PS Advisor November 2017 Issue

Sleep Routines for Long Passages

The US Navy has finally gotten around to a serious study of watch standing schedules ( As an active duty Navy Medical Officer, I certainly saw enough injuries related to sleep deprivation; fortunately, none were as disastrous as the recent collisions. I am glad to see the navy move away from a centuries old approach to scheduling watches.

Photos by Ann Key

All the preparations for night sailing should be made well before dusk.

Obviously, Navy warships have different needs and much larger crews than cruising sailboats. Do you know of any serious study of good and bad approaches to small-crew watch standing schedules?

Thomas Carlton, Capt. Medical Corps

US Navy, Retired

SV L’Audace, Freedom 33

San Diego

Dr. Claudio Stampi, the director and founder of the Chronobiology Research Institute in Newton, MA has produced the most widely published information on sailors and their sleep patterns. Although his research focuses on single-handed sailors, many of his findings can apply to two- and three- person crews. Not every person’s sleep patterns are the same, and you need to take into account each crew’s strengths and limitations when setting watches (night vision is an asset in shipping lanes, for example).

Here is the “Swedish” watch schedule that PS editor Darrell Nicholson used during a two person 28-day crossing in the Pacific.

1900-2200 - crew A

2200-0100 - crew B

0100-0400 - crew A

0400-0700 - crew B

0700-1230 - crew A

1230-1330 flex

1330-1900 - crew B

The schedule allowed for each crew to get five and a half hours of uninterrupted rest during the day, and put the skipper (crew B) on the last watch before sundown, when he could carry out a routine inspection of the rig, sails, and systems (battery levels, especially) in daylight before nightfall.

It also allows for a mid-day “flex” period to actually spend a little time with your partner, or for one crew to catch up on sleep.

Adhering to the daytime sleep/naps period is important because night off-watches are frequently interrupted with sail changes. Earplugs and eye-shades are essential.

John and Amanda Neal of Mahina Expeditions ( found that most cruising couples they have met followed similar a 3-4 hours-on/3-4 hours-off schedules, supplemented with a nap during the day. Although some schedules rotate the watch start times, some sailors find it much easier to adjust to fixed start times for each watch.

For crews of three or more, PS Technical editor Ralph Naranjo, author of the The Art of Seamanship, divides watches into three watches, 4-4-4 (day) and 3-3-3-3 (night) which rotates the watch start times.

Evans and Beth Starzinger, authors of The Voyager’s Handbook present eight different watch schedules for two-person crews, including the “Royal Navy” watch schedule, which is 4-on/4-off except between 1600-2000, when each watch is cut to two hours. This causes the individual watch start times to change every other day.

A sensible approach would be to try a couple of proven systems and see which works for best for your crew. A well rested crew is essential to ship safety—as the Navy has found out the hard way.

Comments (14)

Been cruising "Someday" continually since 2005. The first 5 years were single handing, but Barb and I joined forces in 2010. When single handing, I frequently used "pickup crew". My preference was two beside myself. My preferred watch for three is four on, four off, staggered. This way, at all times, you have one person in the cockpit who has been on watch for less than 2 hours.
Starting at 0000 hours, person 1 in the cockpit has been up two hours; person 2 comes up and takes over wheel and primary watch duties, person 1 is free to nap, potty, read or whatever, but must be available to person 2 for the next two hours, fetching coffee and snacks, maintaining log if more than position and weather, confirming sightings, checking noises, napping, etc; 0200, person 3 comes up, and person 1 goes to bed; person 3 then takes over the wheel and primary watch, 2 is coffee maiden, napper and backup; 0400, person 1 takes wheel again; 0600 cycle repeats.

In calm circumstances, the backup person gets to nap most of that 2 hours, subject to varying interruptions; even if weather is poor, the napping is done in the cockpit, to be immediately available. This has the advantage of two hours of uninterrupted sleep, unless there is an "all hands" sail change or emergency. It also provides 8 hours of sleep during a 24 hour period, plus naps, though usually everyone is up around sunset time, and frequently for breakfast.

It has proven very popular especially with experienced pickup crew who have preferred it to other 3 person rotations.

Barbara and I without a third person is much looser. I always sleep in the cockpit when underweigh, and Barb will sometimes stay on the wheel/watch for very long periods, waking me for any reason. She finds it easy to take long watches, but sleeps below (she spent 20 years as a commercial fishing captain). Of course we have autopilot, and AIS, in continuous use, and Radar when any other vessel activity is probable. Also, we usually at sea no more than 4 nights, though have been much longer on a couple occasions.

Posted by: Capt Chetco | October 21, 2018 12:50 AM    Report this comment

My wife and I tried various schedules, but finally settled on something that works for us. We realized that the body has certain sleep cycles and it is much better to wake up in between these cycles, when you're in a light sleep, than to force yourself awake from a deep sleep. So, one of us stands watch while the other sleeps in the cockpit. After an hour or so, if the sleeping person stirs and the watch-stander is sleepy, we swap places. If the watch - stander is fine, then we just let the sleeper keep sleeping.

We find this to be much more pleasant and less stressful than strict time scheduling. We arrive at our destination maybe a bit tired, but not exhausted..

Posted by: willflanery | September 23, 2018 1:21 PM    Report this comment

My husband and I have never had crew. After years of a "keep watch until you drop" system, which usually meant I, the caffeine sensitive one, sailing from midnight to dawn and then being so over-caffeinated that I couldn't sleep off watch. I would be useless for days after we arrived at our destination. So, we changed to a three on/three off schedule and it works very well for us. Our bodies adapt to the schedule within 2 days and we don't need caffeine to get us through the watch which makes it possible to sleep off watch. With there only being two of us, flexibility is required in case one person needs a little more shut-eye or needs help with something.

Posted by: Gene %26 Molly | September 19, 2018 11:28 AM    Report this comment

For overnight trips (sometimes two overnights in a row) along the New England coast -- and assuming decent weather -- if we have four crew, we each stand watch for two hours and everyone gets six hours of sleep. If I were way offshore on a longer trip with a larger crew, I would try to keep to that same schedule, reasoning that standing one-person watches with well-rested crew is safer than mounting a two-person watch with bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived crew.

Posted by: Troubadour | September 19, 2018 6:18 AM    Report this comment

Navy ships may have a larger crew but the bridge watch may still be sparse. In the early '70s we were at sea 90+% of the time mostly with only 2 JOODs standing port and starboard, with each also having the responsibilities as a Division officer. At most I would get 3 1/2 hours sleep per day,often less. Hopefully the unfortunate recent events will spur a reevaluation of watch-standing schedules and manning requirements.

Posted by: Bob S | September 18, 2018 9:00 PM    Report this comment

Watch systems are nice. Experienced blue water sailors usually take the. "Relaxed approach". When its "easy going" one crew on watch gets the job done. When the going is touch then its "all hands on deck". And its a matter of age, circumstances, length and equipment onboard, design and whether daily showers are part of the "routine". Plus who does the cooking.

The truth is really that in pleasant conditions a crew of 2 can do quite nicely. But in rough conditions there's never enough crew in small crusing boats. And if push comes to shove we can all stay up for several days and nights when the going is rally perilous.

One more comment. US Warships have long had the 2 mile rule. When less than 2 miles from another vessel the Captain stands watch at the Bridge. Sometimes for days on end.
No matter whether on carriers with thousands of crews nor on patrol craft with a few dozen. It's why Captains on Warships grow old early. They oft cruise standing up. For days.

And another. Savvy long experienced blue water cruisers spend their time on the weather.
Other than good shipmates nothing enhances the blue water cruise than good sailing weather. The galley be dammed.

Posted by: Piberman | September 18, 2018 11:46 AM    Report this comment

My husband and I, being the total crew, have found that three hours on, three off works the best for us. Four was too long for the on watch person not to feel fatigued but two hours didn't give the off watch person enough rack time. We haven't done a passage longer than 7 days on this schedule but we both felt okay.

Posted by: Gene %26 Molly | November 13, 2017 10:38 AM    Report this comment

When i solo-sailed, i slept 20 minute periods for as long as i was tired.I had a C.A.R.D. (there was no AIS system, but i would use that now).
My rule was that if there was a boat in sight or target on the C.A.R.D. i would stay awake till our paths diverged beyond the horizon. Back to bed if i was tired; up in 20 minutes and a quick scan; back to bed: 24/7.
The theory is that a fast ship and i, unluckily precisely converging, at 25-30 knots, could not impact before they hove in view and i would be able to alter course in avoidance. The C.A.R.D. made me safer by extending the range of my perceptions marginally and by providing somewhat of an audio-visual "fail-safe".
I came to like the system fairly quickly, though it took a day or two of getting used to. Once, when i was approaching Alaska/northern BC from out by the Aleutians i passed into shipping lanes at a busy time and didn't sleep for too long and was sleep deprived on arrival, but i don't and didn't see a way around that.
Once i was in the swing of it and after a few days of getting used to it i was fine and would just sleep my 20 minute sessions for as long as it took to feel rested, day in, day out. At the start of a voyage i often slept a lot of consecutive 20 minute sessions. Then i'd adjust and feel fine. I always showed up rested and happy (except on the trip described above).
I read that Leonardo DaVinci needed only little sleep in short periods-- and with due modesty i thought i could at least try it for keeping watch-- i didn't have to be brilliant, paint famous pictures or design futuristic conveyances. And i didn't.
I'd be interested to hear if anyone else tried anything similar or had a comment.

Posted by: Theo | November 12, 2017 10:54 AM    Report this comment

On shorter races I used a modified Swedish Watch System, only two hours on after midnight, and it rolled forward from day to day. Shore bound people just cannot adjust to changed sleep patterns during shorter races. My system wasn't meant to work for long, just enough keep them alert at night with shortened watches. I always put myself on post-midnight watches because that is when the bad stuff usually happens. Off-going watch made thermoses of fresh coffee for oncoming watches before going off.

On a very short handed delivery from Hawaii I stood the midnight to 0400 watch alone. I became adapted to it and felt at ease.

Posted by: night watch | November 12, 2017 10:49 AM    Report this comment

On shorter races I used a modified Swedish Watch System, only two hours on after midnight, and it rolled forward from day to day. Shore bound people just cannot adjust to changed sleep patterns during shorter races. My system wasn't meant to work for long, just enough keep them alert at night with shortened watches. I always put myself on post-midnight watches because that is when the bad stuff usually happens. Off-going watch made thermoses of fresh coffee for oncoming watches before going off.

On a very short handed delivery from Hawaii I stood the midnight to 0400 watch alone. I became adapted to it and felt at ease.

Posted by: night watch | November 12, 2017 10:49 AM    Report this comment

My wife, a friend, and I sailed across the Pacific from Cabo San Lucas to Nuku Hiva, 23-1/2 days. We used the standard 4-hour watch schedule for the three of us, giving each person 8-hours of sleep. When we sailed from Raraotonga, Cook Islands, to Niue, then to Vava'u, Tonga, then on to Viti Levu, Fiji, the two of us began using a 5-4-3 schedule, and when it's only the two of us, that's what we use.

The 5-4-3 schedule does not vary, so one gets used to the times. We both have 5-hour watches during the day when we're both awake, 4-hour watches in the evening as we slow a bit, and 3-hour watches in the early morning when we're both a bit bleary and need to be at peak performance. I'm the morning person, so I take the second 3-hour watch, and that dictates the rest of the schedule. The comment about scheduling around one's strengths is valid.

0000-0300 3 hours
0300-0600 3 hours
0600-1100 5 hours
1100-1600 5 hours
1600-2000 4 hours
2000-2400 4 hours

We've sailed a lot of miles with this system, so it's something to consider for couple. A five-hour sleep is more to my liking, especially as I get older.

Posted by: AKCruiser | November 5, 2017 8:37 PM    Report this comment

My total crew of four sailed to Hawaii and returned to Washington in 2016. It was the first "yacht passage" for all of us despite two crew being ex-Navy. On the outbound leg we used a four-on, four-off schedule while manning in pairs with a 15 minute wake up prior to shift and found it exhausting for all of us. When you consider that is really only 3:45 max sleep time minus whatever is used to eat, attend to other body functions, and eventually fall to sleep. On the return out of Pearl Harbor we used a six-on and six-off schedule while manning in pairs and found that much more acceptable to the degree that we voluntarily spent part of the afternoon as a full crew discussing whatever. Both schedules were based on a 6-12-18-24 clock. Working in pairs meant there was always someone on watch while the second person attended to whatever needed done or if one of them became incapacitated. There were instances both outbound and on the return when the full crew was utilized to handle an issue. On the return, while hove-to off the coast of Washington in a gale for 30 hours, one person was on a two-hour watch while the remainder of the crew slept or rested.

~ ~ _/) ~ ~ MJH

Posted by: MJH | October 26, 2017 12:39 PM    Report this comment

A strong second to Begonia. On Golden Glow my wife and I have tried many years of watch schedule variations as a cruising couple. Six on and six off during the night offers sufficient time to get sustained deep sleep on multi week passages. We may modify to shorter shifts at night for very bad weather, but getting what amounts to 5.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night drastically reduces the effects of long term sleep deprivation. Our timing of choice is slightly different in that Ellen takes from 8PM to 2AM and I take 2AM to 8AM. We then alter 3 hour shifts during the day. This fits our particular bio rhythms.
Ditto as well the blue water experiences with non-solo sailors and fishing boats all asleep at night. Some with radar or depth alarms, others depending on just luck. We have run into more than one multi-crew cruiser that do not run lights at night. For those that have limited energy generation, LUCI or other solar charged colored lights can be set in the cockpit at night even if you cannot run a tri-color and in reasonable weather it will increase your visibility to other boats.
For these and other reasons we have a 20-30 minute routine to check radar, AIS and do horizon binocular scans.
I like to make decisions that let us sleep better at night, and having someone on watch is one of those.
Glorious Fair Seas to you.

Posted by: | October 22, 2017 10:22 PM    Report this comment

Aboard Begonia we (a cruising couple) keep a watch system that works for us, but is not one of the standard ones. I (Maryanne) take the 6pm - Midnight watch, and Kyle takes the Midnight to 6am watch - this gives us both a solid 6 hours of sleep overnight. During the day we each get a 4 hour 'off watch' time - and this leaves us 4 hours (2 in the morning and 2 in the evening) when we are both awake with one officially on watch - but when we can share dinner, discuss weather, update our position reports etc.

During our watches, keeping an hourly log in the log book seems to really help the time go by. We also listen to podcasts and our language lessons ready for the next port.

This watch systems works well for *us*. However this year sailing in the South Pacific, we have come across a number of cruising couples (too many) that simply don't keep watch. We know one pair of boats (each with AIS and each buddy boating, so both travelling the same route) - that actually hit each other at night (luckily they were aluminium). Another time, I saw an AIS target approaching us at night from a sail boat we'd previously met - I called them on the Radio to let them know they were behind us, and it looked like they would be passing close by at some point in the next couple of hours. They replied groggily that they sleep at night, but they'd turn up the volume on the VHF radio and if it looked like they were getting too close, would we just call them and let them know?

SERIOUSLY!!! Yikes. I'm not naming/shaming these boats by name, but I'm pretty sure that more and more cruisers are simply opting to sleep at night and rely on instruments, alarms, luck and the other boats to avoid any incidents.

I understand that there are a number of solo sailors out there, and of course they have to sleep sometime and will be relying on whatever alarms and instruments they have aboard. But cruising couples (and certainly bigger crews) should be able to keep a 24 hour watch for sure.

So yes - find something that works for you and STICK TO IT... Don't allow yourself to get sloppy and sleep in the hopes that there won't be anything out there to hit.

Posted by: MarineGirl405 | October 20, 2017 10:32 PM    Report this comment

New to Practical Sailor?
Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In