September 9, 2010

Sleeping problems

MOST SAILORS with reasonably sized boats find themselves singlehanding sooner or later. If their next port of call is more than 24 hours away, they run right into what I consider the singlehander’s biggest problem — when and how to sleep.

In the first place, a singlehander who sleeps for any time at all is breaking the law because he or she can’t maintain the required lookout. But nobody ever seems to prosecute singlehanders, probably because they come off worse in any encounter with a ship, so we’ll ignore that objection for now.

From what I can gather from published interviews with solo sailors, most of them think the best thing to do is nap for 20 minutes at a time. Then they get up, have a look around the horizon, check the course and the sails, and go below to set the kitchen timer alarm for another 20-minute nap. This apparently goes on all night from dusk to dawn. In theory, if they get 10 minutes of actual sleep in each 20-minute period, they’ll get 30 minutes of sleep in every hour, or six hours during the night.

Then, during the day, they can take a longer nap, justifying it on the grounds that a collision is less likely during the day because a sailboat is then easier to see and avoid.

Why 20-minute naps? Well, there seems to be a theory that 20 minutes is how long it takes a ship to move from just below your visible horizon to the spot where you will be in 20 minutes’ time.

Now the deepest part of sleep, the part we need most, apparently, if we are to avoid fatigue and hallucinations, is called REM sleep, named after random eye movement. It’s not normally the first part of our sleep patterns, but it seems many singlehanders have managed to train themselves to fall into REM almost immediately they lie down, and they get 10 minutes or more of REM in every 20-minute sleep period.

It usually takes about a week to get into the routine of instant REM, so if you’re planning a solo voyage you’d do well to practice in advance.

Not everybody follows the 20-minute nap routine, of course. Many optimists just sleep the night through as if they were safely in port, getting up only to shorten sail or answer the summons of an off-course alarm. On the whole, I can’t help thinking they’re probably just as safe as the 20-minute nappers. It seems to me that a sleeping singlehander is more likely to run into another sleeping singlehander than to collide with a ship manned by a regular crew and maintaining a proper lookout. And serve the two of them right.

Today’s Thought
It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.
— John Steinbeck

Boater’s Rules of Thumb, #92
Gaff mainsail. In the unlikely event that you want to convert to a gaff mainsail, here are the traditional rules of thumb for proportions:
Luff: Between 2/3 and 4/5 of the foot.
Head: Between 3/5 and 2/3 of the foot.
Gaff: About 35 degrees from vertical — but a gaff on a tall, narrow sail needs to be more horizontal, like that on a schooner’s foresail, otherwise it sags to leeward.
Boom angle: The height of the mainsail clew above water level should be 1.4 times the height of the tack above water level.

I don’t know how much truth there is in the medical theory that everybody is slightly taller in the morning than they were in the evening, but I can tell you this: all my life I noticed a pronounced tendency to become short toward the end of each pay period.


Ken said...

With no self steering on my solo sail from Bahama's to Charleston I'd steer the boat during the day and most of the night. A short lash on the tiller would give a minute or two to cook and make sail changes before the boat would venture to far off. A lot of running back and forth to the tiller, but I managed that OK. I managed to stay awake with caffeine till about 2 or 3 AM. Then I'd hove-to, lash a flashlight on the mainsail and get a solid sleep for 3 or 4 hours. What's a solo sailor to do?

Captain and Crew said...

I love your post! Definitely good points raised. I also wrote about sleep and a great book that I read; check it out:

~First Mate

John Vigor said...

Thanks for your input Micky-T. It's always fascinating to me to know what singlehanders do about sleeping under way.


John V.

sleep apnea symptoms said...

Sleep problems, especially insomnia, are very common among Sailors and Marines during and after deployment. If these problems are not treated, they can last for months or even years.