Treatise On sleep
When Franco and I planned to sail to the Azores in Firebird, many years ago, we decided on a 3 hours on, 3 hours off watch system through the night. Six hours sleep seemed no hardship to me, I would be fine, though I wondered how Franco would cope, because on land, he likes his 8 hours.
Much to my consternation, he was fine and I was exhausted. It got to the point, on the third night, where I was standing with my eyes open, yet my brain was fast asleep. (A good trick, if you can learn it.)
To me, ocean sailing is synonymous with sleep deprivation. When you change shift, it can take 10 minutes or more to get dressed, depending on how many layers you need to pile on and how rough it is, five minutes more are spent sharing information, if sails need to be changed or adjusted, count 30 minutes. The bottom line is you never get 6 hours sleep.
As with most things, practice makes perfect and although we have stuck to the same shift pattern on our journey so far, I have never found it as harrowing as that trip to the Azores. With sailing, you gain perspective. When you set sail and you feel seasick, you know from experience that it won’t last, the same with sleep, it gets easier the longer the passage.
For our Pacific crossing we decided to try a new watch pattern, we would split the night in half, Franco from 8pm until 2am and I from 2am until 8am. Daytime, we would manage as usual with one of us snoozing in the morning and the other in the afternoon. We felt that the warmer temperature, the lower likelihood of storms, the more reliable wind direction all made a six hour shift possible. It is working well, even so, there are days when we are very tired.
A small yacht is never still, it rolls from side to side, pitches and lurches. As the wind and the seas increase, so does the motion. A small yacht is never silent, it creaks and groans, things bump around in the cupboards, the sails sometimes slap, deck fittings tap dance and the ocean whooshes by, always.
To stay in balance, you constantly have to brace, in bed as well. You stick your back against the wall, pull your knees up, so that they are wedged against the lee cloth (a sheet of canvas that pulls up and is fixed tight, preventing you falling off the bunk), do the same with your elbows. As the boat rolls, you shift the tension from one side of your body to the other, and this constantly. Imagine trying to get to sleep doing yoga or Pilates! When the going gets tough, it’s worse, you wedge a backrest between the lee cloth and your body so that you are pinned against the wall. It isn’t comfortable but it is the only way to get any sleep.
Your turn to sleep! you dive over the lee cloth onto the bunk, blank your mind, avoid thinking about anything, allow sleep to wash over the brain. At last you drop off ... the boat lurches down a wave, you wake up with a jump. Just as you are nodding off again ... a crew member rushes past, on deck, to make sail adjustments, the rattle of his life line brings you back to consciousness. The motion sets off the glasses in the kitchen rattling and a particular deck fitting takes up an off-beat toc toc, and try as you may, the sound fills your head and you can no longer ignore it.
After the first night, you are tired, after the second night, you are exhausted, after the third night you can barely function, your eye sockets hurt and your brain aches. Later it gets easier.
For the next five days, although less painful, we were constantly obsessed with getting enough sleep. I would fall into the bunk after breakfast and resented getting up for lunch. Making dinner and clearing up was rushed so that I could hit the bunk at 8pm or a little earlier if I was lucky. Curiously waking up at 2am wasn’t a hardship, I was usually awake a few seconds before the alarm went off.
During this period, I had strange thoughts, “I could just go for a walk over there on those green hills,” was one of them. One night I was sat in the companionway looking down into the cabin. I could see everything as if in daylight though the colours were a little enhanced. Then I realised my eyes were shut and I was asleep. The image in my brain was what I would have seen had my eyes been open and had it been daylight. The next morning I noticed Franco had a scratch on his forehead. That night just as he had been complimenting himself on how wide awake he was, he woke when his head had hit the hatch cover ... hard. Over the next few days Franco developed quite a few bumps on various parts of his skull.
When we eventually get some sleep, our dreams are strange. I suppose we are lacking in new experiences so our brains are doing some house keeping. ‘Home’ is a theme, for me this is Rue du Beulet in Geneva, an address I left 27 years ago, or Tan y Coed but before I renovated Canol, in fact it doesn’t look anything like the real place. For Franco,’home’ dreams are based in Jersey where he lived as a(n even) young(er) man. The boat’s motion often interferes, I dreamt I was driving along a very rough and windy forest track, the nice thing was it lead to Richard and Enid’s house and they made me a cup of tea. Franco regularly dreams of surfing huge waves that appear out of nowhere (the swine, getting all that extra practice!). I dream about people I know but mostly about people I have never met, I can ‘see’ every detail of their face, faces I have never seen before, in situations I have never experienced. Not once have I dreamt of sailing across an ocean.
Franco, who rarely remembers his dreams, dreamt of being the master of the universe ... a tough task that left him exhausted for the day.
Sometimes we wake, ten minutes later, thinking we have slept for hours, at others, although we have slept well, we wake exhausted.
After the first week, the trade winds got going, steady with a fairly smooth sea, and we enjoyed an idyllic week. The night shifts became easy, our daytime siestas shortened and we even had time and energy for some editing work. I looked forward to another three weeks of the same, my only concern was that once we got to the Marquesas I would be out of sync with everybody else. Franco, on the other hand would be the life and soul of the party until the early hours!
Much to my surprise and horror, as soon as the wind increased to 30-35 knots, we returned to a permanent state of fatigue. I had thought that time and practice was everything, in reality wind and sea condition, not surprisingly, have a huge impact on how well we sleep, and on everything else.
More gentle trade winds returned last Saturday making life aboard a whole lot more enjoyable, practically idyllic!