Life on board: the watch system

Half marathon notice

Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

Life on board for the crew of Cutty Sark was dominated by the watch system. Everyone on board apart from the Master, Steward and the petty officers (carpenter, sailmaker, cook and bosun) were divided into two ‘watches’ – ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ watch. They would then alternate periods of duty, so there would always be one watch on deck. The First Mate would oversee one watch, the Second Mate would oversee the other.

 Bell of Cutty Sark, used to mark the watches on board © National Maritime Museum


The day and night was divided into periods of duty of four hours and the crew would work four hours then rest for four hours. There would also be two smaller “dog watches” of two hours’ duration to ensure the sailors changed which watch they stood from day to day. While on duty, the crew would need to navigate the ship and handle the sails to manoeuvre Cutty Sark; life would revolve round the ship’s progress which would depend on the strength of the wind and state of the sea. In stormy weather, all hands would be required on deck and those off duty were roused from their beds to assist. Maintenance of the vessel would also be carried out by the watch on duty and tasks included cleaning, washing down the deck, carrying out repairs and painting. There would also always be a fair amount of cordage and sail repair work to do. Clarence Ray – apprentice on board Cutty Sark 1894-1895 – writes in a letter home “if we go to sleep in our watch on deck they make us ride the grey mare - that is sit up on the upper topsail yard for the rest of the watch. I have not had to do this yet but the other fellow has, twice.” In the time when the crew were not working, they might catch up on some sleep, do some washing or maybe write a letter home. Some might also pursue hobbies such as model-making or playing an instrument. Time was marked on the ship by strokes on the bell which is fitted at the break of the anchor deck, towards the front of the ship. Each half hour of a watch was marked by one stroke so 30 minutes into the watch the bell would be rung once, 60 minutes into the watch the bell would be rung twice and so on. Four hours into the watch the bell would be rung eight times to signal the watch change when work for one watch would end and the other would begin. Come on board today and you will hear the watch change being marked on board at 12.00 and 16.00 every day, as it would have been 140 years ago.