March 5, 2015

Singlehanders, and enough sleep

IF YOU OWN a reasonably small sailboat it’s probable that you’ll find yourself singlehanding sooner or later. You know what it’s like with crews. They’re never around when you need them.

It’s also possible that you’ll do some passagemaking, and if your next port is more than 24 hours away, you’re going to run into what I reckon is the singlehander’s biggest problem — how to get enough sleep.

Actually, a singlehander who sleeps for any time at all is breaking the international rules because he or she can’t maintain the required continuous lookout duties. In fact, though, nobody ever seems to prosecute singlehanders, probably because they come off worse in any encounter with a ship.

From what I can gather from published interviews with solo sailors, most of them think the best thing to do at night 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 galley 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 that 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, though, so if you’re planning a solo voyage you’d do well to practice in advance.

Not everybody follows this 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 if two singlehanders do run into each other, nobody’s likely to prosecute them for breaking the rules. They’ll just say it serves 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

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 have noticed a pronounced tendency to become short between paychecks.

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


BB said...

Hi John

This is just a note of appreciation for your regular blog. I never miss a single one and always enjoy them.

By the way, as a young schoolboy in Durban in the late 70's I remember regularly reading your column, I seem to recall it was called Natal Fever (in the Mercury I am sure, or possibly The Daily News) and the tailpiece was called the Last Gasp. It was only many years later that I came across your sailing writing.

I have quite a few of your books and I am in the process of buying a Pacific Seacraft 34 which I think fits nicely with a lot of your recommendations for a seaworthy sailboat.

Anyway, in various ways you have been an unknowing but regular contributor to my wellbeing so I thought I would pass on thanks.


Bruce Bradford

John Vigor said...

Hi Bruce, thanks for your kind remarks. Yes, for the Natal Mercury I wrote The Idler's Column, and for The Daily News I wrote the Natal Fever column. It's nice to know I had a fan.
As for the Pacific Seacraft 34,I think you have chosen a wonderful cruising boat. Very classy. They don't come much better than that.
I wish you lots of safe, happy sailing.

Best wishes,

John V.