I can sleep when I’m dead
I suspect many captains and crew will have succumbed to the embrace of this maxim – I know I have in my past.
Working long hours and having minimum sleep was often worn as a badge of honour, it demonstrated a grafter, someone who was willing to put in all the hours necessary to get the job done. But as research has now shown, sleep deprivation, whether acute or chronic, can have short term consequences – sometimes devastating – as well as long term physiological and/or mental health effects.
I was somewhat aware of the importance of sleep and things such as the circadian rhythm, but it was only recently after reading ‘Why We Sleep’ by Mathew Walker, who is currently Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, that I began to really appreciate why sleep deprivation can be so damaging to not just health, but also performance and safety.
The book details the reasons why we sleep, what happens during sleep, the benefits of sleep and the effects of disruption and/or deprivation. Like the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, sleep is essential to our health. The Guinness Book of World Records happily records extreme activities such as a freefall from 41,422 metres and other events such as tight rope walking across the Grand Canyon without safety net or tether but does not recognise sleep deprivation records because of the danger to health!
What’s this got to do with yachting?
The World Maritime University (WMU) Report1 into the hours of work and rest (HOWR) in shipping also considers this subject and the effects of lack of rest, fatigue, safety and well-being of crew and these issues are equally applicable to yachting.
We know that the demands on crew have been increasing for many reasons and, in the main, there has not been any real change in the manning levels to meet that demand and on many yachts, it is likely that the quality and quantity of sleep is suffering as a result. Compounding the potential for sleep disruption are the variable work patterns that are an operational characteristic of yachting as the program and use changes e.g. guest-off, guest-on, daywork, watches, late finishes and early starts, even if crew are maintaining their HOWR.
Consider that the HOWR minimum rest period should not be less than 10 hours, but can divided into two periods, one of which not less than 6 hours. And that within that time there are factors such as eating, socialising, waking and preparing for work, that eat into sleep time. If working to the minimum regulations the longest period of sleep could be less than 5 hours – less than the amount research suggests is optimal.
I’m sure we all know how bad we can feel for days after a long-haul flight, yet crew are often expected to switch from working during the day to night at short intervals. Studies have shown it takes a day per hour of time zone difference for the body to acclimatise. It would take days for a crewmember assigned to work a night watch to properly adapt and perform at their best and they would likely be feeling the undesirable effects when they switched back to daywork at the end of the week – when they would have to go through the whole process again.
The working pattern and allowing sufficient time to acclimatise to the working hours is an important factor in helping with sleep and fatigue. I know in the past we used to rotate deckhands onto night watch once a week and stewardesses would frequently switch from late nights to early morning with the result their body clocks where probably always jet lagged. Having a schedule that allows acclimatisation to working hours is not an easy task given limited crew and variable demands but, where practical, it warrants a more considered approach.
Of course, it’s not just the work pattern that can disrupt sleep. The environment, such as noise and light, can affect the quality and quantity of sleep. Noise from being underway, picking up and dropping anchor, bow thruster operation, light from portholes or crew entering the cabin. And as we all know, the violent motion and noise of a yacht in rough weather also can severely disrupt sleep.
Crew accommodation and cabins are also a factor. Having somewhere free from noise and light pollution, with a comfortable ambient temperature, can be a challenge on some yachts, especially the smaller yachts where space is severely limited and often the crew mess and laundry are in the same space. Though, even on some larger yachts, the crew cabins can sometimes seem like an afterthought.
Minimising noise and light – beyond the minimum MLC standards – should be a priority such as: –
- Black out blinds for portholes
- Curtains around bunks that can also block light and afford some privacy
- Low intensity lighting for crew corridors
- Better sound insulation – especially crew corridors and where cabins back onto the crew mess or technical spaces
- Improved isolation of equipment; resilient mounts, sound boxes.
- Doors at corridor ends
- Carpet with underlay in cabins and corridors
Some of the above could be applied to existing yachts.
For those who believe they can manage on minimum sleep, it is interesting to note, though not scientifically proven, that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, two of the most well-known exponents of 4 – 5 hours of sleep, suffered in later years from Alzheimer’s. The point being, perhaps the cumulative effects of restricted sleep may be more profound than we might think.
Unlike shipping, our industry is not driven by commercial pressures but by more esoteric metrics such as pleasure, enjoyment, quality, safety, and security, all of which are heavily reliant on the crew. Yet often yachts are designed to comply with the minimum standards rather than the operational realities of delivering incomparable experiences to yacht owners and/or charter guests.
The ‘WHU Report’ and ‘Why We Sleep’ should be essential reading for anyone involved in the design and operation of a superyacht. They offer compelling reasons why better sleep can result in happier and healthier crew, better performance, safer yachts and why it deserves more attention in our indusrty.