The first night on your boat after a long winter is always an education. You learn that the gentle rocking of a boat in a slip or at a mooring can be mightily effective when it comes to curing insomnia. You also learn, as the slightest of rolls sets crockery a-clinking and cans a-clanking, that you haven’t done a very good job of stowing the odds and ends that you’ve just put back on board. And why does it seem so stuffy on board? Hey—is that mattress damp?!
Getting a good night’s rest on board is a matter of experience. There are some tricks and techniques to it that, once learned, will see you through your sailing life with a minimum of bleary eyes. You have to identify the enemies of sleep and take care of them, one by one.
Poor ventilation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve woken up with condensation dripping on my face from an overhead hatch. It’s not a problem if you’re able to sleep with the hatch or portlights open, so that air can circulate, but when it’s raining and the boat’s buttoned down tight, you’re in for an uncomfortable night as the vapor from your breath collects above you. The solution is forced ventilation; ideally you’d have a solar-powered active ventilator in each cabin blowing air out, but failing that, mounting a small fan above each bunk to keep air circulating will work wonders. Some of the latest fans from Hella and Caframo draw very little power. If you’re in a slip with shorepower, by all means use a more powerful 110-volt fan. At anchor in fair weather, a windscoop is worth its weight in gold. There’s another aspect to ventilation—making sure air can circulate under your mattress. Drilling 1" holes in the bunk bases is a good thing to do, if you have the courage; so is fitting commercially made products like Dri-Dek or Hypervent, which hold the mattress clear of the base.
Poor stowage. Back in the old days, most lockers on boats were divided up into fairly small areas. This made it easy to fill individual compartments to capacity and to wedge things in so that they couldn’t knock against each other and keep you awake. On most modern boats you have to get a bit more creative. For starters, try lining the bottoms of the lockers where you keep glassware, plates and condiments. This will help keep items in place and reduce the noise if a can or bottle falls over and starts rolling around. The non-slip perforated plastic mats available from stores like Target are ideal. That in itself isn’t the total cure; I’ve been driven to wedge tea towels between stacks of dishes and insert wine and spirits bottles into old socks. The rattle factor in itself is a good reason to keep glass off the boat.
Wave slap. The infernally annoying slapping of wavelets under the transom is the curse of the aft-cabin sailboat. If the forecabin or the saloon berths are taken, there’s nothing for it but to don earplugs and suffer. Luckily, it’s not often a factor when you’re on a mooring or at anchor; but if you’re in a slip and presenting your transom to the breeze, you’re in trouble. In that case, you’re better off turning the boat—if that’s feasible—to face into the breeze. There is a product called the Slapsilencer, a foam and dacron contraption that is slung under the transom, but I haven’t tried it.
Halyard rattle. If ever there is an experience that will teach you how to secure your halyards so they don’t slap against the mast, it’s sleeping on your boat. A keel-stepped mast transmits the sound better than a deck-stepped spar, but either can drive you to the brink of madness. In more than a few anchorages, I’ve seen cursing, semi-naked figures, armed with bungees and string, wrestling with the rigging on neighboring boats, usually at midnight or thereabouts as the wind is rising and the sea’s getting up. You don’t want to be one of them. Best to secure your halyards before you try to go to sleep.
Anchor grumble. I prefer to sleep in the forecabin at anchor, because of the nice breeze through the forehatch. If you have a chain rode, though, the penalty is often being wakened at odd times by the sound of the chain dragging across the bottom as the boat swings. This is where the rope-rode contingent can feel smug. Attaching a long nylon snubber to the chain will usually dampen the noise, but may not eliminate it completely.
Claustrophobia. Some people sleep as snugly in the tight confines of a quarterberth or tiny V-berth as Dracula in his coffin. Others toss and turn and fight for breath, all too aware of the wood and fiberglass seeming to press in on them. Such shipmates are best told to sleep in the saloon, which is open and airy in comparison to the cramped cave that is a small-boat quarterberth. A saloon berth, fitted with a leecloth that should be used even in harbor (it’s easy to roll off a narrow settee), is in my opinion the best place to sleep. Even those who’ve shown no prior symptoms of claustrophobia on shore can fall victim on a boat. The trick is to identify the problem.
Lack of privacy. Children usually don’t get claustrophobic. Usually, they love to have a ‘nest’ that they can call their own and where they can hide from siblings and parents. This can be easily achieved by screening off a quarterberth or pilotberth with a curtain. Even an extra-high leecloth on a settee berth is better than nothing. If children have to share a V-berth, a split mattress with an 18"-high plywood or cloth divider will minimize territorial squabbles