62. Falling Asleep at the Wheel

As a solo sailor, I often get asked if I sleep during long passages. The answer is yes. I need sleep like everybody else. But I would say that I nap rather than sleep. Often six or seven hours a night, but in instalments rather than in one go. Fortunately, I don’t find it hard to sleep for say 30 to 45 minutes, get up for 15 minutes and fall back asleep again. If anything, this is one thing that gets easier with age. I find that I need less sleep and sleep lighter than when I was younger. And even during normal circumstances, I would wake up a couple of times to balance the level of liquids in my body. To add or remove some.

I would argue that most people can stay awake for twenty-four hours and I generally don’t sleep at all the first night of a passage. Primarily because I’m not tired enough to fall asleep but also because I’m likely to be close to land, which presents a whole host of challenges to sleeping well. Disturbed wind patterns, traffic and, worst of all, fishing boats and fishing nets. The second night I start my routine. I set the alarm on my phone at regular intervals, turn on the AIS alarm for collision warning, set wind alarms, turn the VHF to Channel 16 and make myself comfortable. Either in the cockpit or on the leeward settee in the salon. And when I wake up, usually before the alarm goes off, I check for ships on the horizon and on the AIS (a device that sends and receives ship identification, boat speed, bearing and projected closest point of approach). I find that you generally see a vessel at least 20 Nm away which means you should have an hour before a collision if you are heading straight for each other. This works very well, particularly when there is less traffic and you are in open waters.

I also have a few night sailing ‘rules’ that I have set for myself. I generally sail heavily reefed. Usually with two reefs in the main (about half of the sail) and a full genoa. I also sail further off shore and make sure I’m not pointing at any land mass. Trips up on deck are only ‘permitted’ if absolutely necessary and then only with a life jacket that is strapped to Saoirse and has a portable AIS transponder fitted.

By now, I have sailed numerous nights. But I still find it absolutely fantastic. The sailing experience gets enhanced in some way when you have to rely on what you hear and the movement that you feel. And when the only use you have for your eyes is for watching the moon, the stars and, if you are lucky, the luminescence behind the boat. And for the 15 minute checks when you are on ‘watch’.

2 thoughts on “62. Falling Asleep at the Wheel

  1. As a young girl, I have vivid memories of ‘moonlit sails’ under full moons on the lake where I grew up sailing. It was incredible — absolutely magical to me — although, unfortunately, the adults onboard and in charge of the boat were always, minimally, quite tipsy, if not three sheets to the wind. Not a good idea to be sailing under the influence, at night especially (and not to mention having kids onboard). Anyhow, one day soon, I hope to replicate the experience of many moonlit sails (minus the alcohol) and get out on the water under a full moon. Especially on an overnight passage. That must be absolutely amazing – I know that I’ve never done, but something tells me that I’d never tire of that. The sleep/napping situation presents challenges for single handers, even shorthanders, from what I read from other sailors. I hear some have watches of every 3 or 4 hours, upwards of 6-8 hours. I am a night owl and used to work the ‘graveyard shift’ at many of the positions I’ve held over the years. I think that I be quite at peace with it all. The only thing that really frightens me about the idea of overnight voyaging is hitting a partially submerged object — like a container from a container ship (think Robert Redford movie of exact said event) — not being able to see those sorts of things at nighttime, for example. But, I would agree, there is something to be said about experiencing sailing at night relying on other senses, such as you mention with sound/movement. Thanks for another great post — and love the pics (as always) — how on earth were you able to get such a great shot of the full moon, btw? Every time I try to get a pic of one with my iPhone, it never turns out. Fair winds, ~ Chelle


    1. Thanks Chelle. I hope you get to experience sailing through the night as an adult. Everyone should. It never grows old. When it comes to the risk of hitting partially submerged objects though, I guess that is one of those risks that you just have to live with. There is not a lot you can do to prevent that. And I’m not sure the risk is that much lower during the day. The fact is that my autopilot steers 99% of the time and the likelihood of me spotting something that is just breaching the surface is very low, even in daylight. Fishing nets is probably what I worry about most but I guess a container could be a lot worse. All the best. Tomas

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