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The First Watch

The land is behind us, the lines are stowed, and the ship is secured for sea. The underway routine starts to settle in, and that means standing a watch. The navigation bridge is an old friend. While I have never stepped foot on this particular bridge, she is still as familiar as my own hometown.

The comforting story being told on the chart table, and the warm glow of the RADAR’s are universal. The helm and engine console prominently front and center, grace the bridge on nearly every ship on god’s blue earth. The banks of electronics vary from ship to ship and across the years, but they are always there, Navigation, Communication, Alarm consoles, lighting panels, dimly lighted and humming slightly.

Large windows wrap around the entire space, connecting us to the horizon. Doors flank the room, directly across from each other leading out to the port and starboard bridgewings and the perpetual headwinds. We are underway, and as the 50,000 tons of steel with enough explosive cargo to flatten a city slams it way through the water, it is the Mate on watch that guides and steers her from the bridge.

The smell of coffee is ever present. So important to navigation is the “Coffee Mess”, that the industrial grade coffee maker is hard wired into the emergency circuit. Should the primary generators on the ship fail, the RADARS and GPS will go dim, but the little orange light on the coffee maker will continue to shine. When the tiny emergency generator fires to life to deliver power to the few systems deemed essential: combustion air for the engine, a few lights, the rudder and helm, the bridge coffee maker made the cut. You can navigate and avoid collision by eye (at least we could in my day), but those eyes must be open.

It takes a few watches to learn the layout and idiosyncrasies of the new locale. Each bridge is a unique individual, but nothing breeds mastery like having to function at a high level in a complicated environment in complete darkness. Light is blinding to lookouts, and seeing out of a window into the dark from a lighted room is nearly impossible, so bridges are kept dark at night.

The familiarity the watchstander’s develop is so deep that the expression “in his wheelhouse” has come to mean complete comfort with an environment.

The mate is the officer of the watch, and is usually accompanied by an Able Seaman or two. 4

hours per watch, 2 watches per day, every day for the next 120 days or more, on top of all your other work. The routine is as grinding as it is comforting.

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