Ships operate twenty four hour a day, seven days a week and generally carry the minimum number of personnel necessary to achieve this. Flag State Administrations such as the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), or North America’s US Coast Guard (USCG), determine the safe manning levels for each vessel and this information should be displayed by means of a certificate mounted on a bulkhead onboard. There is an argument that ‘safe manning’ really means minimum manning level. An implication of this is that if any one crew member is incapacitated for any reason the ship may be unable to sail because she is undermanned (and therefore unseaworthy).

 Most ships’ staff work seven days a week and take all of their time off at the end of their ‘trip’, or term of duty onboard. Contracts vary considerably. Some seafarers work onboard for two, three or four weeks at a time. Others work onboard from three months to two years, depending on the ship type, nationality of seafarer and the ship’s flag.

 To facilitate twenty four hour operation, the personnel are divided in to day workers, who work ‘normal’ office hours from 0800hrs to 1700hrs, and shift workers, known as watchkeepers, because a shift on a ship is known as a ‘watch’. The most common watchkeeping routine is a three watch system known as “4 on 8 off”. As the name suggests, this involves a period of 4 hours on watch followed by 8 hours off watch.

 The “8 to 12” watch is normally kept by the junior officer between

0800 -1200hrs and 2000 – 2400hrs

 The “12 to 4” watch is normally kept by the middle ranking officer between

1200 -1600 hrs and 0000 – 0400hrs


The “4 to 8” watch is normally kept by the senior officer between

0400 -0800 hrs and 1600 – 2000hrs

In some ships a two watch system known as “6 on 6 off” is used. This is a very tiring rota involving 6 hours on watch followed by 6 hours off watch, the “6 to 12” and the “12 to 6”.


These normally run from 0600 – 1200 and 1800 – 2400 for one person and 0000 – 0600 and 1200 – 1800 for the other

 Extra duties which fall outside of these periods such as mooring, berthing, maintenance of safety gear, drills or emergencies are undertaken in addition to the watch duty.

 It is important to recognise from this that at any time of the day there are likely to be people trying to sleep onboard a ship. During the afternoon watch between 1330hrs and 1530 hrs it is most common for off duty watchkeepers to rest and so the ship tends to be quieter than usual at this time.

 Ships stay in port for varying amounts of time depending upon cargo operations. Some ships, such as ferries, Ro-Ros and containers vessels ‘turn round’ very quickly and consideration should be given to making welfare services and facilities available to the seafarer.


Safety Systems



There is a statutory requirement for ships to undertake drills in which the response to emergencies are practiced. The crew will practice launching lifeboats, operating lifesaving appliances, fighting fires and rescuing colleagues from enclosed spaces, amongst other things.


Drills are held regularly and often.

If a drill is in progress or programmed to commence at the time of your visit, avoid boarding the ship as all personnel will be fully engaged in the drill and visitors would not be helpful.

 Emergency Signals

Ships have a series of signals used to alert the crew to an emergency. These include;

  • General/Emergency Alarm
  • Fire
  • Boat Stations
  • Smoke Detector Alarms
  • Watertight Door Operation
  • Engine Room Alarm
  • Refrigeration/store alarms


A general or fire alarm is usually unmistakable. It is extremely loud and is normally a bell or klaxon sounded intermittently or continuously. This may be augmented by the ship’s whistle (fog horn).

 Firefighting on board ships

A fire on a ship is one of the most dangerous incidents which can happen on board. If the fire is detected in good time, the crew can prevent greater damage by taking immediate measures – such as fighting the fire by use of a fire hose while wearing respiratory protection. If the fire has already spread, containment by closing off parts of the vessel and where available professional assistance, via helicopter or by ship can reduce the chance of total loss.

Firefighting with impediments

Fighting a fire at sea is significantly different to fighting a fire on land. The first action teams have to get to the source of the fire, which means, as a rule, from the top downwards into the interior of the ship – in the opposite direction of the natural spreading of heat and smoke. This is a serious obstacle which slows the fire-fighting operation down. What makes the fire-fighting operations even more difficult, are the narrow stairs and entrances, unclear and labyrinth-like spaces, numerous hatches and ladders, as well as ship movements due to the sea and the thermal-conduction properties of the ship's steel.

Lifeboat Drills

 SOLAS and Maritime Regulations require each member of the crew on board cargo ships to participate in at least one abandon ship and one fire/emergency drill each month. Passenger ships must perform at least one abandon ship and one fire/emergency drill each week. Additionally, SOLAS require that lifeboats must be launched with their operating crew on board and maneuvered in the water at least once every three months.

 In order to minimize risk of injury and loss of life while conducting drills and while performing tests and maintenance on board lifeboats, the following principles should be followed.

 Crewmembers should be thoroughly trained in and familiar with the functioning, operation and maintenance requirements of the specific type of launching arrangements installed on board.   To more closely follow the requirements of SOLAS, the regulation requiring weekly fire and boat drills have been amended to require weekly fire and boat drills for passenger vessels and the crew to attend fire and boat drills on cargo vessels once a month supplemented with weekly safety training sessions which should include training in one or more of the following subjects over a six month period:

Safety Management System, Portable Fire Extinguishers, Fire main/fire fighting, Fixed Fire Extinguishing Systems, Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, Thermal Protective Aids, Ring Buoys, Life Jackets, and Exposure Suits, Launching Lifeboats and liferafts, Lifeboat/liferaft

 Emergency Equipment, EPIRBs & other Emergency Communication Equipment, Flares and other Emergency Signals, First Aid (including CPR),Line Throwing Apparatus, Entering Enclosed Spaces, Pollution Response, Man Overboard Response, Response to spills of Hazardous Materials on board, Vessel Collision or Grounding Response, Loss of Steering Loss of Propulsion, How to fight fires on board this vessel, Search and Rescue assistance, Ballast Water Exchange ,Waste/Garbage Management, Oily Bilge Water Management

 Davit Launched Lifeboats Drills

 During drills crewmembers should not be on board a lifeboat when the boat is initially lowered from the stowed position.

 Open Lifeboats should first be lowered to approximately 2 meters above the water without crewmembers and then hoisted for boarding by the assigned operating crew from the embarkation deck. Then lower the boat to the water with no more than two operating crew while grasping manropes. Release falls once boat is waterborne. Additional crew may then embark via the embarkation ladder.

 Closed lifeboats should be lowered to about 2-3 meters above the water without crewmembers on board. The lifeboat should then be raised to a suitable level for the operating crew to embark via embarkation ladder or from the embarkation deck. Once all are seated and secured lower boat again into the water and once waterborne, release the boat from inside. Note: The operational crew are the minimum number of persons (two to three people) needed to release the boat once lowered into the water, operate the boat and provide assistance to recover the boat once launched.    

 Free-Fall Lifeboats Drills

 Free-fall lifeboats should be exercised for drills similar to closed lifeboats. They are required to be operated in the water at intervals not exceeding three months and are to be launched by the free-fall method at least every six months. 3.2 Each crewmember should be on board the lifeboat during a free-fall launch within six months of assignment to the vessel. 3.3 There should be at least one and one half times clear distance astern of a ship in which it is expected a free-fall boat should come to a standstill after launch. 3.4 When performing a free-fall launch drill the boat should first be lowered to the water, motor tested etc., then raised, restowed and then launched by the free-fall method. 3.5 Prior to a free-fall launching the rescue boat should be launched and ready to act as a standby boat to assist the free-fall lifeboat and in re-securing.