To Sleep, Perchance to Get REM Sleep

Many of our readers have asked us how we managed watch schedules with only two of us on board. It’s a reasonable question considering that lack of sleep is one of the biggest dangers when you are traveling great distances by boat. I’m always on a soap box about how important good sleep is, maybe because I need a lot of it. I’m one of those people who can sleep for 10 hours and still not feel very rested for some reason. It’s a curse. So the idea that I’m going to be able to go without rest for more than a day or two at the most is outrageous. What to do?

Delicious Yellow Fin Tuna. You need rest to land something like this fish. So good!

At first we thought we would invite crew aboard. We actually had a fine crew member, Ryan, who we met in Santa Rosalia and invited to come on the boat with us. It was a first for us as we don’t generally invite strangers to come cruise on our boat. But it all seemed right in the moment and we had a good time with Ryan aboard. The problem was that Ryan is not a sailor. Although he wanted to learn and was perfectly willing and capable, we learned over time that his lack of experience made us feel very responsible for him. It wasn’t at all his fault, he did well. It’s just that there is so much to know, and you cannot learn it all in a couple of weeks.

We had never had crew before except for our son ,Andrew, who grew up sailing with us. We learned some things about ourselves when we had Ryan aboard and one of them is that we don’t know how to get out of the way and let other people do things on our boat. That’s a problem we had not anticipated. Michael and I have a routine for almost every single thing we do. We have done the dance long enough now that we know our jobs and we just do them. As a rule, we work seamlessly together after this long. So making room for a third person takes effort and attention and we didn’t do a very good job of that.

In the end, we decided that taking him across the pond to Hawaii was not a good idea for any of us. It was our first weeks-long passage, he was inexperienced and had spent little time on boats. We didn’t know what we might encounter out there and should shit hit the fan, we didn’t want to feel responsible for him having a bad experience. We also weren’t sure that we wouldn’t have to divert back to the west coast should things in Hawaii get worse with the Covid 19 shut downs. So we decided we would go it alone. He got on a plane in Puerto Vallarta and went back to San Diego. Although a tough decision, it was the right decision.

This guy came along as crew for part of the trip. He was exhausted, thirsty, and hungry. He ate chia seeds and granola, drank a lot of water and stayed with us for about three days. Then he landed briefly on my shoulder one evening and took off out the window.


Knowing my absolute need for adequate sleep, Michael came up with a watch schedule that we worked with for the passage to the islands and then that we used for the first few days of the passage to Hawaii. Mike has run on interrupted sleep for many years, not that this is a good thing. He would go to bed around 8:00PM and sleep until Midnight. I would be on watch in the cockpit. Then he would take the midnight to sunrise shift. It seemed unfair to me, and I still think it is unfair. But he insisted we try it.

That worked out OK and we can fall back on that if we need to on our next passage. I struggled to stay awake until midnight, long past my ‘cruiser’s midnight’ bedtime of whatever time the sun goes down. But over the course of a few days I adjusted to that routine. Still, I was aware that although Michael assured me that he was resting, that didn’t make much sense to me. He’s the captain of the boat and that’s almost worse than being a new parent. When you combine his internalized sense of responsibility with his preternaturally excellent hearing, well, you can see where I’m going with this. Every tiny noise, every change in the boat rhythm, knowing I was up there *GASP on my own in the cockpit, all these things would conspire to keep him from getting good rest. He denied it but I wasn’t convinced. Still, all I could do was stay watchful of him. Come to think of it, we spend a great deal of energy protecting each other from real and perceived threats lately.

Massive swells and surf in the anchorage at Isla San Benedicto. A little unnerving, to be sure. The swells gave us 12 feet of extra depth on the sonar.

It didn’t help that early on in the passage we had an ‘event’ while I was on watch. It wasn’t an emergency, but it was definitely urgent and could have led to one. We use a lot of soft shackles everywhere on the boat. On this passage we learned that you need to replace these. Mike had used a soft shackle to connect the mainsheet to the end of the boom. It was great and it was silent. It also had begun to wear with the heat of the metal in Mexico and general wear and tear. One night I was laying in the cockpit looking at stars and listening to the sound of the sea breathing beneath us and, with barely a whisper, the boom swung majestically across my field of vision and came to a gentle stop against the spreaders. I sighed deeply, opened the hatch to the aft cabin, and said, in a soft, almost pleasant voice, “Mike, I need you to come up here in the cockpit and help me sort something out, please.”.  Really, I swear to you on all the Holy books ever written, I was not upset. My voice was not even raised. I was dead proud of my self control and lack of anxiety about this situation. We would sort it and it would be fine.  The winds were behind us at about 15 knots, the boom was contained by the spreaders, the boat was on course with the autopilot. Unless we suddenly for some reason gybed, that boom was not going to move. It really, truly would be fine. But it needed fixing.

He leapt into action as though the boat was on fire, dressed only in the outfit God gave him at birth. Wordless, at his wild appearance in the cockpit, I just pointed at the boom without a word. I mean, what could I possibly say that he couldn’t take in by looking? “FUCK!!” he said. Wow, I mean, I’m the swearing sailor on board, not Michael. We both life jacketed up and he attached the harness to go forward. I’ll let you visualize the scene. The middle of the Pacific Ocean late at night under an almost moonless sky. Spreader lights casting a wild glare below. My beloved in his finest birthday suit, hair flying, harness on, running a line under the sail as close to mid-boom as possible, which, frankly, was not very close.  I busted out laughing. I could do nothing else. He didn’t see what was so funny but had the roles been reversed I assure you he would have.

Anyway, we secured the boom to the winch and winched it in as far as we could, then managed a line on the end to bring it in further. Basically we just worked the problem until it was fixed. We are pretty chuffed at how we handled it, but, of course, that was the end of Mike sleeping that night. He finished my shift, as I knew he probably would.

Stunning Isla San Benedicto.

I think it was after that event that Mike began to realize that he rested better up in the cockpit where he was close to the action. He began to form a different plan that did away with ‘watches’ in the traditional sense after it became clear to us that there was absolutely nothing out there in the middle of the ocean. Nothing.  Just a lot of water and sky and wind. We never saw a ship or another boat, nothing in the water, after we left the islands. With our protected cockpit and the kind of cloud cover we were getting, plus very little moon until we got closer to Hawaii, the nights were very dark. Everyone is always worried about things like shipping containers and sleeping whales in the water. And of course, we thought about that as well. But here’s the truth: had there been a shipping container or sleeping whale to hit, we would never have seen it until we hit it. There would be no way we would notice it in time to avoid it. So we had to let that concern go because while it’s important to acknowledge risk, it’s also important to let go of things outside your control. It’s not like boats have headlights on a road. There are some things in life you cannot control, and floating shipping containers that are invisible in the dark is one of them.

Eventually we decided that we could set the AIS alarm just in case there might be a boat out there, enjoy our evening below in the salon, and both get some sleep. (AIS means Automatic Identification System and ships are required to use it.)  Michael had set up one of our tablet computers where it was connected by wifi to the chart plotter. With that set up below, we had access to speed, direction, and AIS data all from the salon. The AIS alarm was set so that if another vessel came within range, the alarm would go off and alert us. That happened zero times until we got within a few hundred miles of Hawaii. Possibly we saw fewer ships than others because we were headed to Kaua’i, not to the bigger, more populated islands. There may have been more ships further south of us.

As the sun went down we would slow the boat down and go below for dinner and to either read or even watch TV below, keeping an eye on his tablet and poking our heads up occasionally to do the old groundhog 360. Mike slept either in the salon or in the midship cabin, or in the cockpit where he was close to everything. I found other places to sleep based on boat motion.

So during the parts of the passage where we were literally 1000 miles from land in the middle of the blessed ocean and saw nothing for days and days and days, we created a routine that included rest for us both overnight. The truth is Michael still didn’t get a lot of sleep because as you can imagine, there is a level of alertness that is required regardless. That tablet computer’s light shone directly on his face, and he was up probably every hour checking it, and frequently he was up in the cockpit. Sometimes I was up in the cockpit as well.

This was the most enjoyable part of the passage, actually. We greeted the sun each day and got into an actual routine of morning coffee in the cockpit, writing in our journals, and reading the headlines which we could get on our Iridium Go. Then we would check weather for the day and look at our mileage made good from the day before. Mike captured our direction, speed, sea state and weather data and sent it to people on our list of contacts for the passage and also marked our position on our big chart.  Our world was small and enormous at the same time. We loved it so much. The water was so beautiful, and at that point the winds were perfect. It was just days of lovely sailing on a beam reach. We caught fish. We wore bathing suits again. Life was so good.

Galapagos at Isla San Benedicto.

Michael insisted that this new ‘schedule’ worked for him and I had no choice but to believe it, but I did keep an eye on his mood and level of irritability; two indicators of lack of sleep. He took a lot of good naps during the day and if I really thought he needed sleep then I would pester him into it as much as I could. When I put my mind to it, I can pester pretty good. It’s one of my super powers.

As we got within a couple hundred miles of land we started seeing fishing vessels on the AIS and so our level of alertness changed again. The AIS alarm went off a couple of times.   We were more frequently in the cockpit, more frequently just checking things out. And at the same time we started getting higher winds and seas and so sleep was difficult at best for both of us. During the last three days or so it seemed like neither of us got any sleep because the boat motion was just too uncomfortable no matter what direction we sailed. We had swells from the E, NE, and SE all at the same time. Ugh. Those days were hard. Schedule? What schedule? The winds and the seas definitely were having disagreements.

I guess the point I am endeavoring to make is that for us, because this works for us, our watch schedule is fluid and changes with the state of the weather as well as where on the sea we are sailing. If we are coastal cruising you can believe we always have a person in the cockpit, awake and as alert as possible. But in the middle of this part of the ocean we found this to be not necessary as a rule. If I am in the cockpit and I have done the 360 degree groundhog check and there is absolutely nothing out there and no indication of a boat on the AIS (such a great tool), then there also isn’t going to be anything out there in an hour, or even two hours. I can take a nap and it’s ok. And if I look at my husband and see that he looks very tired, I’m going to tell him to take a nap and I’m going to stand watch.  When there are only two of you, you do what you have to do in order to stay as safe as possible and be in a frame of mind to make good decisions.

A Tropicbird checks out the boat

In addition to having a fluid watch schedule, we also have rules we go by that are probably firmer than folks who have more people on the boat. We have agreed that we never leave the cockpit at night for any reason without letting the other person know what’s up, even if they are sleeping. Actually even during the day if we go forward, we let the other person know.  In addition, we never go forward to do work without clipping on with our harness to the jack lines. Many is the time that has felt like a complete pain in the ass but we watch each other like hawks and are not afraid to make a stink if the other person forgets to be careful. Sails are reduced at night as a general rule if there is any chance the wind might pipe up. We will sail slowly at night, just so that we can rest. It’s not a race out here.

Here’s the kind of decision it’s important to be able to make from a rested frame of mind and why we are willing to take a small risk of sleeping at sea so that the bigger risk of sleep deprivation can be mitigated. As we got closer to Kaua’i it was clear that we were sailing too fast. We had a beautiful downwind sail on last full day. The seas and the winds had finally worked out their differences and we were sailing downwind at 6 knots with almost no rolling to speak of. It was brilliant. The only thing was, at that pace we would be arriving at Nawiliwili Harbor in the wee hours of the morning. I was decidedly not ok with that. Although we had a full moon, there was a lot of cloud cover. In addition we would be going into a developed harbor, which means lights on the land (which are very confusing), watching out for other vessels that may or may not be lit appropriately at anchor, and things in the water that shouldn’t be there or are not on the chart. I could tell Mike was tired and ready to be at anchor. We could taste the success of getting there already and the thought of being able to go in really soon and get that anchor down and enjoy the benefits of a quiet boat was tempting in the extreme. The previous two days of sailing had taken a toll on us both with the mixed seas and high winds.

In other circumstances I might have agreed to enter an unknown port at night. We landed at Isla San Benedicto in the wee hours under a full moon with no cloud cover. The bay there is wide open with zero obstructions. I was willing to risk it. Even then, however, I don’t like it much. And as it turns out, there was an unlit boat in that anchorage and we didn’t see that until we were close to dropping anchor. Fortunately it was off to one side and not in our path. But going in at night is something I hate doing, even when we’ve been somewhere before.

Sunrises are part of the show; a reward for being awake and watching.

So I couldn’t agree to it this time and insisted we slow the boat down and delay our arrival until morning. Michael agreed with me and that’s what we did. We gave up our lovely sailing conditions and slowed the boat down to a crawl by reducing sail to almost nothing, just a small hanky of jib hanging out to keep us pointed in the right direction. We dealt with the rolling that began when the boat slowed down, rolling we had been relieved to be free of for the day. That was a hard decision to make and being tired made it much harder. It can be easy to talk yourself into doing things that aren’t really safe when you are too tired to think things through clearly and it’s a very subtle thing sometimes. When you are running on adrenaline you might not even realize how tired you really are.

And so that brings me to the final point. And that is that in deciding to get some sleep we basically played the odds. We know it’s risky to not have a person on watch all night. We also know it’s risky to be sleep deprived. Which risk is worse and how do you make that call? There is a risk/benefit to all decisions out here. We found what worked for us on this passage and are pleased with the results overall. We hope it’s that easy on the next one. It may be completely different next time.


5 thoughts on “To Sleep, Perchance to Get REM Sleep

  1. So glad you made it safe to Hawaii. Some of the most common questions we get asked are if we wear clothes while on long passages and how do we keep watch.

    We refuse to take on crew and fired our last insurance company who started to insists on three crew members for passages over 1,000 miles.

  2. So glad you made it safe to Hawaii.

    Some of the most common questions we get asked are if we wear clothes while on long passages and how do we keep watch.

    We refuse to take on crew and fired our last insurance company who started to insists on three crew members for passages over 1,000 miles. We routinely sail over 1,000 miles. Sometimes, we may start out with a trip planned for less than 1,000 miles and then change our minds midstream. We have a great routine when off-shore and both get 7-8 hours of good sleep every 24 hours. Each boat needs to figure out the schedule that works best for them. It is all about personal preferences.

    • Yes, it is. And sometimes you just cannot know what’s going to work until you are in the situation. I wouldn’t say we ‘refuse’ to take on crew, but since we don’t carry insurance (because our boat is not valued highly enough by insurance companies to cover us outside the United States unless we want to pay an exorbitant price), we don’t have to cow to their requirements. Clothing being optional when the weather is nice is a perk of not having crew aboard, to be sure!

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