I was fast asleep when the boat turned turtle. Being a catamaran, she stayed that way. They pulled me off with a helicopter. I had been asleep at the time.
There, that’s out of the way. If I’m going to write about sleep management for singlehanded sailors, I had better admit to the embarrassing moment up front. But the fact is that it happened 20 years ago – in another lifetime, or so it seems.
Now I am sailing along the South Coast of England on my own and without stopping. How on earth am I going to stay alert 24 hours a day for four or five days in the middle of the busiest shipping lanes in the world?
Well, for one thing, I’m getting used to it: Five days from Lowestoft to Falmouth in April, then back from Baltimore in Ireland to Woodbridge on the East Coast at the beginning of July. Now I’m back off to Galway… The English Channel is beginning to become as familiar as my local High Street: The headlands – The Lizard, Start, Portland, St Catherine’s – old friends like Costa’s and Boots.
I admit I am contravening the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. These are very precise and begin by insisting “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out…”
At all times… Every minute of every hour of every day…
Back in the 1960’s when singlehanded began to claim public attention, my old Alma Mater, Yachting World and its then editor, the ferociously correct Maurice Griffiths, mounted a vigorous campaign against the practice, insisting that it was by its very nature, unseamanlike. After all, how could one man (and it was inevitably a man in those days) possibly keep a good lookout at all times?
Well, of course, he didn’t. Singlehanders slept in small snatches – calculated at the time it would take a ship to appear over the horizon and run them down.
And while on the subject of being run down, these early solo sailors seemed to take the view that the ColRegs were written to stop big ships sinking each other. If a big ship were to hit a small yacht, it might not even notice – and if the solo sailor went down – well, that was his lookout (if you will pardon the pun).
Or as Blondie Hasler put it, he would “drown like a gentleman”.
And that is the way I viewed it when I started singlehanded voyaging in the 1970’s with a passage from Poole to Santander, hardly sleeping at all and in a constant state of alarm lest a ship should cover the distance from my horizon in less than 20 minutes – which I’m sure it could have done.
On the strength of that, I bought a gadget called a Watchman which was supposed to detect radar beams and sound an alarm – although I don’t think it ever did.
Instead, as all singlehanded sailors eventually do, I just got used to sleeping in short snatches – and discovered that there is a knack to it.
The first thing to understand is that when alone on a boat, you must never allow yourself to get tired. When you’re tired you make mistakes. So, if you’re going to be out for any length of time, it is most important to start the sleep routine straight away. As soon as you are clear of the harbour, the boat is settled on her course, get your head down.
OK, so it may only be ten O’clock in the morning and you don’t feel remotely tired. Get your head down!
The plan is to sleep for 20 minutes so you will need an alarm – in fact, two because there is sure to come a time when you make a mess of setting one of them or turn it off instead of on…
I use the timer on my phone – and an old phone as a backup. Each has a different ring tone (as loud and annoying as I could find). The two phones sit in the fiddle above my head.
For this first session, it is possible that you will not sleep at all (after all you’re not remotely tired). Never mind, this is just to get you into the routine: You lie awake thinking about supertankers until the first alarm goes off (they are staggered by a minute).
You get up, you look around, you check the course – and then you go straight back to bed. That is important. The more stimulation you allow yourself, the harder it will to be able to go to sleep next time. Just keep on doing this and eventually, the alarm will go off and you will realise it has woken you up. You have been asleep before midday!
With a bit of practice, this will become easier and easier. Then it’s just a question of building up the total sleep time: Three 20-minute sessions in the morning gives you an hour. Six after lunch and you have three hours in the bag. At night it’s easier because it seems natural – which means you will have no trouble reaching your normal total.
Of course, the 20-minute allowance can be adjusted to suit the circumstances: In the midst of a fishing fleet or when closing the land, it can be reduced all the way down to five minutes.
Some people may ask “What good is five minutes?”
Honestly, it can make all the difference. Have you never been tempted, while doing 70 miles an hour on a motorway, just to “rest your eyes” for a few seconds? I hope you resisted the temptation. Just imagine how much you would have welcomed being able to lie down for five minutes…
At times like this, it goes without saying that you must be absolutely sure that both your phones are charged, that you really have started the timers, that the “do not disturb” function is disabled and that you have closed the app before putting down the phone so as to avoid pausing it accidentally by touching the screen (yes, I have done all of these – why do you think I have a backup phone?)
With luck, such precautions will prevent you from sailing embarrassingly up the beach or into the side of a trawler. Remember; everything – absolutely everything – gives way to a trawler.
But there is still the possibility that you may sleep through both alarms. I have found there are two reasons for this. The first is that you have allowed yourself to get so tired that the needs of your body override the needs of the ship. That’s why you must bank your sleep even when you don’t feel tired – especially when you don’t feel tired.
However, there is a less obvious reason for sleeping through the alarms: You can get used to anything – and, of course, you can get used to waking up to the same alarm tone after yet another five minutes’ sleep and, once more, doing the checks and then going back to bed all in the space of some 40 or 50 seconds. In fact, it’s great that you have hardly woken up at all and, so, can go straight back to sleep as if nothing had happened.
Do this enough and the brain will decide it’s a waste of time waking up at all – and that’s when you hit something solid.
So I wouldn’t recommend doing the five-minute routine for longer than half an hour – or the 20-minute routine for longer than two hours.
Obviously, this means that at some point, you’re going to pack in a whole hour at a stretch – and this is where Mr Griffiths will start rotating in his grave. Any solo sailor who goes to sleep for an hour is asking for trouble.
Or are they?
Back to the ColRegs: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out…by sight and hearing and all available means…”
You might imagine how delighted I was to discover, after my 20-year-solo sailing hiatus that somebody had invented AIS. I am writing this while crossing the Separation Zone north of Alderney and simply cannot imagine how we all managed without it. This morning I tacked because I was about to be overtaken by a tanker a mile away on my port side – no problem there but the plotter showed up a fishing boat ahead which I would never have spotted without searching through binoculars (and who does that every 20 minutes unless they’re in Das Boot?)
So now, when I get my head down, I check the AIS (the Absolutely Indispensable Security-Blanket), ensure the VHF is tuned to Channel 16 – and you’ll understand why if you come back and read www.oldmansailing.com/cautionary-tale.
However, if you do read it, you will understand that AIS is only as good as the willingness of everyone else to use it too. In UK waters this is fine – even small day-fishing boats and RIBs full of divers have AIS transmitters and only once have I found a commercial fishing boat without one. Maybe it has something to do with the British willingness to conform – after all, we don’t seem to mind that we have more CCTV cameras watching us than any other nation on earth…
Sailing in Irish waters I discovered an alternative attitude – and when I mentioned it on a Facebook group, it was clear that Americans would no more give up their right to anonymity than their right to bear arms.
That’s OK – just as long as we know. Now, once past the middle of the Irish sea, the radar goes into “watch” mode and, once again, I sleep soundly. I suppose that, venturing into new territorial waters, I will have to assume the natives are in hiding.
I suppose I can see their point of view: I used to think that one of the nicest things about sailing was that you “disappeared” – rather like the old days when I was a foreign correspondent and delighted in the office having no very clear idea where I was staying – or, on occasions, which country I was in…
Maybe I’m settling down in my old age.
Or maybe I just want my old age to last a bit longer…