Cargo Watchkeeping In Port

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What is cargo watchkeeping??

cargo watch

Carriage of cargoes is an important aspect of merchant shipping and your duty on board is:

• To inspect, 

• Load as planned, 

• Carry, 

• Care for and deliver the cargo to the consignee in the same condition in which it was received on board, as far as practicable. 

• Use winches and cranes safely 

Cargo Watchkeeping


Watchkeeping officers are required to supervise the various operations in port. Such supervision has a major impact on the safety of the vessel, care and safety of the cargo and quicker turn round of ships shorter port stay. 

Watchkeeping on the bridge and on deck is an important duty of a watchkeeping officer. Cargo watches ensure that the commercial and safety interests are looked after. 

Areas covered under Cargo Watchkeeping:

1. To explain the principles of watch keeping in port 

2. To explain the safe working practices which are necessary to ensure: 

a) Safety of access, 

b) Safety of environment

c) Safety of personnel and 

d) Safety of cargo handling equipment 

e) Necessary precautions to prevent an out break of fire on board and to make the right initial response in such an eventuality. 

3. To explain the principles of taking over the watch on deck 

4. To supervise and ensure safe and efficient handling and stowage of Break-Bulk cargo 

5. To inspect and describe the condition of cargo prior to loading and the precautions to be taken to ensure safe delivery to the consignee. 

6. To ensure safety when using cranes and winches 

Do You Know??

Unsafe access to and from ship causes personal injury to crew / shore labour and is costing the shipping industry $ 216 million a year! Damage to cargo costs the industry over $ 140 million a year. This damage can certainly be reduced by proper supervision of cargo operations. A cargo not secured properly will shift at sea with disastrous consequences. Oil leaking in to the dock waters or a stowaway sneaking in to the vessel, leads to heavy penalty / expenditure. 


In short, being the watchkeeping officer, you have the responsibility and authority to improve the performance of the vessel and reduce the operating cost of the vessel. 

In this blog your duties as a cargo watchkeeping officer in a general cargo vessel are explained. Modules on specialised vessels such as bulk carrier, containers, tankers, etc. shall explain in detail your responsibilities and duties on those vessels. The duties in general are similar but the details defer.  

Principle of watchkeeping in Port

Cargo watchkeeping


It is your responsibility as the watchkeeping officer, to supervise and monitor all the operations on board to ensure the safety of the vessel and its crew and ensure that the security of the vessel is always maintained.

What Should You Do

1. Maintain and ensure that safe working practices are followed in cargo and other operations, 

2. Ensure that the cargo stowage is as per plan, 

3. Inspect the condition of the cargo, 

4. Check sounding and control ballast operations, 

5. Record all events pertaining to cargo, safety of the ship and the security. 

Application of STCW 2010

Usually the master delegates the control of cargo operations to the chief officer. At all times when cargo is being worked on board, a certificated officer shall keep the cargo and deck watches and assist chief officer, who works out a duty roster. During the watch the watchkeeping officer should be awake, alert and suitably dressed. 


Even when cargo is not being worked, the 00W and sufficient crew shall be available to handle emergencies, such as fire or foul weather. 

Watchkeeping Duties

Watchkeeping activities may appear a routine job and sometimes are carried out in that manner. However let us look at the responsibilities of a watchkeeping officer. 

As you are by now aware, the Master has the overall responsibility of the safety of the ship and its crew. He also has the responsibility for prevention of the pollution of the environment and to guard the ship owner’s interest in general. The master obviously cannot be on the deck or on the bridge continuously and hence he delegates some of his functions to the chief officer and the watch-keeping officers. 

Delegation means asking somebody competent, to carry out ones own duties and making sure that it is done. 

Next time; therefore when you are standing a watch remember that you are performing a duty for the Master in the interest of general safety of the ship and the persons on board. 

Watch keeping includes leadership to get people to co-operate to reach a common goal- in this case the safe and proper loading or discharge of cargo.

In order to achieve this we need

a) Resources, which include the ship, its equipment, means of communications, cargo handling equipment, fire fighting equipment, and all such apparel available on board is for the use of the officer; 

b) Knowledge, what to do and when to do it, is the most important component of knowledge. It also includes total familiarisation of the resources mentioned and the competence in its application. 

c) Experience, is what you acquire yourself thorough a self-learning process. It could be acquired by making mistakes but such methods can be very expensive and harmful. Learning from hands on experience, under supervision of other experienced officers is easier. 


Prevention of incidences can only be achieved when proper procedures are followed. If the correct action is taken immediately after an incident I accident, only then shall the losses / damage be “mitigated”. 

Standing Orders


Study and sign master’s standing orders. 

The chief officer also gives written instructions for the watchkeeping officers to follow. Follow these strictly to adhere to agreed cargo operations or maintenance schedules.  


cargo watch

Taking Over the Watch

The STCW Code provides guidance for the officer to hand over a deck watch in port. The guidance is appended as an annex and is self explanatory. 

Cargo Operations

Apart from the STCW Code stipulations, unless you are familiar and conversant with the cargo situation, you will not be able to keep a proper cargo watch. Some of the information given below could be noted in a notebook so that one is ready at all times. 

1. Cargo plan and the details of cargo to be loaded / discharged; 

2. Ballast plan and soundings and the performance of the ballast pump and its rate of pumping out and the cargo/ ballast sequence if you are in a bulk carrier; 

3. Any other operations such as bunkering/ stores/ surveys; 

4. Number of gangs on board and tonnage of cargo to be loaded hatch Wise as Per the plan and the planned stowage; 

5. Any repair work being carried out; 

6. Any repair work planned during the watch including hot work 

7. Any person in an enclosed space, the duration, attendant, communication etc.; 

8. Any special instructions from chief officer regarding cargo work/ repairs/assignments; 

9. Status of hatch covers/ramps whether opened /closed; 

10. Tank manholes condition, whether opened/ closed; 

11. Present draft/ limiting draft of the port and tidal information; 

12. Whether all accesses including the gangway is in order.  



It is essential that you make a checklist of the items based on the above as relevant to your vessel and her operations. It is mandatory that you take over your watch on deck, after taking rounds and checking important items. it is always advisable to make notes in your notebook. It is these notes that can then be recorded in the logbook. It is unpardonable to take over the watch in the cabin / saloon over a cup of tea! 

Cargo Planning

Prior to planning the cargo, the chief officer takes care of the various aspects such as properties, weights, itinerary, compatibility etc. of each cargo parcel. Watch keeping officer shall ensure that the plan is followed and updated continuously.

Safety in handling

As the vessel’s responsibility begins, when the cargo is hooked on, you have to make sure that the stevedores are slinging the cargo properly.You must ensure the following

Precautions during rain

1. Even if rain does not damage the cargo being loaded, the rainwater accumulation in the hold may damage other cargo.

2. Rainwater collected in the hold will certainly make the hold air very humid and heavy condensation shall follow, 

3. Covering.half the hatch and working will not help due to reasons in 2) above. 

Covering the Hatch during rain

hatch cover

1. When working all the hatches, if sudden squall or rain hits you, it will be very difficult to close the hatches quickly. Moreover hurried closing operation may result in an accident. Therefore, you should monitor the weather forecast and keep in touch with port control to get an early warning regarding rain. 

2. In areas where sudden and heavy rainfall is likely, checking on the radar may help, sometimes. 


3. If you are loading /discharging, from/ into barges, you must close all scuppers to prevent the rainwater pouring into them. You must plan the blocking of scuppers as cement takes time to dry up! 

4. Using hatch tent is a quick way of handling the problem: 

5. Hatch tents are suspended from the crane hook or the gin fall of the derrick and secured around the hatch. Heaving on the wire tightens the tent. 

6. Prior to removing the tent, you must bail out any accumulation water in the tent. Lest, this water will pour in to the hatch 

7. In some ports where rain is very frequent and unpredictable, a huge tent covering the quay and the hatch are rigged. With this arrangement, cargo operations can continue unhindered!

8. If the hatches had been closed for rain and being reopened, ensure that the pools of water continue on top of the hatch cover are removed and swept of clean. 

9.If cargo on the quay is damaged by rain prior to loading, you must report this to the chief officer, so that he will clause the mates receipt accordingly.

10. If the wet cargo is likely to damage other cargo in the hold, either directly or by condensation, chief officer will ask you to reject the wet cargo. 

11. If the cargo is damaged by rain after loading, then it becomes the vessel’s responsibility. If this cargo is allowed to remain in the hold, it will damage other cargo by condensation. Chief officer may decide to discharge the damaged wet cargo and load new cargo, if available and the shippers are agreeable. 

Handling of Cargo

a) Most of the handling damage results from careless use of cargo equipment, such as forklifts. You must place steel plates or plywood evenly over the stow so that the oil which may leak from the forklifts does not damage the cargo beneath. 

b) Inexperienced driver of forklift can cause heavy damage to cargo, by piercing the cargo with the forks. 

c) Only palletised cargoes or cargoes having integral bearers can be handled by a forklift. Using forklift to lift a flat cargo from a flat steel surface is not a good practice. 


d) Use of hooks by the labourers, will rip the covering of bagged cargoes, resulting in loss of cargo due to spillage; 


e) Trucks having a clamp instead of the forks must handle cargoes such as newsprint. 

f) While loading /discharging, bulk cargoes can be lost from leaking grabs. 

g) If an intermediate bulk container (IBC) that is actually a huge bag is pierced, considerable quantity of cargo shall be lost. 

As you can understand from the above, unless you keep your eyes and ears open, and be alert all the time during your watch,you cannot prevent damage to cargo.

Inspection Of Cargo

 The following should be watched for and cargo should be allowed to be loaded only after informing the Chief officer. 

1. Goods which are unpacked, dented, split, broken, torn, twisted, mangled, distorted or otherwise damaged in your opinion; 

2. Contents of cargo are visible from a packed cargo; 

3. Cargo which has stains;

4. Containers which are leaking, either dry or liquid, such as oil drums or cosmetic powder cartons; 

5. Bulk cargo containing foreign material; 

6. Rust on metal cargo and vehicles; 

7. Cartons, which are suspiciously, light (Contents could have been pilfered); 

8. Frozen reefer cargo, part of which shows signs of thaw/ taints; 

9. Bagged cargo which is half filled and loose compared to bags of the same cargo; 

10. Usually bundles of plywood are loaded without properly strapping them in to a rigid bundle. These naturally become loose and get damaged considerably during transit; 

11. Rolls of steel with broken banding, may become loose and the edges will get damaged; 

12. Palletised cargo must have all its units properly strapped or glued together to become one unit, if not the individual units within the pallet will move and the entire pallet will collapse! 

Wet cargo

wet cargo

A cargo that is wet prior to shipment should be rejected. Wet cargo by moisture migration could cause moisture damage to all other cargo in the hold, apart from its own condition deteriorating! 

You should remember that some cargoes like, cotton when wet, are liable to heat and deteriorate and may lead to spontaneous combustion. 

Wet wood pulp will expand and can cause structural defects to the compartment where it is loaded. 

Winches and cranes


This is an extract from the instructions issued by the Norwegian authorities 

1. General 

  • All dangerous moving parts of winches and cranes should be effectively protected. 
  • Runners should be of sufficient length, so that at no time during the operation of a crane or winch are there less than three turns on the barrel. 
2. Controls of winches and cranes (general) 
  •  No load should be left suspended when the controls of winches and cranes are left unattended. 
  •  Where reasonably practicable, the controls for winches should be in such a position, that the winch operator is clear of the bight formed by the runner wire passing to the heel block. 
  • If the heel block is not of the type that prevents it from dropping, when the runner is slack, it should be secured with wire or chain to restrict alternate raising and dropping. 
  • When the winch operator’s view of the operation is obstructed, use should be made of a signaller. 
  • In general, the winch operator should have ample room for safely operating the controls 
  • All foot-operated controls should be maintained in proper working condition. 
3. Controls of electric winches and cranes 
  • The winch and crane controls should automatically return to “off’ position when released or should be fitted with some other reliable “dead-man’s” type of release device. 
  • A suitable emergency stop switch, capable of being easily operated, should be provided near the driving position. 
  • When the winch or crane is left unattended, the control should be in the “off’ position and the stop switch operated to prevent accidental starting. 
  • The controls should be simple and sensitive in operation.

Tally of cargo for quality and quantity

Tally of the cargo is the check on the cargo loaded / discharged to determine the quantity and quality. This is required to ensure that the figures given by the consignee in the cargo manifest are correct. To conduct a tally, tally clerks are employed and they are posted in the hatch to count the parcels loaded. They are also expected to check, as far as is practicable, that the quality of the cargo is as per specifications.  Maintaining a tally becomes necessary when loading parcels, valuable cargo, cases, boxes, rolls, etc, cars, containers, pallets, live stock, passengers, baggage, etc. On the basis of the tally report the Master/ chief officer can sign the cargo papers / documents. 



This is very versatile and easy to use lifting equipment. Cranes are normally of the Cranes etectro-hydraullic type. Before using the crane, the hydraulic oil in the tank should be checked and then the power to the hydraulic pump should be started. The crane will normally  have a cabin for the operator but some cranes have a portable control box attached by an electric cable to the crane. 

The crane has three controls; one to lower and hoist the cargo hook, one to raise and lower the boom or the jib, and one to slew (turn) the crane to port or to starboard. The control to raise and lower the jib and the one to slew the crane could be incorporated in one joy-stick. Before raising the jib, the hook should be unhooked from the deck and the lashing, 

The jib is then raised by pulling the joy-stick towards the operator. The crane has limit switches to prevent the hook from being raised beyond a certain limit and also to prevent the jib from being raised or lowered beyond the set angle. These limit switches can be bypassed by the over-ride switch under the express permission of the chief officer. 

While operating the crane, the operator should be able to see the hook at all time else a signaller should be used. Signalling between the operator and the signaller should be pre arranged. While lifting any load it is a good practise to raise the load by a few centimetres and stop to see if the brake on the winch is holding. When it is confirmed that there is no problem, the load can be lifted and shifted as required. 

Antipilferage steps during cargo operations 

This problem arises when precious / valuable cargo is being handled on general cargo ships. Also this problem will be faced when the cargo has components which are small and which can be stolen and concealed easily. 

One of the major causes of cargo loss is the pilferage of cargo by stevedores / other shore personnel during cargo operations. Since the stevedores handle the loading / discharging operations, they are aware of the contents of the various parcels being loaded. The temptation to steal exists when the person involved knows that the hatches are not being monitored by the ships personnel and hence there is no chance of getting caught. Hence when handling valuable/precious cargoes, the ships crew should be appointed to keep watch in the hatches and where necessary to maintain a tally of the cargo loaded. 

Tampered cases/parcels should be rejected and not allowed on board. A surveyor may be appointed to monitor the operation, if deemed to be required. The hatch should be well lit so that there are no dark corners where cargo can be pilfered away from the eyes of the crew. Watchmen may be employed to check the ‘stevedores bags when they leave the ship. All the above precautions will serve as a deterrent to prospective thieves. Pilferage could occur while discharging too and hence the same precautions as for loading should be taken. Pilfered cargo damages the reputation of the ship owner and gives rise to claims for short cargo. It could also create problems with the customs in some countries due to the cargo not being as per the cargo manifest. 

Fire patrol duties on deck 

While keeping cargo watch, one of the important precautions to take are those to prevent a fire. These precautions shall depend on the cargo and will vary as per the nature of the cargo. Following precautions have to be taken: 

1. “No smoking” regulations to be followed strictly, 

2. No hot work allowed on board, 

3. No naked lights / lights which are not intrinsically safe — allowed on deck, 

4. Fire fighting appliances to be in readiness, 

5. Fire patrol rounds to be taken, 

6. Spark arresters on the funnel to be in place, 

7. No unauthorised craft allowed alongside, 

8. If handling dangerous cargoes, the cargo operations shall be suspended when there is lightening close to the vessel, 

9. When handling dangerous goods, no items allowed on deck that can serve as a source of ignition, 

10. No unauthorised personnel allowed on board, 

Also refer to Nautical Institute book Watch keeping safety and cargo management in port’ section 4.7 – Fire safety

Good seamanship • Do you know? 

That a lit cigarette butt left inadvertently in the hold or a match stick splinter cast off into a hold, during loading by the shore labour, can slowly, but steadily start a fire and that it may take even a week for it to intensify! Yes, a cigarette butt left in the hold whilst in port could be a cause of a major fire at sea! The same analogy applies to containers stuffed ashore! 

It is good seamanship to 

1. Rig up and lay out fire hoses on deck whenever hazardous cargoes are carried, 

2. Put up no smoking signs on deck and strictly enforce it! 

3. Prohibit the use of naked lights on deck or in hold.

4. Ensure that spark arresters are fitted over the funnel, galley exhaust, hold ventilators and high exhaust pipes of oil tanks. 

5. Prohibit any hot work or chipping on deck when hazardous cargo is onboard. . 

6.Ensure that flash lights and walkie-talkies used are intrinsically safe 

7. Ensure that rags, oily wastes etc. are not left in holds or on deck. 

8. Organise fire patrol on deck and stores. 

9.Make sure that all electric cables and components situated in cargo holds and adjacent spaces are free from defects and safe for use in an explosive atmosphere or positively isolated in the cargo holds. 

10. Ensure that all fire fighting equipment, protective clothing and breathing apparatus are checked and kept in readiness for immediate use 

11. Rig lifelines on deck to enable crew to safely walk on deck in heavy weather and attend to emergencies 

Fire Detection System

All cargo vessels carrying hazardous cargoes are fitted with a fire detection system and a fire extinguishing system. The detectors can be actuated by heat, smoke or flame. Usually, cargo vessels have a smoke detector and the control panel is located on the bridge. 

This system ” a sample smoke extractor system,” extracts sample of air/smoke from various enclosed spaces including cargo holds and passes it to the control panel located on the bridge. Sample from each enclosed space reaches its respective glass tube in the panel. If the sample contains smoke, it activates a visual as well as audible alarm on the bridge. You can actually see the smoke in the glass tube. 

Knowing  the space from where the smoke is being emitted, you can raise the alarm and act in accordance to the master’s instruction. 

Main and emergency fire fighting measures 

It is a statutory requirement that fire-fighting system is in readiness  a# all times. They are maintained as per a planned programme. By monitoring the behaviour of the cargo and taking the right action at the right time the cargo could be protected or the damage minimised. You must record all the monitored data in the logbook along with the action taken by you, in the interest of the ship. 

Attend to mooring when loading /discharging 

While the cargo operations are in progress, it is necessary to attend to the moorings regularly. The moorings hold the ship in place and alongside the berth. They prevent any movement of the ship alongside the berth. It should be ensured that the moorings  are tightened equally so that they take equal load. 

Mixed moorings i.e. Polypropelene, nylon, steel wires etc. should be avoided as they stretch at different rates and are likely to part. 

Moorings should be attended to simultaneously fore and aft. Moorings will become taut or slack due to the rise and fall of the tide and also due to the cargo operations. Slack moorings will allow the vessel to surge alongside the berth and damage the shipside, the berth, the gangway, the mooring ropes, etc. and taut ropes may part thereby reducing the holding power at that particular part of the ship and this will result in increase in the load on the remaining lines. This will result in a chain reaction with the other ropes also parting. Also if the ropes at one end become taut, they tend to push the other end of the ship away from the berth. 

Self tension winches are now not permitted in most ports. The ropes should not be left on the warping drum. They should be made fast on the Bitts or they may be wound on a drum and the drum may be secured by tightening the brake. 

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