Formal watchkeeping should begin as soon as your boat has cleared port and is settled down on her course at sea.
Long coastal trips or ocean voyages often are started early in the day with all the crew on deck. It’s understandable that they should be excited and eager to help with the management of the ship, but a good skipper will make sure that those off watch do not wear themselves out before the night watches come along. They should get as much rest as possible—going down below to their bunks if necessary—even in daylight on the very first day, so they are fresh and prepared to deal with any bad weather when their turn comes.
Sound sleep is an important part of cruising. Without it, you lose efficiency; your temper becomes frayed and decisions are difficult. In short, lack of sleep is dangerous.
There are many different watchkeeping systems, depending on the size of the crew. With six people on board, it’s possible for pairs to keep deck watches of 4 hours, followed by 8 straight hours off. Most ocean-cruising sailboats have only two people on board, however, and that usually means 4 hours on, 4 hours off. In theory, you get 12 hours of sleep out of every 24 this way, but in practice you don’t fall asleep right away and you have to get up before the 4 hours is over to dress and get ready. During your watches you will also have to perform the many tasks involved in navigation, maintenance, cooking, and generally running the ship.
Four hours is about as long as anyone should keep watch alone in the cockpit, and cruising couples often limit their time at the helm to two hours, or even one in really bad weather.
Sleep deprivation causes illusions and hallucinations that could affect your ability to make rational decisions, endangering the safety of the boat and the crew. With practice, however, you can get sufficient sleep in short stretches. Some people are better than others at snatching 40 winks, but almost everybody can improve. Some single-handed racers claim to sleep for 20 minutes at a time, then keep watch for 20 minutes, then sleep another 20 minutes, and so on.
As a general principle, cruisers should be prepared to sacrifice speed for sleep, if necessary. If the watch below has been roused frequently to take in sail, or if the boat has been driven hard in heavy weather so that the motion and noise down below has been excessive, they will be tired, cranky, and inefficient. It would be wise to heave to for several hours and let everyone get some undisturbed rest. The result will be a great improvement in morale, cheerfulness, and efficiency.
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