Sailors aboard the destroyer Benfold exercise on the flight deck at night during their recent deployment. Some sailors said their new watch schedule allowed greater flexibility in their daily routines. (MCC Jayme Pastoric / Navy)
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ABOARD THE DESTROYER BENFOLD — The crew of this destroyer spent five months of a seven-month deployment cutting squares around the Persian Gulf, intermixing ballistic-missile defense with other maritime missions. Amid the shipboard monotony of their busy operations, sailors kept a watchbill that gave them a daily routine, allowed them adequate rest and gave them ample opportunity to work out.
For much of its time underway, Cmdr. Richard LeBron instituted a four-section, six-hour watchbill that set static watches for sailors. In other words, they stood the same watch each day, only rotating after a stop in port, the skipper said.
That stable rotation was a break from the more common four-section rotating watches the crew usually did — inconsistent schedules that can impair sleep and lead to a tired fleet.
"A lot of other ships do rotating watches," said Lt. j.g. William Hughes, during a bridge watch Jan. 11 as the ship prepared to return home to San Diego. "When we started transiting into the gulf, we started static watches. I stood the same for most of the deployment when I was on watch, from 5:45 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Every day."
Hughes, who previously served aboard the frigate Halyburton in Mayport, Fla., said he likes the stability of the different watchbill.
"When we first started doing it, I was like, ‘I don't know,'" he said. "But it really lets you build a routine. I'd wake up at this time, I get ready, I have watch here, then I grab a bite to eat, I work out, I do all my admin and paperwork, then I have an hour or two of free time and I rack out."
During the deployment, Hughes said, he stood several watches, including engineering officer of the watch. On the ship's final push home to San Diego from Pearl Harbor, he pulled the midwatch, from midnight to 6 a.m.
Hughes said he believes static watch gives watchstanders more time for rest, which he believes made a big difference in how he and his sailors performed their tasks, particularly during the more stressful times navigating in the gulf's busy waters and in less-familiar ports.
The benefits weren't all professional. Hughes credits the static watches with helping him lose 20 pounds during the deployment, allowing him to stick to a regular workout schedule. LeBron said 25 of 28 sailors who began the deployment in the Fitness Enhancement Program worked their way into shape and off the program.
Did a stable watchbill or more sleep contribute to that? It may be tough to prove, but sleep researchers say watchstanders are more effective when they are not fatigued.
"Navy sailors are chronically sleep-deprived, often working in dangerously fatigued states to accomplish missions that demand the highest levels of vigilance and are crucial to our nation's defense," wrote Nita Shattuck, a sleep expert with the Operations Research Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., in the January issue of Proceedings magazine. A ship can lose 5 percent of its crew to problems tied to stress, which is most often linked to fatigue, she wrote in the article, co-written by Capt. John Cordle, chief of staff for Naval Surface Forces Atlantic in Norfolk, Va.
Shattuck has spent years studying watches and analyzing the impact of fatigue on the Navy. She's endorsed a three-hours-on, nine-hours-off, four-section schedule, which is used by the cruiser San Jacinto, because it adheres to the body's natural circadian rhythm.