January 3, 2013

Bootless and wide awake

IF THERE’S ONE THING that singlehanded passagemakers like to talk about it’s sleep. Specifically, they like to discuss how much sleep they can afford to indulge in at any one time without risking their lives in collisions.

Some of them sleep for long hours at night when they’re well away from shipping lanes. Others prefer to stay awake all night and keep watch. They do their sleeping during daylight, when there’s a greater chance of being spotted by a ship. And still others sleep day and night for periods varying from 20 minutes to an hour. Twenty minutes is a common choice because that’s supposed to be the average time it takes a ship to reach you after she has appeared over the horizon.

But not matter what system you choose, it’s a fact that the great majority of singlehanders don’t get enough sleep — certainly not the same amount they’d get in a safe port, or nicely tucked away in bed at home. So even when they’re keeping watch by eye, as they’re supposed to according to the collisions regulations, they often find it difficult not to doze off.

There are various drugs you can take to stay awake on watch. Most of them are not very healthy in the long run, but I did run across one drugless method the other day that wouldn’t do anything worse than give you frost-bitten toes.

A military veteran said that when he was in the army he was taught to stay awake by removing one of his boots.

He said: “The brain keeps asking itself ‘Why have we got only one boot on? What’s the plan? What’s happening? Is this right? Should I be doing something? Will we die?’ And that makes it impossible for anyone to doze off accidentally.”

Well, I must say it’s a novel approach. I have no experience of how well it works, but it does occur to me that a really sharp brain would say to itself ‘Hah, he’s just trying to trick us into staying awake,’ and promptly fall asleep.

But I suppose army brains aren’t that sharp on the whole, certainly not as sharp as sailors’ brains, which live under the threat of severe punishment if they’re caught sleeping on watch.

However, if any of you would like to experiment and pass the results on to me, I’ll publish them for the benefit of singlehanded sailors. You never know; you might save a life.

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

A military doctor was examining a man back from Afghanistan.
“Do you pass water normally?” he asked.
“Yes, sir.”
“Don’t go more than usual at night?”
“Um — no, sir.”
“When you go, does it burn at all?”
“Don’t know, sir. Never tried to light it.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


The Unlikely Boatbuilder said...

Has AIS made this old problem less of a problem? Can't single handers just set the AIS alarm and go to sleep? Assuming you are not in the middle of a shipping lane, of course.

John Vigor said...

Not all ships or boats have to carry AIS. And if they don't have it, you won't hear from them even if you have it. It's a VHF system, incidentally, so the range is line-of-sight and may not be very far. I think it's a great help for the singlehanded sailor, but it can't prevent all collisions.

John V.

Roger Jones said...

I think the distinction between coastal and open ocean is critical. All ships in the open ocean (except military) carry AIS. Coastal ships - like fishing vessels - frequently don't. I have single handed about 10,000 NM and can tell you that you can not sustain 20 minute naps for a 20+ day passage. At some point you need 4+ hours of sleep. IMHO you pick the time you feel most safe, usually in open ocean when it is quite calm. And you must have a (loud) alarm. I have almost been run down by a cargo ship with both of us broadcasting our position on AIS.

John Vigor said...

Vessels under 300 tons gross are not required to carry AIS in the open ocean or anywhere else. So there are a lot of smaller ships, fishing boats, and other yachts out there operating blind.

John V.