Watchkeeping Duties


The watchkeeper, also known as the watch officer, is the person who tends to the safety and navigation of a vessel while at sea. There are usually several qualified watchkeepers on a ship, and the duties are divided into eight-hour shifts, with the on-duty watchkeeper reporting directly to the captain when necessary.


  • Before the watchkeeper takes over the ship, he should inform himself of the position of the ship, where it is heading and the weather expected as the ship progresses on its journey. The watchkeeper should also know how many personnel are working and what their qualifications are so he can delegate responsibilities accordingly.


  • Watchkeepers are sometimes responsible for navigation of the ship and thus must be adept at plotting courses and positions. Although many modern vessels are equipped with GPS devices, the watchkeeper should know how to determine position and course with a compass as well.

Basic Safety

  • The watchkeeper, as the title implies, must keep watch for obstacles that might collide with the vessel. In arctic waters, icebergs can be disastrous and in any water there is a risk of large, floating debris that could puncture the hull or damage an engine. If an obstacle is spotted, the watchkeeper must slow the vessel and safely navigate around the danger.


  • One of the largest dangers a ship faces is a storm front. Storms can develop fairly quickly at sea and the watchkeeper has to be prepared to deal with adverse weather when it arises. Heavy rains decrease visibility and high winds can throw a ship off course. In more extreme cases, waves can even capsize the vessel. The watchkeeper must watch the radar and the sky for any signs of adverse weather, must adjust the course of the ship as required and must notify the captain immediately if a severe storm develops.

Crew Management

  • The watchkeeper is in charge of the vessel when on duty and answers directly to the captain. All crew members, then, report to the watchkeeper. The watchkeeper must maintain order among the crew members and ensure that all members are performing their respective duties.

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  • Photo Credit ship image by Katarzyna Szura from
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