The Long Trick is the Worst
Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 20 September 2022, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.
The general day-to-day schedule of a warship, better known as the ship’s routine, cycles around working, eating, and sleeping. A ship operates round the clock, and sailors must be available to do the jobs required twenty-four hours a day, which is normally split into seven work periods called watches.
Two four-hour daytime watches occur on either side of the noon hour and are aptly named forenoon and afternoon. These are followed by a pair of two-hour dog watches named first dog, from 1600 to 1800, and last dog, from 1800 to 2000. The shorter dog watches allow for a cycling of the daily watch schedule. The name is derived from “dodge watch,” since it allows the crew to dodge standing the same watch every day. Since a dog watch already represents a shorter than normal period of time, if a sailor wants to say something will happen quickly, they might say it will take half a dog watch.
When a ship is rotating on a three-watch system, one of the best watches to stand is the first watch from 2000 to midnight. Standing the first watch allows for the special treat called all night in, or all-nighters, meaning you miss the inglorious undertaking of standing the overnight watches, namely the middle, midnight to 0400, and morning, 0400 to 0800.
The middle watch is the worst for interrupting a sailor’s sleep. Often referred to as the mids, another nickname for this awful watch is long trick, a trick being a short spell of duty on a particular job; e.g., a short trick on the helm. Midrats, short for middle rations, is a light meal served for those about to stand a middle watch, the leftovers are usually a treat for those coming off the first watch, consumed before they head to their racks.
Historically, the ship’s bell was used to coordinate the passing of time, and to regulate the watches, as the bell would be rung to mark the progress of time. In a four-hour watch the bell would be struck on eight occasions, every half-hour, increasing by one strike every time. The end of a four-hour watch would culminate by the bell being rung eight times, and thus the term eight-bells became a standard to mark the end of something.
The term rang eight bells may be said of someone who has passed away, suggesting the end of their watch. A slow eight is often part of a naval remembrance service, where a ship’s bell is rung a total of eight times over a two-minute period of silence, with two low-intensity strikes every thirty seconds. It is an old naval custom for the youngest member of a ship’s company to ring the ship’s bell sixteen times at midnight on New Year’s Eve, signifying eight bells for the new year and eight bells for the old.
Passing time is a general distraction for any sailor at sea. The term days and a wake-up is often used when counting down the days to an event; e.g., “We will be back home in six days and a wake-up,” means the homeport will be reached in seven days. Somehow, it seems to make the wait seem shorter.
You will find over 4000 examples of Jackspeak in my book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).