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Published: Monday, March 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Standing watch at sea, 'routine' is a good thing

Time to put the news away for a bit.
To stop listening to the latest crises our "leaders" have cooked up for us. To turn off the shout fests on cable television.
And, so...
One of the things you find at sea is routine.
There, the idea is to make everything -- even disaster -- routine. There's a reason for this.
If, on a regular basis, you train everyone to do a particular chore while things are calm, the odds are good that they'll still do it when everything is going to hell in a hand basket and panic is seeking entrée to the situation.
To establish such a mindset in everyone, there are fire, collision, man-overboard, flooding, and other drills that are regular, recurring, and routinely (that word again) repeated.
Further, amidst all of these drills, there's also the daily routine of life at sea. The time the laundry opens. The time to clean the ship. The times at which meals are served.
At sea, no matter what you're doing, it can, very likely, be incorporated into a routine.
One routine that's been around since Noah was a midshipman is the standing of watches. For the officers and crew of any vessel, the day is structured around watches which are generally set up as follows: "midwatch" (midnight-4 a.m.); morning (4 a.m.- 8 a.m.); forenoon (8 a.m.–noon); afternoon (noon–4 p.m.); evening (4 p.m.-8 p.m.); and night watch (8 p.m.-midnight).
I most enjoyed the night watch because the hours from 8 p.m. until midnight were, usually, quiet. The workday was over and activity was at a minimum. The crew had been fed and everyone was settling down to card games and the evening movie, or turning in for some well-deserved rest.
The scientific party -- unless they planned night operations -- was typically inspecting their samples, going over their data, or planning the next day's activities.
This allowed those of us on watch to go about the old-fashioned business of navigating a vessel at sea.
Most times, there was still some light left and I was often treated to a spectacular sunset. That last light also allowed us to get a sense of the sea state. That is, we could see swell height and direction, wind patterns on the water, and determine how minor course adjustments might affect the ride of the vessel.
The Captain usually made a trip to the bridge during those hours to leave his "Night Orders" -- handwritten instructions on planned course changes, expected landfalls, the distance at which he was to be called if another vessel approached, when to maneuver in order to provide safe separation from such vessels and, always, a reminder to "be safe."
That watch never seemed as hectic as a day watch. Navigational fixes were usually spaced at 30 minute intervals and contact with other vessels on the open ocean was not frequent. There was plenty of banter, time for walking out to the bridge wings to watch the stars, or to just be alone with your thoughts in the middle of an ocean.
Often, I'd find myself leaning over the rail looking at the white ribbon of a wake we were leaving or watching the constant explosions of phosphorescent light in the wash of water alongside the hull.
Occasionally, when there was another vessel in the area, small talk could be exchanged after planned avoidance maneuvers were agreed to if needed. Radio stations from other countries could also be tuned in on the bridge radios if the right atmospheric conditions were present.
Fresh coffee was always available. The smells of midnight rations ("midrats") -- if something more than cold cuts was being prepared -- would also make their way to the bridge letting you know that a late snack would be available when you went below.
It was relaxing and, at the end of the watch, you knew you could get a full night's sleep before having to go to work the next morning.
You might call such a watch "routine." Which is exactly what it was meant to be.
Unless, of course, it was about 11:39 p.m. on a certain evening onboard the Titanic.
In which case, "routine" was going to hang around for about another 60 seconds.
It happens.

Larry Simoneaux lives in Edmonds. Send comments to:

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