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Global Solo Challenge - Polyphasic sleep: sleep management solo and crewed

by Global Solo Challenge 20 Dec 2021 09:16 PST
Sleeping on the floor ensures you can't fall further! © 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 wire 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).

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