on duty manned the ship whilst the others ate and then had their meals when the others had finished. Also at 8 am and 8 pm all the crew would be on watch for half an hour. Time was measured with a half hour and four hour sand glass, and the ship’s bell was rung every half hour, so at eight bells it was time for the watch to change.

The ship’s day started at midday; this was when the ship’s speed and the sun’s altitude would be ascertained. The Hand Log would be used to derive the speed in . The Master, Master’s Mates and Midshipmen would use their sextants and quadrants to estimate the sun’s highest point in the sky; noon was reported when the sun reached its meridian.

The idlers were those members of the crew not obliged to stand watches, they were the men whose duties meant they tended to work throughout the day, such as the carpenter, the cook, the purser and their respective mates. With the exception of the cooks mate they would also get an extra hour in their beds, usually getting up at 5 am.

Typical Day on a Man of War

Time Larboard Watch Starboard Watch Idlers
to 4 am
Middle Watch
4 am to 8 am
Morning Watch
8 am Up Hammocks Breakfast
8 am to Noon
Forenoon Watch
Noon Dinner
1 pm to 4pm
Afternoon Watch
4 pm Supper
4 pm to 6 pm
1st Dog Watch*
6 pm to 8 pm
2nd Dog Watch*
8 pm between 8pm and 9pm Down Hammocks
8 pm to Midnight
First Watch
Midnight to 4 am
Middle Watch

*(Why do they call it a Dog Watch? Because it’s cur-tailed! Did ya smoke it?)

Courtesy of Broadside.
Image: From The Secret Diary of a Midshipman by Captain Frederick Marryat. Courtesy of The Joyful Molly.

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