We Need Our Sleep

It’s a funny thing, sleep, isn’t it—too much of it can make us sluggish, not enough and we can come close to collapse. Preparing for a passage, it’s vital to get enough rest in advance, but we find that’s one of the most difficult things to achieve. Resting well in the days before departure should be the best approach, but there always seems to be a list of things that have to be done to keep us busy until the last moment. And on the night before, even early to bed after a light supper doesn’t guarantee a good night’s sleep. At 0100 you’re wide awake, with your mind going at ninety miles an hour.

As a young guy I sailed with many ex-Navy men who employed the standard Royal Navy approach to preparing for sea, i.e. the traditional ‘run ashore’ the night before. I can’t claim to remember too much about some of those events, except that the ensuing passages were an exercise in endurance, in fighting to stay awake—not recommended! Far better to set off with a clear head and a settled stomach, if you’re to enjoy the voyage, and to be of any use.Over the years I’ve tried all sorts, and the best I’ve come up with is to start the preparation early, relax (if possible) the day before departure, eat sensibly, and get to bed on time. I think it helps, but I can’t be sure. We did just that a few days ago as we prepared for the crossing from Cadiz in Spain to Rabat, Morocco, and we both woke up dead on cue at 0100, and then struggled to get back to sleep all night.

What Keeps Us Awake?

The cause (at least for us) seems to be a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. The nagging reminder of all the possible things that could go wrong is always present in these waking moments, despite the fact that I’ve done the same thing a thousand times before, we have a great, bomb-proof boat under us, and I have a sailing partner I can trust. But as the old Spanish proverb says ‘ the fisherman that doesn’t fear the sea will soon be drowned’, and so the anxiety has its uses—the sudden recollection of the one thing that you have forgotten to check, or in keeping the dangerous element of complacency at bay. The anticipation is far more welcome, the delicious thought of a good sail with a new country and culture at the other end of it. But at the same time, when you need your rest, neither cause is exactly helpful.

When Your Guard Is Down

I’m sure we’ve all seen incidents on boats that could have had serious consequences that occurred simply through the watch being fatigued. There’s a real need to ensure that you’re on the ball at all times when in charge of a watch, especially when tired, and to have the drive to do whatever is necessary, even when your exhausted mind says rest. Perhaps the most obvious example that comes to mind is reefing when going downwind. When the boat is trucking along, and the breeze is gently rising, it can be terribly easy to just let her run because it requires no effort to do so—or leave it to the next watch! But the maxim that the time to reef is the moment you think of it remains a good one, so we have a standard system of apparent wind speed figures at which we reef—and no fudging or questions asked. These are conservative figures and apply principally for night watches, and so far, so good—we’ve avoided being over-pressed and at risk. And as an added bonus, with the boat sailing comfortably we can rest all the better.

Can We Train For It?

As John and Phyllis have remarked before, short overnight hops can be more tiring than longer passages, as it takes time to get over the initial nerves and settle into a new sleep rhythm related to the watch system, and that is simply impossible on an overnighter. I find that I catnap on the first night, sleep better on the second and by the third I can’t even remember turning in, and I know many others who behave in the same manner. Until recently I’d yet to hear of any simple way you can train your body to shorten that cycle or even cope with it, but then I read how long distance single-handed racers undergo special sleep training regimes to prepare them for long spells in high stress situations with little sleep. In advance of her record-breaking solo voyages around the globe, Ellen MacArthur trained with a neurobiologist to cope with only 4-5.5 hours sleep per day by taking short power naps, but that seems on the face of it like overkill for our circumstances. The key seems to be to find your inner sleep rhythm, which sounds a bit New Age to me, but who knows? Maybe there’s something in it for long passages—and by now I’m ready to give anything a try.

So here’s a general plea to all of you out there—have you discovered a magic formula to deal with this? If so, please do tell, because I’m sure we’d all love to hear it.

And our passage after all of the anxiety? Great thanks, good breeze, a little bit of ship dodging, lots of dolphins and only reefed once. And the anticipation? Well after two good nights’ sleep it’s coming back!

{ 13 comments… add one }

  • Jean-François Eeman June 23, 2011, 9:48 am

    Very interesting post ! Again…

    For me it seems important to make a clear distinction between tiredness of body and tiredness of the mind.
    Having the capacity of being aware when your mind is tired is essential as so often it is in those situations that the chances of taking wrong decisions get bigger and bigger…
    To take good decisions you need a clear mind, you need to be able to use all the faculties of your mind…
    Sometimes it is better not to take a decision (when possible) and rest for a very short while.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 23, 2011, 4:55 pm

      Hi Jean-Francois

      I totally agree that mental fatigue is the bigger danger – it’s always possible to wring just a little more out of the body, but the mind is far more problematic. Which is one of the reasons that I like setting parameters (like wind speed for reefing) that prompt action, so over-riding the mind that says ‘don’t bother’.

      And I’m also with you that sometimes the worst decision is the first decision – thinking things through usually achieves a better solution.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Tom Hildebrandt June 23, 2011, 10:21 am

    For the first six years, I often sailed with unskilled crew, and for the past two years, most of my passage making has been done solo. I find myself just as rested sailing solo.

    My approach to this is to sleep when I can, even for short 5 minute bits. The egg timer works to get me alert that the allotted time is over; so I often get 30 to 40 minutes of rest/sleep an hour, and when well offshore and off the shipping routes, I even manage an hour or so uninterrupted.

    Strangely, I never seem to have a problem getting the energy up to reef down when sailing solo, but I find it hard most of the time to find the will power to shake out the reefs!

    Regarding the party the evening before a morning departure, yes it is hard to say no to all those well wishers, but really it is best to be a bit rude, otherwise the passage just starts off on the wrong footing! Fortunately, most cruisers, at least the international boats, seem to understand this issue. They may invite you over for dinner, but do not expect to have a rip roaring party or, if they do, they understand the need for those setting sail to depart the festivities early!

    Cheers to all from Las Salinas, Dominican Republic

    Reply
  • Colin Speedie June 23, 2011, 5:02 pm

    Hi Tom

    It certainly sounds like you’ve got a system that works for you, and that’s perhaps the answer – finding what suits the individual. And I’d agree that shaking out reefs often gets left until well after the wind speed has dropped – perhaps it’s the urgency of the need to reef that makes that easier to get on with.

    Before a departure, we make our goodbyes, then sail off somewhere quiet and anchor for the night – we find it far less stressful that way, and it avoids the party syndrome – not that there wasn’t a time when I didn’t enjoy that too!

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply
  • Max Fletcher June 23, 2011, 6:47 pm

    Have you ever tried melatonin? It’s a very mild, natural substance that helps edge you towards sleep without making you feel drowsy (or putting you under so hard so you don’t wake up to changing conditions). If I’m feeling keyed up, I will take 3 mg an hour before my first off-watch on the first night out. If I can get a good snooze that first off-watch, I find I easily slide into the routine. If I don’t get a snooze that first off watch, it becomes a struggle to get thru the first night and into a routine.

    When I was single handing from Fiji to New Zealand in 1984 I would drink a quart of water anytime I wanted to sleep. That would guarantee a wake-up in an hour or so, at which time I would check on things – then drink another quart of water!

    I agree that becoming overly tired – as well as cold, hungry, etc – is very dangerous, and lowers one’s ability to deal with difficult situations.

    Max

    Reply
    • RDE June 24, 2011, 3:25 pm

      Actually melatonin is the hormone that sets/triggers the natural sleep cycle. As we become drowsy it is because our melatonin levels are rising– the natural variation is on the order of several hundred percent on a daily basis. So it makes sense to help it along if you need to reset your sleep pattern, as when starting a passage or flying to a distant time zone.

      Reply
      • Colin Speedie June 25, 2011, 9:00 am

        Hi guys;

        That’s an interesting thought. I’ve always shied away from taking anything before passages (ditto sea-sickness remedies) as I’ve seen too many people show side effects, but Melatonin sounds different, so I may well try it next time I take a long flight to see how it works for me.

        Love the big drink idea, though, nature’s way of telling you to wake up.

        Best wishes

        Colin

        Reply
  • Derek Hillen June 24, 2011, 9:04 pm

    As a former singlehander I can attest to the liter of water before lying down method as being one of the most reliable. A container ship takes only 11 minutes after it is on the horizon until it runs you down. With ships going slower to save fuel now, 17 kts on average vs. 22 kts before, maybe it’s up to 12 minutes, I don’t know. I do know not all ships are in the shipping lanes either. Our rule is the radar is on whenever the boat is moving. I also installed a piezo down below that would buzz when the radar in the cockpit buzzed if it found something. That way, as a singlehander, I wouldn’t miss or sleep through a situation.

    Regarding sleeping before a passage – I am GLAD to read you go through the exact same anxiety and stress-filled predeparture emotional circus I suffer. No way around it. I also find that for the first 24 hours on passage I cannot sleep, nor even lie down. The second 24 hours finds me lying down eyes wide open in the cockpit while the wife is on watch. The third 24 hour period might find me lying down below eyes closed but not sleeping. It is only on the fourth day of a long passage that I can finally sleep. Long term effect? None, that I can see. I am still as grumpy and difficult to get along with as I ever have been.

    Derek

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie June 25, 2011, 9:06 am

      Hi Derek

      Like you we use a guard zone, although in our case we tend to use the AIS. Either way, it’s a good thing to use every means at your disposal to stay switched on and well informed.

      Good to hear that I’m not alone, but I wish I had your constitution – one bad night and I’m very testy. It’s one of the main reasons I’d like to find a way to settle in to a good routine, as poor Louise catches it worst, as there’s no-one else here to take it out on – hardly fair…

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Richard June 26, 2011, 11:14 am

    Don’t know if there’s much of a “cross over” here or not but, living and working on 4 of the earth’s 7 continents, off and on for 26 years, I’ve always tried to be as exhausted as humanly possible leading up to my flight abroad. The last thing I want to be is conscious for the average 34 hour flight (the longest being a nightmare 54 hours) from Tampa, Fla. to Bangkok, Thailand.

    I only allow myself 2 hours of sleep in the last 24 before stepping on the plane. Then, do my best to stay awake during the 5 hour flight to L.A.. As soon as I settle into the seat on the 14 hour flight to Narita, Japan or Taipei, Taiwan I down a 5mg. Melatonin tablet. Boom—-off to see the “Sandman”, generally waking up 45 minutes before landing. I still want to sleep another couple of hours but do feel rested.

    The final leg of the journey is a 5-6 hour flight from Japan / Taipei into Bangkok. Another couple of hours sleep on that flight and 1 more of dozing and by the time I touch down in BKK I feel like a million bucks.

    Melatonin has been a life saver for me and I’ve been taking it for years now. It’s non-addictive, gives a very restful sleep and no “hang over” when I wake. The best of all of it is it helps to “reset” your internal clock—-no jetlag. When I step off the plane in Bangkok, I’m off and running on their time (11 hour difference in time zones).

    I’ll continue to take Melatonin the 1st 2 nights there and I’m “locked in” to their time. Absolutely no jetlag or “down time” trying to reschedule my internal clock. I can’t say enough about it, just miracle stuff.

    Another thing I really dig about it is it “shuts my mind down”. None of those non stop “did I pack this, did I remember to do that, damn I forgot to do, etc., etc. dreams.”

    I just take it and 20 minutes later I’m “out like a light, sleep like a baby and feel like a million bucks when I wake up”.

    Reply
  • Colin Speedie June 27, 2011, 4:32 pm

    Hi Richard

    It sounds like Melatonin certainly works in your hectic career. Louise who has endured similar travel arrangements in her time was particularly interested.

    So next time we’re faced with one of these marathons I think we’ll give it a try – if it works for us, then maybe we’ll give it a further go before a long passage.

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply
  • Jim Evans April 10, 2013, 8:31 am

    On my lengthy singlehanded trips I confess I just slept as long as needed once offshore – I had a radar detector but found I’d wake before it went off, and met several other singlehanders who said the same. I suspect one hears ships coming through the hull. I agree it’s vital to get enough rest for when you need it; I talked to a couple of guys who claimed they woke every fifteen minutes – and they had many more disasters than me.
    Melatonin sounds good – I have a very health-conscious brother-in-law who works odd hours and swears by it.

    Reply
    • John April 10, 2013, 8:49 am

      Hi Jim,

      I had the same experience on the one long single handed trip I did: waking and just knowing that there was a ship around before the detector went off–very weird. I started my six day trip by setting the alarm for every 30 minutes, but, like you, found that I was getting too tired to be seamanlike. In the end I slept for as long as I wanted to and ended the trip more rested than I can ever remember being after a crossing. Just another one of those tradeoffs that offshore sailing is so full of.

      Reply

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