Fishing for Sleep

Alaska Marine Safety Education Association

Getting enough high-quality sleep on a vessel is inherently difficult. The vessel has motion, noises, smells, is cramped and there is little privacy. There also can be lots to worry about. At times it’s a tense environment with lots of unknowns and demands, especially for those in positions of greater responsibility.

Despite the fact that we spend 33% of our lives sleeping, it’s only in the last few decades of research that we have learned much about its impact in every aspect of our health, performance and safety. Hundreds of studies from all over the world have demonstrated that being sleep deprived negatively affects every system in the body.

People who are chronically sleep deprived have shorter lifespans due to cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many other health disorders. Sleep-deprived people can have poorer impulse control and tend to be more obese. They take higher risks and have unrealistic hopes that the rewards they will get by not sleeping will be greater than people who are not sleep deprived would expect the rewards to be.

They also have more difficulty controlling their emotions. Remember that last screaming skipper you had? A little more sleep could have helped him.

Humans need eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour period to perform well physically and cognitively. Although some people will say “I only need 5 or 6 hours of sleep and I’m good” as a measure of toughness, the fact is most of us need about eight hours. Only 1 in 12,000 people have a rare gene that allows them to function normally with just six hours of sleep.

Although there is no magic way to avoid sleeping and still perform well and keep yourself healthy, there are ways you can better manage the quality of sleep you are able to obtain.

Sleep techniques on board:

  • Darkness—Use eye masks to ward off summer’s long light. Light through closed eyes shuts off the body’s natural release of a chemical (melatonin) which doesn’t start the sleep process itself, but does help regulate sleep.
  • Cool down—Keep your sleep environment a bit on the cool side. A cool temperature is one of the conditions needed for sleep to begin.
  • Quiet—Use ear plugs.
  • Comfort—Make a comfortable nest. You will not sleep well with a shot of anchor chain beneath you.
  • Coffee/caffeine—Don’t ingest it for up to 12 hours before sleep is planned.

I know – this sounds like blasphemy. The caffeine found in coffee, energy drinks, some teas, ice cream, dark chocolate, etc. is well known to keep you awake. But the longer you stay awake, the more the chemical adenosine builds up in the brain. Adenosine is what makes you feels sleepy. Caffeine mutes adenosine, making you feel alert, but the chemical continues to build up in the body until it overwhelms the receptors and you have a caffeine crash and lose your performance and ability to concentrate.

Since caffeine has a half-life of five-to-seven hours, it can interfere with sleep up to 12 hours later. However, if you know someone who can consume caffeine all day and still falls asleep, their body may produce an extra enzyme that allows them to break caffeine down faster.

  • Alcohol – Although many use alcohol to relax thinking it also will help them sleep, it’s actually one of the worst things for sleep quality. It greatly disrupts REM sleep, which is important for emotional processing, memory consolidation, brain growth and much more according to Matthew Walker, PhD, a sleep researcher, in his book “Why We Sleep.”
  • Don’t overeat – People who are sleep deprived can become compulsive overeaters and develop all the health problems associated with gaining weight.
  • No screens—No blue light before sleep. Don’t read computer screens or cell phones before trying to sleep.
  • Joints—Use splints for wrists or aggravated joints when sleeping. Give them a needed rest.
  • Enough time—Give the crewmember who is asleep when it is their turn to take a trick at the wheel a full 15 minutes to wake up. Then they will be ready to take over their wheel watch.
  • Naps are good—Fishermen are sometimes referred to as the last of the hunters and gatherers, and for good reason. Hunters had to sleep lightly at night to be aware of nocturnal predators. Fishermen tend to sleep lightly at night, subliminally listening to the sound of any changes to the engine and or motion of the vessel.

Hunters would then make use of daytime to take a nap and finish off their 24-hour sleep needs. It’s the siesta that is genetically hardwired in all of us. Grabbing a half-hour to an hour nap whenever you can is helpful. One of the best times to do this is during the mid-afternoon doldrums.

Unfortunately, many crewmembers forgo naps to raid the galley for food, crank up the music, watch the same video for the hundredth time or read that dog-eared book that they are not really interested in. When your body is in need of sleep, take advantage of any naps you can sneak in.

Think hard about cutbacks—Be aware of cutting crew members that you normally need in order to reduce expenses. In doing this, you’re literally cutting off their life/work span. Workers in sleep-deprived jobs (night shift workers, etc.), have shorter life spans than those who have more and better quality sleep. Catch more fish over time with better sleep!

The Alaska Marine Safety Education Association (AMSEA) has a mission is to reduce injury and death in the marine and freshwater environment through education and training provided by a network of marine safety instructors. The Sitka, Alaska-based organization has been offering marine safety training to commercial fishermen and thousands of other mariners since 1985.

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