White Star Watchstanding Question

Doug Criner

Dec 2, 2009
I don't have experience in the merchant marine. In the U.S. Navy, watches nominally start and end on the even hour - for example, the mid-watch runs from midnight to 8am. BUT, while it's not necessarily written down, the oncoming watchstanders are obliged to arrive at their station 15 minutes before the official start of the watch - for the mid-watch, that would be 11:45pm. I'm wondering if this was the practice in the Royal Navy or aboard commercial British ships?

You may wonder why this 15 minutes difference is rigourously observed. There are several reasons that are given. One is that it is a courtesy to the watch being relieved - they get relieved a bit early. But, that is somewhat silly, because everbody gets relieved early but they also have to show up early.

Another reason given is that it allows 15 minutes for the oncoming watchstanders to get the dope on the situation. Except for perhaps the officer of the deck, it doesn't take 15 minutes for the helmsman, lookouts, etc., to learn the situation: things like course, speed, who has the deck, etc. If it takes only 2-3 minutes to learn the situation, then the off-going watchstander stands relieved.

I suspect the real reason is custom and tradition, many of which were handed down from the Royal Navy to the U.S. Navy. Since many of Titanic's officers had ranks or experience in the Royal Navy, perhaps they would have set a 15-minute-early practice? You can see where I'm going with this.

Rob Lawes

Jun 13, 2012
Hi Doug

As a currently serving member of the Royal Navy, I can confirm that it is standard practice in RN warships for the oncoming watch to relieve the off going at 15 minutes before the hour. This is, as you have said, to allow for the appropriate information to be handed over between watches before they go off.

As for weather this practice took place in 1912, I've got no idea however from the testimony I've read I would suggest not as they all talk about relieving the next watch on the hour in both inquiries.


Oct 28, 2000
Generally I don't intentionally repeat a post, but it seems relevant at the moment. Except for a bit of clarification, this is substantially what I put up earlier on another thread:

It helps to keep in mind that there were three distinct groups of people changing watch in Titanic: 1.) The crew; 2.) The junior officers; and, 3.) The senior officers. It's probable that each group had is customs and practices within the overall context of IMM/White Star regulations. Paragraph 17, “Watches,” of the company rule book explicitly stated, “No Officer, Engineer, or other member of the Crew on watch shall go off duty without being properly relieved.”

The term “proper relief” is not defined. However, under the subsection “OFFICER OF THE WATCH” in paragraph 251 the rule book gives an indication of what would have been necessary for proper relief to have taken place. It states, “When the Watch is changed, the Officer who is being relieved will remain on the Bridge and in charge during the change; he will see that the seamen placed as look-outs do not quit their posts until relieved, and he must deliver to the officer relieving him all orders which has still to be executed.”

This is the real reason for the oncoming watch to arrive early for duty. Each man has to become thoroughly acquainted with the present situation vis-a-vis his post, including any "orders...still to be executed." For the officers a time period of 15 minutes is generally sufficient. However, in any case the on-duty watchstander may not go below until he is satisfied that his relief is fully aware of the situation.

By regulation, the Officer Of The Watch was either the Chief, First or Second Officer – the senior officers in the ship. The last sentence instructs the Officer Of The Watch that, “He is the responsible Officer until he leaves the Bridge, and must not leave the Bridge until the Officer relieving him has had time to familiarize himself with his surroundings.”

– David G. Brown

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