top of page

6 & 6: No thanks!

I hold one of our contributors, Capt. Bill Brucato, in especially high regard. He’s a consummate professional and always has something intelligent to say. But unlike most of our peers, he isn’t afraid to say it. In a world full of gutless and anonymous internet stone-throwers, that takes real courage. He recently posted an excellent piece on the fatigue / manning / watch-schedule problem and the efforts he and his crew made to experiment with a different watch schedule in an attempt to the lessen fatigue that is inherent to our current manning standards. I commend his willingness to try something new when so many others can’t bring themselves to even consider it. Nevertheless, I’m duty-bound to point out what I think are some flaws in his arguments for accepting the status quo and sticking with a 6 & 6 watch schedule.

Ask anyone working on the boats within the towing industry why almost all of us work 6 & 6 watches and you will likely get one of three answers: 1. I don’t know, 2. That’s the way it’s always been, or 3. We have to because we’re in a 2-watch system. Those three pretty well sum it up. Numbers one and two are simply honest answers. Number three is just plain wrong. But most mariners really don’t know the “fine print” of the regulations, so they don’t realize that, even with the handicap of the 2-watch system, there can be other options available.

And there are other options: 7/5/5/7, 8/4/4/8, 12 & 12, and the so-called rolling 8’s are all possibilities. Any or all of them may work for you, depending upon many different factors that can only be determined by looking carefully at your particular operation and experimenting. I’ll be the first to admit that if you’re on a busy harbor boat, and especially if you work primarily in ship assists, then there may be no good answer, other than adding a third person to the rotation, which would help simply by cutting down the number of hours per day that you must be on your game. You may not get that much more sleep but at least you won’t be spending so much time “on the field.” This also allows for better attention to be paid to the ever-increasing administrative work load and the conducting of drills without having to cut into your precious sleep time.

But for just about everyone else the alternative watch rotations can have real benefits. The problem isn’t so much that we don’t get enough time off-watch in total as it is the lack of adequate unbroken rest. Most people (repeat: not necessarily everyone, but most people) need eight hours a day of quality, unbroken rest to “recharge the batteries”, and that’s non-negotiable. If you don’t get it your cognitive abilities and motor functions will decline quite rapidly. It’s an indisputable medical / scientific fact. I can’t help but point out that the well-known  physical effect of sleep deprivation is exactly the same as consuming alcohol, which, of course, we are strictly forbidden from doing. This is a huge, glaring regulatory contradiction here that the Coast Guard carefully avoids like the plague.

In any case, you can divide up all the CEMS stuff into two main categories: things within the crew’s control and things that aren’t, and I can’t afford to spend a lot of time on the latter. If the boat is loud, and many are, and the company doesn’t want to do anything about it then you can either suffer with it or use foam ear plugs. Beyond that you would be wasting your time.  But I will argue that yes, you can demand that the crew keep the television turned down to a dull roar, not slam doors constantly, or scream and shout for no reason. Would you simply accept it if no one ever flushed the toilet or closed the refrigerator door after grabbing something to drink? Of course not. So the inconsiderate behavior that will interupt the sleep of the off-watch need not be tolerated either.  A little creative use of the carrot-or-the-stick method can work wonders in achieving your desired goals.

Will engine and deck maintenance occasionally intrude into the picture at times? Sure, but certainly not so often that you should abandon an alternative watch schedule over it. And I would be very, very careful about discretionary activities that interrupt the off-watch’s primary sleep periods. Imagine, if you will, sitting in a court room explaining that you or the mate was so groggy or actually fell asleep and crashed into the bridge because either of you couldn’t get enough sleep because the deckhands “had to” bang on the decks with chipping hammers all morning or afternoon. Do you think that will fly very far, especially if there is a big spill or civilian casualties? A big no on that one.

And I will also argue that yes, dividing up the work day a little differently can improve things, possibly a great deal. I’ve yet to meet a mate that ever claimed to get more than an hour or two of sleep at best on the 1800-2400 off-watch period anyway. The main sleep period for the back watch has always been the 0600-1200 off-watch period. The logic behind the 7/5/5/7 schedule is that you give up an hour of the 1800-2400 off-watch period, which would otherwise be wasted watching television or tossing and turning in a futile attempt to fall asleep during a period when your body doesn’t want to, in exchange for an extra hour added to the 0600-1200 off-watch period where you are much more likely to be able to use it, thereby providing the opportunity for a longer period of uninterrupted rest. The same principle applies to the captain’s respective off-watch periods. Will it always work out? No. Will you sometimes have your rest disturbed anyway? Of course. But I firmly believe that if given a chance to get used to it, and one week is certainly not long enough, it can significantly slow down your rate of decline over the course of a hitch.

Prior to the roll-out of CEMS, the Coast Guard did, in fact, spend a lot of time and effort conducting a rigorous scientific study at their Research & Development Center in Groton, Ct. It conclusively showed that more consecutive rest is always better than less, even if it still doesn’t meet the established recommended minimum of eight hours. This carries over to your general health as well: your immune system suffers from the long-term affects of sleep deprivation, leaving you more likely to succumb to disease, serious or mild, than you otherwise would be.

CEMS is not a cure-all. It is seldom implemented fully or properly, or with enough resources and any real enthusiasm. The follow-up on it is, likewise, usually poor as well. But the watch schedules themselves are in your hands, so please give it a try. You have absolutely nothing to lose and possibly quite a bit to gain. We can do better for ourselves and, as in football, some gain is better than no gain. I’ll take a 2-yard run over a sack any day.

#CEMS #WatchSchedules #Fatigue #2watchSystem #CrewEnduranceManagementSystem #CrewFatigue

0 views0 comments