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Global Solo Challenge looks at polyphasic sleep management

by Global Solo Challenge 6 Jun 2021 07:47 PDT
Polyphasic sleep © Global Solo Challenge

Polyphasic sleep management when sailing single-handed is one of those aspects that terrorises each and every sailor who has not yet sailed by themselves. It is not a simple subject to deal with and requires plenty of practice.

It is only with time that we learn how to manage polyphasic sleep both single-handed and short-handed. Obviously the two are quite different. However, the basic principles that are at the basis of the single-hander's sleep management, are useful in determining watches when sailing double-handed.

Polyphasic sleep management - fundamental principles

In order to understand the difficulties in managing sleep we have to take a step back. When we are born we sleep and wake regularly to breastfeed. Our body isn't in fact programmed to stay awake for the whole day and sleep during the whole night. It is between birth and the age of 4-5 that we learn how to sleep like an adult, but we do so going against nature.

Observing the behaviour of a newborn growing tells us lots on what are the natural cycles of polyphasic sleep. In ancient time humans were already used to sleeping at night and hunting and gathering during the day. However if we think of our ancestors living in caves their sleep was probably a series of naps. It was important to be able to react quickly in case of an attack from predators.

If we go even further back, we didn't even have the protection of fire. Before we learnt how to control this element, humans certainly couldn't afford to take a long night-long sleep. In fact it has been demonstrated that our DNA is not wired for such behaviour. The management of polyphasic sleep for our ancestors was a matter of survival. The management of polyphasic sleep in modern times is on the other hand totally related to social organisation. Homo Sapiens's sleep management is the only exception in the animal world, among mammals, having changed from polyphasic to monofasic (only one sleep phase at night, rather than several sleep phases during a 24 hours period).

Short-handed sailing sleep management

By short-handed we refer to the typical double handed race. There are various strategies to manage watches. A lot depends on how two co-skippers get on well and their level of preparation in respect to polyphasic sleep management. My piece of advice is that the less you know each other the more the rules must be strict. Two co-skippers that have sailed many miles together on the other hand can use much looser watch systems.

To give some practical examples, when I sailed with Paul Peggs, we didn't have fixed watches. We had already sailed together at the Round Britain and Ireland as well as many other training miles. It was also quite evident that I had a propensity for being awake at night. On the other hand Paul didn't like nights, especially as he likes spending a lot of time at the helm. On the other hand I dedicated a lot more time to the study of the weather and the optimal route. Therefore, during my watches I used mainly the autopilot and helmed only for pleasure or need. This ultimately led to me during more night watches on average.

This flexibility also meant that each would quite freely declare when we were tired and could sleep accordingly. Going to sleep when you feel tired is much more efficient than having to stick to a given schedule so that ultimately you need less sleep. The natural alternation still meant there were times when we were both awake and those were the times to discuss the strategy for the following hours. When one was asleep we tried to wake the sleeper only if strictly required for manoeuvres in tricky conditions or when in turn feeling tired.

Don't miss the sleep train

Managing sleep freely like Paul and I did is a luxury. It solved many problems but laid its foundations on the total reciprocal trust. I tended to cover most of the night but Paul worked hard at the helm during the day and we knew that we could ask for a watch change at any point in time. This approach however requires that both are used to single-handed sailing, carrying out most manoeuvres solo, and a good knowledge own needs. Sailors with lesser experience struggle to adapt because they are required to disrupt their habits. Much like a parent dealing with a newborn no longer allowed to chose when to sleep.

Paul and I had respectively also sailed many miles single-handed and knew our needs. When we felt our body was calling us for much needed rest we knew we didn't have to "miss the sleep train". In the management of polyphasic sleep, when tiredness calls you must to your best to go to sleep. "Not missing the sleep train" is an expression dear to Claudio Stampi, world guru in sleep management for sailors. We therefore have individual sleep cycles that fall within a secondary circadian alertness pattern which is part of the primary circadian daily cycle. We can certainly learn to recognise the two circadian loss of alertness moments before sunrise and in the afternoon and plan, wherever possible to catch some sleep then.

Breaking habits

Unless you know your co-skipper very well, like in the case of Paul and I, I always recommend fixed watches in all other situations. With a co-skipper that is less used to the transition from monophasic to polyphasic sleep it's important to break the ordinary habits earlier on. The person with less experience will struggle to sleep during the day until totally shattered or might be unable to keep a decent course in the middle of the night when the circadian cycle strikes. The more expert skipper usually has a tough time dealing with this situation and must be smart and prevent trouble by anticipating his sleep as early as possible and giving the co-skipper time to adapt.

In many respect you could say that a newborn is the best training that can be envisaged for a solo sailor. Breaking monophasic sleep pattern is what is required to become a solo sailor.

A single-handed sailor on the other hand will already have gone through this disruptive process of his own habits. Even though once we return ashore we return to a monophasic sleep pattern the memory remains. Most of all we have learnt how to listen to our body, recognising the stages of wakefulness and tiredness. We learn how not to wait too long when sleep calls, when we just collapse. We learn in fact how to manage polyphasic sleep.

How to switch to polyphasic mode

During your first solo races, the switch from monophasic to polyphasic sleep can be very hard. It can take up to 3-4 day of adaptation, this effectively means that for shorter races you never even get to see the benefits. During longer races on the other hand, after the third or fourth day we will notice that our body has adapted. We no longer feel the same impulse for sleep as direct correlation with day and night.

Especially at the beginning falling asleep sis hard, this in mainly due to anxiety. However we have to start somewhere to reach our goal. The first step is to go below deck, find a comfortable position and force ourselves, with the help of a timer, to keep our eyes shut for at least 10 minutes. At the beginning we won't fall asleep, however it is proven that even keeping our eyes shut provides some level or rest for our brain.

After these 10 minutes we can go and check our course and sail trim and try again immediately. Always use a powerful alarm, initially you won't see the point as you struggle to fall asleep but eventually you will need it. At the beginning you won't fall asleep and go into deep sleep. Attempt after attempt magically you will open your eyes and wonder "did I sleep?". Perhaps you had a small dream or something doesn't quite make sense in your thoughts. You probably briefly stepped into a REM wake phase of sleep. You were not fully asleep but came close. Next, before you know it, you will indeed fall asleep and won't wake up without an alarm.

Power naps in polyphasic sleep management when sailing single-handed

When you learnt how to fall asleep when single-handed the hardest work is done. It is here that the proper "management" of polyphasic sleep comes into play. How long and when to sleep? Here we have to make some distinctions and realise that the answer depends on the type of boat, the weather conditions and the area of navigation. If we sail through busy waters, or we have the kite up with a breeze it's unlikely that it is safe to sleep much. In a vast open Ocean far from fishing boats, on a steady beat we can certainly take a completely different approach and recharge our batteries.

Polyphasic sleep management when sailing double-handed

We looked at the example of two sailors that know each other well. Paul and I could arrange our watches as we pleased and this was more an opportunity than a problem. With two skippers that don't have much experience sailing together we should use fixed watches. The first option is to alternate ever 3 hours. The skipper in charge should try not to wake up the resting co-skipper, unless necessary.

When you wake your co-skipper bear in mind they may be in deep sleep. Don't rush things and always give a few minutes to the waking co-skipper before manoeuvring. 3 hours on 3 hours off works quite well if there's disparity in experience between the two sailors, the less experience skipper can be "corrected" within 3 hours. Clear instructions must be left but things might change and the least experience skipper may not make the most of the changing conditions, making the watches longer can be detrimental to racing performance. It is a rather tiring watch system but the best performance wise.

Read the full article on polyphasic sleep for yacht races

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