January 27, 2015

Sleep -- the forgotten factor

ONE THING that people seldom think about when they’re planning an ocean passage in a small boat is how they’re going to get enough sleep. But sleep is actually very important — and sometimes it’s not as easy to come by as you might imagine.

Without sound sleep, the crew will soon start showing signs of frayed tempers. Arguments will spring up out of nowhere. They will start losing interest in food. They will have difficulty concentrating on their jobs and they may place everyone in danger by dozing off while on watch. In short, they will become very inefficient, and if the deprivation lasts long enough they may experience illusions.

The problem is that it’s often not possible to enjoy a long, undisturbed sleep on a boat that’s being driven hard in a brisk breeze. If you haven’t been to sea on a small sailboat, you can’t begin to imagine the noises that emanate from blocks and winches, the slapping of halyards and sheets against the mast or deck, waves thumping against the hull, and pots, pans, and cans of food sliding around in the galley lockers.

Furthermore, in short-handed boats the crew’s sleep is often disturbed by calls to appear on deck to make or shorten sail; and, of course, we haven’t even mentioned the physical problem of sleeping on a boat that’s being tossed around in  head seas or rolling excessively in a following trade wind.

There may well be some sailors who can come off watch, crumple up in a bunk, and fall sound asleep in minutes, no matter how the boat is performing, but I always found it difficult to get any sleep at all during a gale, even if I were in my berth, safely tucked in behind the lee cloth. In the first place, there’s the noise. Few landlubbers would believe the volume of the noise that’s made by a gale-force wind howling through the rigging, or the way it can make the whole boat vibrate as a terrier shakes a rat.  You never get used to the pitch of the wind, because the low-down thrum of a wind blowing against boat a boat lying ahull rises several octaves as the boat rolls to windward; and the fear factor rises with it.

I would guess that those lucky souls who can fall asleep with no problem are likely to be crew members and not skippers. When you see a skipper lying wide-eyed in his bunk during a storm, unable to get a wink of sleep, it’s his responsibilities that are propping his eyelids open, not just the noise or the motion. He, or she, is suffering from an anxiety that won’t abate until decent weather returns and the wind stops its infernal howling.

What’s to do about it? Well, in normal weather, the crew on watch should try to keep the noise down as much as possible when others are resting below. Take up the slack in that sheet that’s slapping the deck. Ditch that empty can that’s rolling around the cockpit floor. Try to make sail changes and reefs only at the change of watch, and generally have sympathy for those engaged in the difficult task of grabbing 40 winks. The world voyager Eric Hiscock even went so far as to block the sunlight from the cabin when his wife Susan was trying to sleep down below. “During the afternoon sleep, which is a necessary part of the routine when night watches are kept, bright light should be subdued as much as possible, and the tinkerbell, caused by a shaft of sunlight from a deck- or port-light, flashing to and fro across the cabin as the yacht rolls, should be extinguished,” he wrote.

In a storm there’s nothing much you can do about the noise or the motion, but the skipper may help things along by projecting an air of calmness and confidence, even if he or she doesn’t feel it. In storm conditions, incidentally, I have found that merely lying down with your eyes closed is almost as good as the sleep it’s impossible to get, particularly if you can calm your mind and stop imagining all the horrible things that could happen at any moment.

You might think that there would come a time when the lack of sleep would catch up with you and you’d simply fall into a deep slumber, no matter what. But experience has shown that most people deprived of sleep by physical conditions will experience mental problems, have trouble making decisions and concentrating on even the simplest tasks of navigation, and often will suffer from illusions.

In the case of singlehanders who try to maintain a constant look-out, all these problems are exacerbated, of course. Many of the long-distance racers train themselves to sleep for 20 minutes at a time day and night, and they keep this up for months on end. I doubt that I could do that. But then, I no longer have the desire to race. Well, not unless I can find another smaller, slower boat to annihilate, anyway.

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

“Do you know a man with one eye called Falconetti?”
“Dunno. What’s his other eye called?”

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


Brian Aherne said...

John- what do you think about sleeping hove to -not because of a weather or sea conditions, but to get some rest in a (reasonably) safe spot on a long passage if you are in no great hurry. I like it, but maybe I am also growing stupider as I grow older and sleepier.

John Vigor said...

Brian, I think it's a very sensible idea. Sleep is very important, and lack of it can contribute to disaster. Just do all you can to make sure you won't run aground or be hit by another vessel while you're snoozing down below.

John V,