Watches in the military have been around since the beginning of recorded time.
The Jews, like the Greeks and Romans, divided the night into military watches instead of hours, each watch representing the period for which sentinels or pickets remained on duty. The proper Jewish reckoning recognized only three such watches, entitled the first or “beginning of the watches,” La 2:19 the middle watch, Jud 7:19 and the morning watch. Ex 14:24; 1Sa 11:11 These would last respectively from sunset to 10 P.M.; from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M.; and from 2 A.M. to sunrise. After the establishment of the Roman supremacy, the number of watches was increased to four, which were described either according to their numerical order, as in the case of the “fourth watch,” Mt 14:25 or by the terms “even,” “midnight,” “cock-crowing” and “morning.” Mr 13:35 These terminated respectively at 9 P.M., midnight, 3 A.M. and 6 A.M.
You have the next watch
The Navy submarine force is experimenting with a new concept – the 24 hour day. Since the earliest days of the 1960s, submariners have been operating primarily on 18-hour days while deployed. This schedule created a very unique way of living for the thousands of submariners who fought the Cold War in their steel boats. Their world was ruled by a direct relationship with six hour watches punctuated by scheduled meal times and the ever present fluorescent lighting. There were only two breaks in the lighting scheme. First, crews berthing was darkened and the only punctuation to that darkness was the red lighting that was carefully shielded. The second break was the hours that matched the passing of the night in the control room where rig for red ruled until periscope depth was approached.
“Chief of the watch, rig for black”
In those days, the use of an optical periscope was critical to safe operations when the boat came above its operating depth. There were lots of reasons to come that far up. Communications, basic housekeeping, periodic updates with the command structure all dictated the planned and orchestrated breaking of the stealth the boats were known for. The officer of the deck needed to be acclimated to the lighting conditions he would face as the periscope raised to the surface, It is a rue of that age of submarines that whose eyes are the two most important eyes on the boat at the time. Truthfully, it was only one eye that stood between success and failure.
Meanwhile, down in berthing…
The only rest and the only respite you get is the time you spend in your bunk. As a young man, I found out that rack choices were ruled by a “caste” system. The longer you were on board, the more qualified you were, the closer you were to the ruling power (affectionately known as the Chief of the Boat) the better your sleeping arrangement. Frankly, for an enlisted guy on any submarine of the day, your best hope is to get a rack that doesn’t suck too much. 21 man berthing, the nine man, and the general berthing areas all have their own special charm. All of the bunks were essentially the same from a size perspective. They were little more than a ¾ steel coffin with a bunk pan below and an EAB space behind your shoe locker.
If you weren’t hot racking, you had some reasonable chance of sleeping under a wool blanket surrounded by mostly clean white sheets. I liked a couple of standard Navy pillows since I have always struggled with how my head should be. I still struggle with that today. The little air register was an important feature too since once my curtain was closed, it provided a steady source of air to my face. I am not sure about others, but that little air vent actually became my early warning device… when the ventilation system was shut down, it was a precursor to the drill or actual casualty that was just about to be announced on the 1MC speaker (conveniently located a few feet from my head on any of the five boats I served on).
The only barrier between you and the intrusive and ever present world of the boat is a small cloth curtain. I think it was fire resistant. I know it was strong enough to keep my dreams away from the rest of the people in my berthing area. Some of the dreams I had were so powerful. About halfway through the patrol when I was still sleeping soundly (between drills) I had some of the most powerful dreams a person could have. I can almost remember some of the more intimate ones… and certainly some fo the scariest ones. That curtain was like a shield. There were many times you prayed. There were many times you prayed that they would contain the sound coming from inside.
The sound you most feared and came to learn to hate was the sound made as the messenger of the watch as they pulled or ripped the curtain open. I can’t write a word to describe that sound but anyone who was ever woken from a dream about riding in a Mustang on a blue sky day with a hot looking blonde in a tube top next to them needs no explanation. Or the shock of waking up to a little flashlight in your eyes that wipes out the kiss you were just about to connect with. Maybe you had spent the last few days working on a failed piece of equipment that was vital to the operation you were engaged in. I can honestly admit all these years later that there were a few times when I wanted to reach my hand out and grab the throat of the poor messenger. It is good that their training included a healthy sprinkling of fear for the men who they were bringing their greetings too.
You have the next watch
A submarine on patrol or mission did not have an “off time”. The mission was critical and the boat was far away from home and family. The blonde in the Mustang would have to wait. The guy before you had been doing his job (regardless of what it was) for the past six hours and was ready for relief. Sometimes, it was longer than six. Port and Starboard watches were also body breaking events that were required from time to time. In either case, it was your turn to man the watch. In an age old custom that dates to the beginning of the sea services. You can’t shut the boat down. You have to keep moving forward.
You get up, you might put on your poopy suit (or whatever you called it) and drag yourself to the head for the basic functions. Maybe you just wandered out in whatever you slept in. Shit shower shave. Okay, maybe skip the shave. On most days, skip the shower too. It just took too long to get past the guys who really needed a shower. Then off to the mess to see what was cooking. All the while thinking, how long can this go on? How long can I keep this up?
Eventually, you make it to the place where you will relieve the watch. A mumbled turnover. Tasks done. Tasks to be done. Repeat backs where needed and then a report to the Chief in charge.
This is Petty Officer ^^^^^ . I have the watch…
I have no idea what a 24 hour day will do for the men and women of the new submarine fleet. I am sure that smarter people than me will give it some study and thought. I wish them all well. But deep in my heart, I know that the sound of a curtain being ripped open will ultimately be a hated sound no matter what the length of the day.
When I hear some of the guys I work with now complain about how hard their lives are, I try not to chuckle. The truth is that unless they ever took a watch, they will never know how much of a sacrifice my brothers made to defend this country. To the younger generation, our countries future depends on a great part to your efforts and your ability to stand that watch. I pray for your safety and your success.
38 thoughts on ““hey… you have the next watch””
Nice read Mac. Brings back some good or interesting memories!!
We you on the San Fran when she ran aground?
No. I was a plankowner but keep in touch with a number of people who were directly involved. Thanks for the feedback
Reading the part about the rack curtain being ripped open brought back some very vivid emotions. There was one messenger who didn’t get enough sprinkling of fear… he had 3 separate people one time in aft berthing reach out and punch him during wake ups.
What a great read. It certainly gives the reader a flavor of life aboard a sub… And the bunking regimen… At least you didn’t sleep next to torpedoes…or did you? 🙂
only once my friend… the torpedoes stayed up all night worried about me…lol
I just got back from a 7 month deployment and we did 8 hour watches. We loved them. You have so much more off time after PMS, field days, drills and what not. We had watches from 330-1130, 1130-1930, 1930-0330. On Sundays we would dog a few watches so you would rotate. That way the meals would change and you weren’t on dinner and breakfast all underway. This also got rid of middays which meant more money for meals and snacks that we would serve periodically during the day. Over all it’s 24 hour days are the future.
Thanks so much for the feedback. Also, I think you for continuing the tradition of the people who went before you. 7 Months is a long time. I appreciate the sacrifice and wish you the best in all you do, Mac
Thanks for the memories. Beware of opening my curtain. Family had to learn the same lesson. Wake with care and distance
Jerry, so has my family even to this day! I hope you are doing well. Bob
Nicely done, Shipmate! And @Mustang.Koji… occasionally when we took on riders… extra personnel, usually Navy intelligence types… we would have to bunk in the torpedo room. A standard issue 2″ mattress would sink down between two torpedoes nicely for a little guy like me… but then you’re wedged in and no rolling over! And in the torpedo room there was NO beloved curtain to protect you.
Thanks Jody. I slept in the Mk 48 hotel a few times. Still sensitive to light when I am trying to sleep
In 34 years together, this is really the first time you have been so descriptive about underway submarine life. Well written and good article.
thanks buddy. (by the way, you were the blonde in the Mustang)
I did 18 years in skimmers with 8 hour watches and 24 hour days. Then I went into subs. What a shock to the system that was. The real killer was the 18 hour day. I screws up your circadian rythm and messes up your brain. I got used to it, but I can tell you that the fleet would benefit greatly from going along with what the rest of the Navy already knows.. 24 hour days, 8 hour watches, with occasional four hour dogged watch to change pace.
My husband informs me that pulling back on the curtain or sticking any part of your body past it will promptly get you killed. You loudly whisper the persons name and say wake up! He said worst thing is hearing someone say your name followed by I forgot to wake you up, you are late for your watch. So then he won’t beable to grab a meal, shave or shower.
Just finished a 7 month run doin 8 hour watches as well. The thing that made the 8 hour watches difficult was rather than keep a watch rotation was that we decided to try to “keep a normal work day” during the underway. The result was 2 sections getting run into the ground, praying for sunday to get there quick so we could rotate watches and get a little rest. 8 hour watches work great so long as you remember you are underway, there is no such thing as a “work day” underway on a submarine.
I really appreciate the feedback and your insights. Thanks for your service.
Both of my sons proudly serve as career Submariners, and you did a fine job of describing a small part of their daily duties. Thank you, and thanks to my sons, and all military, for their service.
You are certainly welcome and thanks for being a Navy Mom… my Mom had two boys on the same boat for about three years and I know it put a lot of stress on her life.
Being short in my billet most of my career. I stood the famous port & starboard watch. And during the cold war a nine month deployment was normal event. What was really fun was the last nine months of the Viet Nam war (sure is strange how no one has written a book about what transpire during that time) Any how most of the crew liked the 6 on 12 off while at sea. And if I remember right when we were rigged for red we had 3 people wearing the red goggles the OOD, the quarter gasket, and the FT of the watch as any of the last 2 might be called to releave the OOD of we were going to be at periscope for a while. I’m sure things have changed on todays newest boats with their fiber-optics and control in mid level ops if they still call it the ops compartment. Now that they only have two water tight compartments. One reason I got out. After they decommissioned the last of the 637’s.
That sound of the rack curtain coming open – “sssshhhhhhhckt!” – the most horrible sound in the world!
I think NR is going to have to change their view. IIRC, 6 hours was the max time a nuc could be on watch without at least 6 hours off. Fatigue and all that . . .
thats been changed….NR is allowing 8 hour watches for the nukes
Thank you for this… Even though I’ve always wanted my friends and family to understand after 13 years in the service on USS Scranton and USS Montpelier, I always had a hard time finding the words. It’s hard to explain to people and feel like you’re just complaining. You’re words help them understand from a neutral party.
I thank you for your service, and wish you the best.
we paid the price for the memories we hold. Your service is both honorable and memorable. When we stood the watch, we did so in place of someone else and even in times of peace we faced dangers others can’t truly understand. But you and I know. I did not know you but I know you are my brother.
I was one of the first boats to implement 8 hour watches. let me tell you as an electrician, you can expect to get less sleep than an 18 hour day. i think it will work well if you are not in E or A div.
I did reach out and touch one of the messengers one day. That did not end well when the COW ripped me out of the rack and had me do the wake-ups for the section that relieved mine for the next week.
An 18 hour day with Port and Starboard watches, maintenance, watch and submarine quals, sleeping under the torpedo stows. Hard, hard life. And I’d do it all again. Thanks for the article, thanks for articulating something I can have my friends read to understand a little more what I did for that phase of my life.
Glad to be of service Nick. We had a life that was worth living and comrades that we probably shared more with than anyone else we know (except spouses and direct family I suppose). Thank you for visiting
I would say on my boat, the majority of the crew was not fond of the 24 hr days…Staring at a screen or multiple screens or gauges or whatever it might be is quite a long time to do for six hours. Most of the older sub guys were not liking the 8 hrs which I would have to agree with them. We did have more time off if nothing was broken or you didn’t have training or drills, but it also worked out that if you were in a workup for something or vital equipment was broken it just got quite more irritating when instead of you being on watch for six hours then running all hands drills followed by training or maybe prior too for six more hours, you did that for a total of sixteen hours. I understand why they are trying to do this, but I don’t think it was correctly implemented.
I really appreciate the feedback. I can see where it would be not so good for the crew
I also do say that you did a fine job on post mstrmac711
His depiction of life as a Navy Seaman, sounds like they are a separate “Sub-culture”
Definitely a great read!! Had me teary-eyed for part of it, I kinda…sorta miss the boat life but the final “nail in the coffin” was the ripping of the curtain, which brought me back to reality!! Out of 25 yrs, one LPD, two CV/CVN’s and six submarines, I think my time “taking the watch” is over. Psych studies have shown that the optimum time the average body and mind can stay focused is about 5-6hrs. On surface, life is totally different and the 8hrs is more achievable because of the multitude of off time things to do. On a sub, fast boats in particular, it is more difficult the longer you must focus in the longer hours. Besides, rarely did the “Monster” allow me to hide behind the curtain more than 5-6hrs at a time!
Thanks for the feedback. I would be very useless in the modern submarine service but still miss much of the life.
“Normal work days” underway suck so bad! Couple them with five and dimes…uggg! 18 hour day wasn’t too bad. You can get a rhythm going. Between the NAVY and civilian nuclear, I have worked shift work for over 20 years. I have worked 4 and 8’s, port and report, 6 and 12, 5 and 10…… I can sleep anywhere, at anytime. I have slept in the nuke lab, curled up next to a hx, or just some hidey hole. I can come home, lay down on the hardwood floor with my 2 yr old climbing on me, and just zonk out. It is a hard earned skill!
Reblogged this on theleansubmariner and commented:
This post was first published in 2014. It would be interesting to see if any current submariners have an update on the change in watch rotation.