October 27, 2016

Lack of sleep -- the danger

CRUISING SAILORS undertaking long voyages need to be aware of the dangers of sleep loss. Apparently, a surprising number of sailors suffer from hallucinations caused by fatigue. And fatigue comes about when you don’t get a long enough stretch of deep, dreaming sleep.
Now I know that many long-distance sailors, particularly singlehanders, somehow manage to get by with many short snatches of sleep. Often they sleep for only 20 minutes and then get up to have a look around the horizon.  

But psychologist Dr. Glin Bennet, who interviewed competitors in a singlehanded race across the North Atlantic, discovered that 50 percent of them experienced one or more illusions or hallucinations.

I remember Frank Robb telling me of his experience. Frank was an intrepid seaman, a fisherman and a sailboat owner who learned his lessons in the stormy waters of the Cape of Good Hope, and who sometimes voyaged rather farther afield.

He was once singlehanding in his old gaffer when he encountered four days of rough weather in the Caribbean. As usual, he was deprived of wholesome sleep during that time, and when the storm subsided he wasn’t too sure of his position. But soon he spotted a fishing boat, and, in the distance, an island with a protected harbor.

He sailed in, waving to a launch crowded with sightseers, and found a good anchorage. With the last of his energy he lowered his anchor and went down below, where he passed out on the saloon floor.

Twelve hours later he woke up and went on deck. There was no land in sight, There were no boats around. Nothing but sea. The anchor was down, however, dangling uselessly at the end of a mere eight fathoms of rode.

Luckily, he felt no anxiety about his hallucination. He realized that sleep deprivation had affected his judgment, and that his overtired mind had invented the island to relieve him of the anxiety that was preventing him from getting healing sleep.

We now know that dreams are important. Fatigue affects you mentally as well as physically. It’s dangerous. And if storms prevent you from dreaming, your mind will eventually compensate with a parade of waking dreams called hallucinations. The good news is that hallucinations leave no permanent bad effects on the mind, so there is nothing to be frightened of.  To prevent hallucinations, it seems, you need an occasional uninterrupted sleep of six hours or more. And that’s not something that can ever be guaranteed for a singlehander. 

Today’s Thought
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?
— Tennyson, The Higher Pantheism

“Boy we had some excitement at our place last night. We had a burglar in the house. You should have seen my husband coming down the stairs three at a time!”
“Did he catch the burglar?”
“Hell no, the burglar was upstairs.”

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

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