Six ways to improve your sleep at sea
The Marine Society gives its top tips to reduce your risk of fatigue and improve your safety on board
No one would ever argue that sleep is incredibly important, and fatigue at sea is a huge issue. Watch patterns which mean you’re up at strange hours coupled with the operational requirements of the ship can make a long sleep hard to come by. Throw a distance learning qualification into the mix and it becomes even more important to properly manage your sleep. We’ve outlined six practical steps to help you make the most of your rest hours to be sure you sleep well every time (no matter what time of day it is!).
First things first, if taking the time to study means you aren’t getting enough sleep YOU MUST STOP STUDYING. Your first responsibility on board no matter what your role is the safety of yourself, your fellow crew members, and your ship. There’ll be plenty of time to study when you’re on leave.
Have a pre-watch routine
Conventional “sleep wisdom” says that you should have a strict morning routine to help your body wake up and be ready for the day. Unfortunately for us seafarers, “morning” could be mean any hour of the day; it could be 8AM or it could midnight and you probably won’t find out until you’ve joined ship. Instead, have a pre-watch routine which gets you ready for work, no matter what time it starts. Be sure to set your alarm with enough time to become fully alert and ready for your watch.
When the body first wakes up the stress hormone cortisol is at its peak and it takes time for it to come back down, you should leave a minimum of 15 minutes (ideally longer), before starting any work. Give yourself time to take on fuel for the day; a good breakfast and plenty of fluids (if the galley is closed ask the cook to set something aside for you), and spend some time reading or listening to music if you want some mental stimulation.
Exercising for 30 minutes a day will help you sleep significantly better and help you feel more alert when you’re awake. As well as the sleep benefits, exercise makes you happier and improves your overall health so what’s not to like? It doesn’t necessarily matter when you exercise, but adding it to your pre-watch routine will give your mind and body time to wake up and help you feel more ready for the day. Gym equipment should be provided on board, but if for some reason it’s not, or you don’t want to use it check out this workout you can do in your cabin, it takes 7 minutes, and all you need is a wall and a chair.
Get more sunlight
Those who spend their days on deck can skip ahead, this is one for the engineers! It’s entirely possible to go days without seeing any natural daylight as an engineer. Wherever possible you should get out in the sun, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day. Exposure to sunlight boosts serotonin levels which allow your body clock to regulate sleep patterns, it lowers blood pressure, improves brain function, and can help ease mild depression. Sunlight is also an excellent source of Vitamin D, which is essential for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. There’s no excuse; when you break for coffee get out on deck and enjoy some rays.
Optimise your cabin for sleep
We sleep better in a dark environment, we are programmed to wake and work with the sun but if you’re on a watch pattern it’s inevitable that you’re going to need to sleep during the day. Whether day or night, you should block out light wherever you can, if you don’t have a blackout blind try rigging a thick towel over the porthole and be sure that your electronic devices are switched off or hidden so they can’t wake you up. If you share a cabin, it’s a good idea to agree quiet and dark times with your cabin mate (particularly if you’re on opposite watches) so that both of you are able to properly get your head down.
We also sleep better in a clean environment. Dust mites and other nasties love dirt, they can spread quickly aboard ship and cause allergies which can interrupt sleep. Be sure to keep your cabin clean, and as free from dust and dirt as possible, avoid keeping dirty overalls and gear in your cabin, and be sure to change your bedding at least once per week.
If you’re not on a “dry” ship and there is enough time before your next watch a small amount of alcohol can be a nice way to unwind after a long day. However, there should never be any danger of drinking too much while you’re at sea, as discussed previously your first responsibility is the safety of yourself and your crew. When you’re on leave however it can be tempting to drink more, particularly if you’re struggling to sleep. Alcohol may help you fall asleep more quickly but the quality of the sleep you get will be worse. If your brain and body spend the night processing alcohol it won’t be able to properly rest and you will wake up feeling much less rejuvenated than you would otherwise.
Have a pre-sleep routine
Again, conventional “sleep wisdom” here is to have an evening routine which slows you down for the night. But sleep time is just as likely to be in the middle of the day as it is to be in the middle of the night when you’re at sea so we recommend having a pre-sleep routine which helps your mind and body wind down no matter what time the time is. Once you come off watch give yourself time to decompress and unwind, allow at least 40-60 minutes to unwind before trying to sleep, during this time find somewhere dark to read or listen to music, avoid blue light on screens (you can download blue light filters for most phones and tablets now), consider doing some low impact exercise like stretching or yoga, avoid large meals, and DO NOT drink any caffeine.
Periods of bad weather, the noise of being in port, and interruptions to your rest for operational reasons, all serve to make sleep difficult when on ship. If you follow these steps, you will hopefully find you get good quality sleep whenever it’s practical. Whatever happens though, make sure you get enough rest, and if you are too fatigued make sure you speak to someone on board. If you don’t feel fit to take a watch, don’t take it.
For more seafaring tips and training resources visit www.atsea.marine-society.org