How to sleep at sea

This is a tricky issue as there are many conflicting views. First we have to say that the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea apply to every vessel on the sea, including short-handed and singlehanded yachts. They are quite clear when they say, “Every vessel must at all times keep a proper look-out”. There is nothing you can do about that: on the high seas you must keep a proper lookout at all times.

On the other hand, you must sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to carelessness and errors of judgement. In particular, loss of attention due to tiredness can lead to not seeing the blindingly obvious, even after having apparently looked. I have, when very tired, failed to notice that a huge car ferry was close and coming straight at me while happily attaching fenders at 3 am in the middle of Cherbourg harbour. He helpfully roused me from my tunnel-vision with a very deep blast on his huge horn. People faced with water sloshing over their floorboards in the middle of the night have sometimes been very slow to work out the obvious reason why, and so stem a simple leak. The last thing you need when you seem to be under a pincer attack from trawlers or container ships, is the feeling that your head is full of mud and you can’t remember the first thing about who gives way to whom.

When you are tired enough, my experience is that you will sleep, I have slept sitting upright in the cockpit with my head against the mainsheet ropes, I have slept lying on the upwind cockpit seat at 20° of heel with the throttle handle crooked inside my elbow to stop me falling off. From these examples, you can guess that in my early singlehanded days, I tried to stay awake for unrealistic periods of time (a) by staying in the cockpit and (b) by trying to make sure I was uncomfortable as possible to keep me awake. Neither of these things work, and neither of them are a good idea, even if they did.

On the other hand, when there is enough stimulus, you can stay awake. Stimulus in this sense is a psychological and physiological thing. When you are new to boating, or making your first singlehanded night passage, the natural sense of fear that you have is enough to keep you sitting on the edge of the cockpit seat all night. When you are worried about the rising wind, and the shipping forecast says, “Gale force 9, imminent”,  you are suddenly not sleepy at all. There are two problems with relying on this approach: one, the ability of adrenaline and anxiety to keep you awake all night diminishes with experience. After a few dozen similar extended singlehanded passages, or after you have the storm jib up, the boat on a run, plenty of sea-room, and see that she’s handling it fine, the tiredness comes back, redoubled, and can hit you like a wall, so that you can fall asleep in an instant. Second, even if that doesn’t happen, and even if you have an iron willpower that can conquer all, you will start to hallucinate and your attention and ability to make a good judgement call will be way down compared to what is considered normal.

It’s OK, I do have a plan, it’s very simple, and it’s coming in a minute, but let’s just deal with hallucinations first, since I mentioned them. I came across sleep deprivation hallucinations early in my sailing career, when I still had the adrenalin to make me want to push myself that far. I wrote about hallucinations and dreams on the sailing website I used to maintain at that time. There are two points to make. First, when lack of sleep causes an hallucination, it does not mean that you have instantly and completely lost your mind. I was perfectly capable of saying “I can see [tower blocks/an old lady/whatever] on [the horizon/the side deck/wherever] and I know that that is nonsense, so that’s OK. Now, are we still on course and doing all right?” Simple hallucinations are not something to fear too much, as long as you can see through them, as it were. What they do mean is that you are seriously overtired and that if a tricky judgement call is going to be needed any time soon, you are going to be ‘running through chewing gum’ trying to decide what to do.

While on the mystical side, let’s just mention the advice I read somewhere that a sailor alone at sea develops a ‘sixth sense’ than means he will wake up with a start when his boat is in danger and will be able to take the averting action just in time. That is nonsense. If you fall asleep on watch with no plan for waking yourself up very shortly, there will be no guardian angel who will wake you just in time, and you will be run down by a tanker, or sail up the rocks, or whatever, without any warning. Again, two points. If you find yourself seriously thinking that there may be guardian angels over your boat, then you are too tired to make any life-or-death decisions, so don’t trust yourself. Secondly, if you are taking a catnap, and you suddenly wake up in your bunk with a vague feeling that something is wrong, do trust the instinct, leap out, and have a good look around – you never know, you might have heard the throb of big engines, or you may just have received a mystical warning, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

OK, so what’s the plan? An oven timer. Rusalka Mist has one with a magnetic base and the steel disk is glued to the chart table to keep it from rolling around. It is an important safety-of-life device, so buy the best, have a backup and replace it on the first signs of rust or malfunction. When singlehanded, I use it to wake me up after taking short naps, whenever I feel the least bit dozy, provided there are no ships or other dangers in sight. This means day or night.

It works like this. In busy or confined waters, 10 minutes is my normal time. I scan the whole horizon and if all is clear, set the timer for 10 minutes (you have to overwind it well beyond ten to ensure it gives a reasonable ring at the end) and hit the bunk. Eyes closed, instant peaceful sleep, then ‘Brrrrrrr’, off it goes, leap up (no thinking, ‘Oh, just another minute’, you will sleep the rest of the night away, and may possibly die if you do that), scan the horizon, 360°, check the instruments, check the radar, set another 10 mins and hit the bunk again. If there is anything there, of course the routine changes and I start taking bearings on approaching ships, adjusting sails, altering course, or doing whatever is necessary. When the danger has passed, set another 10 and hit the bunk again.

I have used this 10-minute snooze method many, many times to cross the English Channel singlehanded. That’s about 100-110 nautical miles and takes between 24 and 36 hours depending on weather and wind. The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and there are two processions of large ships to cross each way, one going up and the other down the Channel. Usually both of these lanes need crossing in the dark, so I try to get my sleep early, before reaching the lanes, in the gap between them, and afterwards, before closing anywhere near the far-side land where there will be yachts and coastal traffic to look out for, as well as the land itself.

Sometimes, when threading between the Channel Islands for example, ten minutes can seem too long and five is enough to stay very safe, but it’s still better than nothing. At other times, out in the deep ocean, I have extended it to 20 minutes and then it is seriously refreshing. Don’t go beyond 20 minutes, as I have seen fast ocean-going ships that were invisible one minute, seriously close 20 minutes later. But never dangerously close. Yet. If you have nothing to do, you can try to guess what speed the fastest ships are doing, how far away the horizon is, and how many minutes the fastest will take to come from nowhere and get to you.

I mentioned radar. If you have this it is seriously useful when combined with a sleep timer. Even on short trips, having it on means you get a preview of what ships are going to become visible before you can see them. Using EBL markers means that you may decide to monitor their bearing while they’re still 10 or 12 miles away and grab another 10 minutes before reassessing their risk. On a longer passage, there is time, and an empty enough ocean, to set up guard zones and get the radar alarm to wake you as well if anything comes within, say 12 miles. I use a ‘doughnut’ shaped guard zone that wakes me up if there is anything between, say, two and twelve miles away, to reduce the false alarms from waves and sea-clutter within two miles. I also add a slim wedge of ‘guard zone 2’ to cover the gap in ‘guard zone 1’ because my radar won’t set a doughnut shape without such a gap. Out in the Atlantic and in Biscay, this worked very well, and the radar always woke me up before I could see the oncoming vessel. This worked even for yachts with radar reflectors, but don’t forget that while most ocean-going yachts have good reflectors, many coastal and racing craft do not, so this does not apply to inshore sailing at all.

People ask me, what is the hardest thing about crossing an ocean, or the English Channel, shorthanded in a small boat? It is not the sailing, not the boredom or the loneliness, nor the tinned food and lack of nice bread. In the Atlantic, the sails often went unadjusted for days or weeks on end, there were two of us to chat and regular daily shortwave radio schedules to keep, we had books to read and there were whales, birds, flying fish and other sealife to see. No, the hardest part was the tiredness. Even with two of us sharing watches, getting out of bed at 3 a.m. when you only crawled into it at midnight was hard. Wiping up all your spilled coffee when you had just made all the effort to make it in rough rolly seas, and then starting to make another one at 3:30 a.m., was hard. I read about a two-man crew who won one of the early trans-ocean yacht races and they put their success down to strictly enforced sleeping time when on passage: the man off-watch had to sleep, he may not stay out of his bunk whether it was day or night. They said that because of this they both arrived at their destination fresh and relaxed and ready to do it all again if they had had to. That is the goal I have always aimed at. Radio scheds and being more experienced than her with boat and sail handling meant that it didn’t always work out that way for me when Nicky and I did ocean journeys, but some 10, 15 or 20 minute snoozes, even when on-watch, meant that I never became exhausted and was always able to do the next thing, fairly cheerfully.

So what does it feel like? Are 10-minute sleeps enough? Well, it does get to feel a bit weird after a whole night singlehanded. I hit the bunk and almost instantly fall asleep, but I think I only just start to dream when the timer goes off again. The time awake is very short if all is well, but the next sleep does not lead back to the same dream, but to a new one, and these disjointed dreams get a bit muddled as the hours go by. EBLs (electronic bearing lines) on the radar are useful as it’s not always easy to remember if it was last time you stood here that you were worried about that ship, or the time before. You have to be aware that, dragged from your bunk at four or five in the morning after only a series of ten-minute sleeps all night, you are not functioning at your best, and so you must allow for that. If something is a bit confusing or worrying, don’t just set the timer and go to sleep again. Think. Concentrate. Put cold water on your face. Look at it again. Is it really OK? If so, then that’s fine. Don’t just let a predictable and momentary lapse or confusion allow you to miss an important clue.

Combining 3- or 4-hour off-watch periods with the odd timer-based snooze while on-watch is fine and works long-term, but singlehanding two consecutive nights of coastal traffic with only short snoozes is a challenge. It is not usually necessary as a singlehander setting off on an ocean passage should be clear of coastal traffic after one night. I have never done it, but I think that sailing the oceans with three capable watch handlers would be bliss – 4 hours on and 8 hours off would make it easy. We sailed two nights and best part of three days going close down the Portuguese coast once (original writeup). That was hard, because, although Nicky and I were doing watches, the rule was that if anything worried her, she was to call me. Never an hour went by during both nights when there wasn’t some fishing or coastal vessel doing something daft, and each time I got up, it took at least another hour before we looked clear and safe again. By which time it was often about time for my watch anyway. An Australian singlehander who did the same trip a few days before us said that he began by sailing 30 miles straight out to sea so that he was clear of the coastal nonsense before turning south, and that was wise advice, received after the event in our case.

Does it matter? What about having a nice long sleep and letting all the other vessels take avoiding action? Only the other week I heard about the investigation after a fishing vessel was hit in the English Channel by a 47,000-tonne bulk carrier, with one life lost. So yes, it does matter, and yes, they will hit you if you don’t avoid them sometimes. That was in the busy Channel, but even out in the deep ocean we only saw a handful of ships and had to avoid a couple of them, or speak on Channel 16 to ask them to avoid us. Sometimes in the day, a long ‘dah-dit-dit’ on our fog horn was enough to wake them up. Sometimes at night, the million candlepower torch shone at their bridge windows for five or ten seconds works better, and sometimes a chat on Ch 16 is best. I covered some of this here on the original website.

One last thought about sailing through the sea without standing at the helm all day and night: sail slowly. We have been talking here about the container ships and bulk carriers, but there is another whole class of dangers out there – the floating, half submerged hazards like lost shipping containers, trees, baulks of timber, abandoned unlit yachts (e.g. after the ARC!). These are unlikely to show up on radar and are completely invisible at night, even if you spend the whole night looking for them. Hitting one of these things at 4 knots in a sturdy boat is unlikely to do too much damage. Hitting it at 7 knots or more, flying over the waves under full sail is more likely to rip a huge hole right into your waterline. Times have changed since Joshua Slocum sailed the unsullied waves of the 19th century. There are hazards everywhere, ships do 30 knots even when we’re becalmed, and the days of long sleeps under sail have long passed.

So, let me make it clear. Every vessel at sea must obey the COLREGs and keep a proper look-out at all times. The point is that in my experience, regular, seriously executed scans of the horizon visually and by radar is a proper lookout for a slow-moving cruising yacht at sea. They are far more effective than a sleeping figure in the cockpit who will wake up with no idea how long he has been asleep for. They also means that we arrive at a destination (or a mid-passage hazard) fresh, alert, and ready to make good decisions with a clear head. For the single- or short-handed sailor, this doesn’t happen by chance but begins as soon as there are 10 minutes’ worth of clear safe sea around and in front of the boat, day or night. It requires willpower and determination, but will and determination towards an achievable goal. The goal is controlled short periods of rest, which keep you on-form while staying safe; not attempting the impossible by denying yourself necessary rest. Oh, and drink plenty of water too.


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8 Responses to “How to sleep at sea”

  1. Nigel Says:

    Thanks to Rico Torriani for his comment that inspired this post. Good luck in your sailing, Rico

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  4. George Says:

    Thank you for sharing what you achieved, now I know I can’t do it!

    • Nigel Says:

      “Can’t” do it?! I misread that at first. Of course you can do it. Anyone can. Good luck in whatever you do do, George.

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  6. tombcn Says:

    It’s from a few years back but thanks all the same. I’m a lapsed sailor who did a week-long trip about 19 years ago, including a delightful night watch (I remember it so clearly), about to embark on a trip with a skipper from Barcelona to Mallorca and back. Also just passed my Spanish skipper’s exam. I’m loving reading lots about sailing, but regretting spending so many years on dry land. Happy sailing!

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