Standing a watch on board Niagara is probably one of my most treasured memories from my three week Experiential Learning.
Watches are three hours long at night and four hours during the day. Night were my favorite. It starts when a member of the watch you will be relieving wakes you up, about 20 minutes before the exchange. This is actually really important. The person gives you the time, time until your watch and the current weather on deck. They then as “are you awake?” If they do not ensure you are awake before they leave you, and you fall asleep again, it is on them, not you.
When you have confirmed that you are in fact awake, you have 20 minutes to get dressed, get some food, use the head or get coffee if that’s your thing, before you have to be on deck.
Your division meets on deck with your watch officer who passes along any orders or information he received from the previous watch officer. Where we are, what sails are set, maneuvers or adjustments we might need to make etc. Once that is done, we relieve the current watch.
My favorite job, especially at night was lookout. You stand on the anchor line so you can see over the bow and what is in front of the ship. If anything is sighted, you walk back to the officer of the watch and report what you saw.
There are two lookouts at night, but talking is not allowed, so it is very peaceful, scanning the water, making note of distant land based lights.
When not on lookout or helm, the watch walks the deck or huddles in a group, talking in a whisper. It is so dark, and no lights are allowed on deck, that it is sometimes hard to tell who is who. As the trip continued, you learned peoples walk, or how they hold their hands when they stand. I always knew my Able Seaman because of the glowing hands of the watch he wore around his neck, small things like that.
On helm, two people would be responsible for manipulating the tiller so the ships compass remained on the course ordered. From helm you cannot see where the ship is going. The officer gives you a course, and you steer it. Sometimes, you would not even look up from the compass.
When the watch was complete, the new watch would have their meeting, and then rotate us out. We would then meet with our officer a final time to discuss the events of the watch and let us know when we would be back on. When that was complete the officer would dismiss us with “watch below.”
We would descend the ladder to the berth deck as quietly as possible so as not to wake the other two divisions and climb back into our hammocks. We were always asleep within ten minutes after that.