This summer, many sailors will embark for the first time on a long, non-stop coastal or offshore passage that involves one or more nights at sea. If you are sailing a long distance, you should set and follow a formal watch schedule. Some boats utilize a “catch as catch can” approach—but this can lead to exhaustion and is a recipe for disaster. Watchstanding routines can range from a very basic four hours on, four off rotation, to much more complex arrangements. For many people, seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is ideal. But that routine may not be practical for a short-handed cruising sailboat. Also, a watch schedule is only one component of a voyage lasting one or more nights.
If possible, sleep on the boat the night before you sail; this can help acclimate you to being on board.
In good weather you can be flexible with the watches. For example, with six crew, you might have three on deck at any time, and use a four-on, four-off system. In settled conditions this might be reduced to two on deck, and a four-on, eight-off system. This will produce a more rested crew, and if the weather gets rough that can pay big dividends.
When sleep deprivation is almost inevitable (e.g. solo sailing, or heavy weather), it may be better to take precisely timed naps, as opposed to larger blocks. Dr. Claudio Stampi, a physician who has studied sleep patterns extensively, has helped many solo, long-distance racers develop schedules that can optimize the benefits derived from shorter periods of sleep.
Make sure the offwatch crew is in bed and not just hanging around belowdeck, especially at night. During the first day or two of a passage, before a rhythm sets in, it may be difficult to fall asleep. But even limited rest is better than nothing.
You don’t realize how noisy sailing can be until you’re trying to get to sleep. Not only is there the sound of the water rushing along the hull but also of lines being winched or eased, safety harness clips dragging along the deck, people clomping around the cockpit. Even if the on-deck watch is trying to be quiet, the noise may still be keeping you awake. If so, try ear plugs (foam ones work well)—they can be extremely effective.
Some people find engine noise soothing because its white noise can help drown out other sounds, but others have a different reaction. Although it is not always possible, it can be beneficial to “schedule” use of the engine (e.g., for battery charging) to coincide with the crew’s sleep patterns and preferences.
In port, the bigger the bed, the better. At sea, sleeping in a narrow pilot or quarterberth fitted with lee cloths or leeboards is the best option. But you may not always have a choice, so be prepared to improvise. You can, for example, wedge yourself into a bigger bunk with duffle bags, pillows, and other space fillers.
Make sure there are plenty of blankets or proper sleeping bags. A light sheet, or no cover at all, may be the best choice when it is warm. Just as in port, it’s much easier to sleep at sea when the boat is well ventilated. If bad weather or rough seas make it necessary to close hatches and perhaps seal the dorade vents, you’ll appreciate a fan, even a small portable one.
Manage the motion
Sometimes, the motion of the boat can make sleep difficult. Although it always depends on the navigational situation, it is possible to moderate the boat’s motion by changing the course or speed slightly, or perhaps even heaving-to. A side benefit is that a slight heading change might also reduce the overall noise level.
Another option might be to move to a spot on the boat where the motion is less severe. Usually this means getting down as low as possible in the boat and positioning yourself either in the center of the boat or further aft. On one offshore passage I wedged myself on the cabin sole between the saloon table and a settee berth.
Having a snack before going to bed can help some people fall asleep. If this works for you, fine, but I’d advise avoiding caffeine. In general, prescription sleep medications should also be avoided because they may make you excessively drowsy; not a good state to be in if you are called on deck for an emergency. That said, certain non-prescription medicines can be beneficial. For example, some seasick medications, such as Dramamine, induce a slight drowsiness—a potentially useful side effect. And 25 or 50 mg of the antihistamine diphenhydramine (Benadryl) also can help you fall asleep. I’d advise consulting your physician about any medication—prescription or non-prescription—before you use it on a boat.
As skipper, you may have concerns about what’s happening on deck when you are off watch and that can inhibit your sleep. The solution is simple. Leave firm and unambiguous orders to have the on-deck watch wake you up if they have any questions or concerns. Paradoxically, if you know you will be awakened if there is a problem you will, in fact, be able to get more sleep.
Steven Henkind, M.D., Ph.D. is a marine safety consultant based in Larchmont, New York. He also holds a 200 ton U.S. Coast Guard License.