Ship Trivia: Dogwatch

When I sat down to write a sea story, I knew I’d have to get at least somewhat familiar with the terminology to produce something believable. At the same time, I tried not to go overboard (HA!) with jargon, both to avoid confusing the reader and to prevent accidentally using a term incorrectly. One detail I decided to keep was the system of watches:

8 p.m. to 12 a.m. – First watch
12 to 4 a.m. – Middle watch
4 to 8 a.m. – Morning watch
8 a.m. to 12 p.m. – Forenoon watch
12 to 4 p.m. – Afternoon watch
4 to 6 p.m. – First dogwatch
6 to 8 p.m. – Second dogwatch

More at this link from the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

The 4 to 6 p.m. shift was divided in half to prevent the same people from working the same shift every day – so no one got constantly stuck with that midnight to 4 a.m. shift, for example. But why was it called a dogwatch?

Wikipedia offers some explanations: “dogwatch” is an Anglicization of a similar German or Dutch term; it was named after Sirius, also known as the Dog Star; sailors taking a two-hour break only got dog sleep (which I’d call a cat nap instead, but it’s not my phrase).

Like many phrases with a long history, it’s impossible to determine the exact origins of dog watch. However, the uncertain background did allow Patrick O’Brian to write the following pun about this shortened watch named after a dog:

“This short watch that is about to come, or rather these two short watches–why are they called dog watches? Where, heu, heu, is the canine connection?’

Why,’ said Stephen, ‘it is because they are curtailed of course.”
Patrick O’Brian, Post Captain

Quoted at Goodreads

Do you like sea stories with a thread of fantasy? You may enjoy Gbahn and Archipelago, two novels now available in ebook format, and free stories to sample. I promise to use far fewer puns than Patrick O’Brian did.


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