When Andy Pag was planning a 450-mile solo passage, sleep was the biggest source of worry. Here’s how he created an effective solo sleep routine

When I was planning my first solo offshore sail on my Lagoon 410 Cushla, from Grenada to Bonaire, my biggest concern was not the risk of pirates off the coast of Trinidad, or the night-time squalls that might sneak up unseen in the trade winds. Even the risk of falling overboard and watching the boat sail away as I drifted alone in the current wasn’t giving me restless nights. The concern I was losing sleep over was sleep, and how I could ensure I’d get enough sleep when stewarding the boat on the four-night passage.

I know I don’t function well when suffering from a lack of sleep. I get irritable and make bad decisions. More specifically, I struggle to distil the relevant factors from everything going on around me when making vital decisions. My forward-planning goes out of the window and my actions become reactions to the most obvious and immediate factors. It’s not a good mental state to be in when the wrong decision can be costly, cause injury and sometimes be fatal.

Coincidentally, the Grenada Hash, an orienteering event held weekly around the island, was useful training. During the first weeks of participating on the run, I found the combination of being physically tired and having to make navigation decisions very frustrating, but over time I developed the skill of dedicating bodily energy and time to thinking and decision-making. Practising that mental shift was very useful when tired at sea.

Professional sailors, like 2018-19 Golden Globe Race winner Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, know that prioritising sleep is essential when making vital decisions. Photo: Christophe Favreau/PPL/GGR

Short naps when solo sailing

I do find it easy and beneficial to nap, and on the advice of a friend I downloaded an app called Interval Timer onto the boat’s tablet. It sounds regular alarms throughout the day. I set this to go off every 15, 30 or 45 minutes, depending on the circumstances, but importantly I let it run day and night so whenever I felt I could sleep I would just lie down, knowing I’d be woken within the given timeframe.

With clear skies, no traffic and far from land I set it to a longer interval, and shortened it when circumstances changed.

I tried to make life easier for myself and simplify processes I’d need to do when I knew I’d be tired by making checklists on post-it notes stuck around the boat.

Keep your energy levels up with decent meals, hot drinks and plentiful snacks. Photo: Yachting Monthly

Fuel yourself properly

Food and water are important ingredients for getting good sleep. My sleep is light and fitful on an empty stomach, and my decision making is also affected when I’m hungry or dehydrated. I made sure I had easy access to water with bottles dotted around the boat in easy reach. I didn’t drink coffee, and instead of brewing a cup of tea whenever I felt sleepy, I’d just take a nap.

I created a big snack basket that lived in the companionway containing mixed nuts, biscuits and fruit, and I kept chocolate in the fridge to give me an energy hit whenever I felt foggy or lethargic. I also made a habit of cooking meals in advance that would just need reheating or could be eaten cold from the fridge.

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Clutter-free sleep zone

Having a comfy place to sleep also helped. I find it tempting to share the bed with whatever clutter I can’t be bothered to put away, but I put a mattress in the cockpit and kept it clear of mess to remove distractions from sleep. Away from an internet signal it was easy to resist the temptation for screen time when lying down.

An eye mask also helped prolong sleep at dawn, and made it easier to doze off in the middle of the day. I developed a Pavlovian response to the snugness of the mask which helped trigger a deep sleep whenever I grabbed it and put it on.

Reduce backlighting on your instruments, and turn off any that you don’t need. Photo: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Power is instrumental

As well as keeping your own batteries charged, the boat batteries also need to have reliable charge. As the power drains, the autopilot can become unreliable, disconnecting at low voltage. Cushla, our 1998 Lagoon 410, has 1kW of solar panels and although we can, we’ve never needed to charge the house batteries from the engines or shore power. But overnight passages are the toughest test of the system.

The sails can create shading on the panels for several hours of the day, and running the instruments 24/7 is a significant drain, especially the radar which can draw three or four amps when operating, and even draws a couple of amps when in standby mode.

Make yourself sort problems straight away, rather than leaving them for later when they can compound. Photo: Andy Pag

The boat has an AIS transponder, and offshore I felt pretty confident that other traffic would also be transmitting an AIS signal to fire my proximity alarm. Radar is useful for spotting rain squalls at night or when low cloud masks approaching rain.

I made the mistake of not learning how to set the proximity alarm on my Raymarine C80 chart plotter in advance, and when I came to do it for the first time, I found it frustratingly unintuitive. Lesson learned; become familiar and practiced with the menu functions you will need before setting off.

Don’t put things off

If anything was niggling on my mind it would stop me falling asleep so I’d make sure to deal with anything that could cause me anxiety; tidying the lines, checking the course heading, and a final, slow 360° sweep for traffic or weather. Picking a weather window where squalls would be less likely and using a modest sail plan that was easy to manage also reduced my anxieties.

I felt exhausted as I finally pulled in to the moorings of Bonaire, but not as tired as I thought I would be. The satisfaction of self-reliance, completing 440 miles solo, and the connection with the sea I experienced alone offshore are all highlights of my time as a solo skipper, and the sail will remain a formative experience.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede’s solo sailor sleep advice

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede holds the record for the fastest westward circumnavigation, sailing it solo, faster than any crewed boat. He is 77.

‘I always try to sleep enough. I sleep for 90mins and wake to check everything’s ok, and if there’s a job to do, I do it. Or I go back to sleep. ‘In 1991 researchers measured my sleep cycle with 16 electrodes over two days. People looked at me funny going around town with wires on my head.

‘But that’s how they came up with the 90-minute figure. I do it even when I have crew. It really works for me.

‘I can wake immediately and be able to do anything in two seconds. It’s a characteristic of mine, but it’s developed over time sailing alone. It wasn’t like that in the beginning when I started my first solo navigation. Now I can sleep at any time. In three to five minutes I’m sleeping, even at three in the afternoon. I just close my eyes, empty my head and that’s it.

‘In long races like the Golden Globe Race it’s good to have a good rest, and good sleep. Always be sure your mind is ok. The main problem on the GGR, was when the wind shifts, the boat changes heading.

‘If you’re cruising offshore, today with a good AIS alarm and a windspeed alarm, you can sleep a long time. Four hours is no problem. But if you’re close to shore, you have to be awake because of fishermen and sailing boats without AIS.

‘It’s important to stay optimistic. If you’re afraid of something you cannot sleep. It’s better to be in good shape at the end of the storm or low pressure, so it’s important to have a good rest before, and not to be tired when the wind is strong. I try to sleep at the start of storm, and to be in good shape when it is in the final phase.’

Laura Dekker

Laura Dekker’s solo sailor sleep advice

Laura Dekker sailed around the world solo aged just 14. She now teaches young people ocean sailing and personal development.

‘I am always very conscious of every action I take on board; every sound, every movement – anything strange. I try not to jump to conclusions before checking out all the factors.

‘If I am very sleep deprived my brain sort of fogs up and things go through my mind much slower then normal. But I do take heed to still go through the whole process before making a decision and not just jump ahead because it’s taking too long.

‘I sleep when I can, no matter what time of the day or how long it may be, including lots of 10-minute naps. I will always put rest and sleep ahead of anything “fun” I may have had in mind, so it goes ahead of reading or playing music, for example.

‘Never think “Oh I will sleep later,” if you can sleep now. Things change very quickly at sea and there’s a chance you may not be able to sleep for a long time.

‘Set multiple alarms for which you have to get out of bed to turn off. It’s just too easy to sleep through or fall asleep again.

‘There’s often only a need to check around quickly in between naps, so sleep for 30 mins, wake up, check the horizon, course and sails. At night, shine a torch around your rigging – this takes about 10 minutes, then sleep another 30 minutes.

‘The longest I ever slept in one stretch is one hour, that is with clear visibility on open sea. Big ships travel between 15-20 knots. Visibility at sea when it’s good is no more then 10 miles, so in theory, in 30 minutes you can go from not seeing it to being run over. Better to wake up more often and check quickly then go back to sleep. Close to shore this problem gets worse as there are often little boats with minimal lights that can only be seen from a mile.’

Understanding sleep cycles helps when planning how long to sleep for. Photo: Andy Pag

What the scientists say

When you’re asleep you cycle through four stages of sleep. Three non-REM phases (N1, N2 and N3) and REM sleep. The first one, N1 is nodding off, the second is preparing you for deep sleep, and N3 is where the brain, bones and muscles fully relax and do their healing and get reset for the next period of wakefulness.

In N3 you are hardest to wake and can even sleep through loud noises or the boat jolting. If you are woken from N3, you may feel foggy for up to half an hour. REM sleep is a lighter stage of sleep but it’s when you dream. Your body immobilises itself so you don’t physically act out those dreams.

During an uninterrupted night’s sleep most people cycle through the four stages every 90-110 mins.

Research published in 2007 showed being sleep-deprived leads to riskier decision making and a more blasé attitude to things going wrong.

What the law says about solo sailing

Colregs Rule 5 states: ‘Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.’

So ask yourself, if something went wrong, and you were asleep or sleep-deprived, could you justify your actions as appropriate for the circumstances?

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