Fatigue and Seamanship

[Photo: Kent Mullikin]

[This post was mostly written about three years ago, but did not make it onto the blog until now. In hopes that it might be pertinent, and perhaps useful, to Race to Alaska participants, this has seemed like the perfect time to put it up.]

Sometime in 2016

The subject of fatigue has come up before in this blog, and now here it is again from this last trip in the Peep Hen, SERENITY. I’m not talking here about general, everyday tiredness, or sleepiness, or health issues, but rather about the broader impact of lack of sufficient rest when it comes to seamanship.

Specific effects of fatigue as it relates to seamanship involve impairments in several functions: decision-making; mental processing ability, including the time required for that mental processing; and the ability to hold multiple aspects of one’s surroundings in mind at the same time, or “situational awareness.” Lack of sleep, or of quality sleep, is the most obvious source of this kind of fatigue, but extended, continuous strain, for example from long hours of tricky navigation, and/or challenging weather, can also contribute significantly.

On this past trip, I came away understanding that my cruising routine has substantial room for improvement in the area of getting enough sleep, as well as with prioritizing something like regular eating. Both of these are more complicated in the Peep Hen than they are aboard AUKLET. For one thing, SERENITY is not nearly as forgiving in an uncomfortable anchorage. For the same size waves, with SERENITY being so much smaller, and flat bottomed, there is quite a bit more motion, compared to AUKLET, and it takes a good bit of getting used to. Buzzy-headed seasickness while at anchor was a new experience for me, which included waking up in the morning with no inclination for eating, for most of the day.

Additionally, eating itself is complicated in SERENITY, while underway. Having no electronic self steering is satisfying, and I enjoy being off for weeks on a boat with no 12 volt electrical system, but there is a price to be paid for that simplicity. In a fairly broad range of conditions, the boat will steer itself with the tiller lashed and the sail and centerboard adjusted just so. But being such a small boat, as soon you shift your weight – say, to go into the cabin to get some food – the balance is completely disrupted, and off the boat goes in a different direction. In open water and minimal traffic this doesn’t matter as far as running into anything, but it can really make a dent in progress with a nice breeze. Often enough, I’d opt for waiting until sometime later to eat… Which often led to “sometime later” meaning after anchoring at the end of the day. A better organized individual – which I hope to become – would be placing midday food in the cockpit before raising the anchor. (I did get better at this.)

As for sleep, my sense of how to plan for a truly serene anchorage in SERENITY is developing. That will go some way toward improving the quality of sleep that is achieved; there is still the issue of quantity. Sailing a distance – say, to go the 60 or so miles to visit in Penobscot Bay from Gouldsboro – involves working with the tides. If the tide starts going the right way in the early morning, that can easily mean waking up at 3 AM. If you read the little clock wrong, and you think it says that the time is 0245, but you missed the microscopic “1” at the front, it’s a sad moment an hour later when you find out that you started your morning not all that long after midnight! Somehow, this happened twice on this trip (yes, I should be using the clock with the giant numbers). In combination with a string of already early days, those extra-early mornings put a real dent in the overall sleep tally. In spite of this, it can be very hard to decline a good tide and a fair wind, and off I would be again, first thing in the next almost-day, with only the occasional periods of time completely off.

The effects of these patterns of missed sleep are cumulative. There is fascinating reading in the book, Bridge Resource Management for Small Ships, by Daniel Parrott, on this subject (link is included for readers’ convenience – I’m not receiving anything from it). The book was written for larger commercial shipping captains and crew, such as folks on ferries and tugs, but a tremendous amount of it is relevant for the small boat sailor, and I recommend it highly. Among other things, the author discusses the deterioration of abilities that comes with lack of sleep, and the necessity for those lost hours to be recovered, in order to thoroughly regain one’s abilities.

On this trip, nothing dire happened as a result of all that missing sleep. But there was an event that I spent some time pondering over, and eventually recognized as exactly the outcome of this kind of shortage of rest.

While visiting with friends, and the night before having had an actual good, restful night for the first time in a little while, I was not thinking about any of the above issues. As the day unfolded, I was presented with a sailing situation that was unfamiliar, and that would have benefited from a simple, straightforward adjustment to the plan that had already been made. This would have saved my friend in the dinghy a lot of rowing! And my other friend on the shore from having to watch the craziness of what unfolded.

Oddly enough, considering that what I do is small sailboat cruising, more or less without a motor, I’m a creature of habit. The sailing thing works for me because of the ridiculous amount of time I spend thinking through how this or that maneuver, or process, or situation might be going to unfold. Sailing keeps life interesting, because of course there are multitudes of events that do not go according to how one might have thought, and then one gets to think through how to handle a similar situation in the future, for a more desirable outcome. In a perfect world, the cumulative effect of all that thinking would result in a certain amount of flexibility, applying previous knowledge and understandings to new situations, and arriving at the preferred approach the first time through.

This is where the effects of fatigue come in. Addressing new situations involves both thought processing, and a certain amount of speed for that processing, in order to come up with an appropriate decision within the timeframe of the event that is taking place. The dullness of thinking that is the trademark of lack of adequate rest can appear in such novel ways!

This particular situation developed from a planned stop at a half-tide dock, with the tide now falling, and the time having come to depart, before the boat would be aground. A lovely visit had been had, and departure was going forward in order, with the idea that I would anchor in the more protected corner of the cove some distance away. Another friend had been delayed, and was unable to come over for this rare visit before the tide made it necessary to go off. There was discussion that I would go anchor, and the other friend could row out in the dinghy later on.

About the time that the boat was away and under sail, there this friend was on the dock, and shortly afterward, as I was sailing down the cove, I could see that he was setting out, rowing in the dinghy. He has been very kind in accepting my apologies for what happened next! With a perfectly nice, mild breeze, and myself stuck in the plan that I would anchor and we would visit, for a ridiculous amount of time I continued tacking toward the anchoring spot. This with my friend (in his 70s) rowing – into the wind, no less – following at a distance much too far for talking. He has gallantly, and kindly, maintained that he really wanted to get a feel for more distance rowing of this particular dinghy, which our friend, the owner of this Peapod, is so pleased with for its rowing abilities. That opportunity has certainly been had, much to my chagrin. Watching from shore must’ve been even worse than rowing.

At the time, I thought, “There’s a right answer to this question, and I don’t know what it is.” After a bit, I finally hove to, my friend caught up with me, and as the two boats had started to drift toward the rocky shore we had some fun sailing away from it, the dinghy held alongside the Peep Hen as we sailed, and then tacking toward that anchorage goal. Of course, good sense might have dictated that once we were away from the hazard of the shore, we could have again heaved to, and had a peaceful few minutes visit until, being on a tight schedule, he needed to head back to the dock. Alas, this was another flexibility in plans that did not occur to me until later.

The right answer in that situation was that there was a perfectly fine, mild sailing breeze, showing no signs of imminent demise – and I was in a sailboat. There were no time considerations on my end, and no tide considerations. It would have been perfectly easy, and fun, and nice, to have sailed right back to that dinghy, as soon as it became clear what was happening. Conversation could have been had about the best next step – given the timing of the moment, probably heaving to together for a visit, and then each of us going to our appointed destinations. With fewer time constraints, my friend might have climbed into SERENITY, and we might have towed the dinghy, anchored, and visited until it was time for him to row back to the dock. Or if the climb was pesky, SERENITY could have easily towed the dinghy with my friend in it back to the anchoring spot.

Of course, the sensible approach is not what happened. It all worked out, if with a ridiculously thorough rowing test of the Peapod, and many wishes on my part for having done things differently. It took about two days for me to realize that, in fact, the unfolding of that event was a classic fatigue issue. There was a perfectly sensible resolution to what was for me an unfamiliar situation. That resolution included the need for a change in plan. As well, the pace of the unfolding situation required processing speed that I was not able to muster.

There have been times when I have declared myself “grounded,” as far as sailing any further, until I have rested enough to feel properly functional again. In the past, my criteria for staying put have included certain levels of not being able to solve basic navigational math problems in my head, or observing myself with noticeably slowed thinking and action for everyday routines. This last can be seen in tasks as simple as basic dental care or food preparation, and a rather surreal sense of slow-motion.

From the above rowing/sailing experience, I am coming to understand that my “fatigue evaluation criteria” need to be adjusted, to be somewhat broader. I now see that there is a middle ground where one is basically functional, but noticeably compromised for adjusting to unfamiliar situations. Also of note is that one good night’s sleep can be exactly what puts a person into that second category. Typically one thinks, “now I am rested,” after that first good night – but my experience has been that the day after that first good rest is when fatigue issues that are the result of the longer, cumulative deficit can especially lead to impaired functioning. It’s counterintuitive, after that good night’s sleep, but I have learned to watch for it.

The cost of the above experience was embarrassment and chagrin on my part, and hopefully no blisters or other effects for my rowing friend – as well as discomfort, I am sure, for the friend on shore, observing all of this. In the grand scheme of things, one would like it to be different, but, so far as I know, there was no serious harm done. The lesson, however, is about what could happen with the same degree of being compromised by fatigue, in a situation with higher stakes for the boat or boats, or their occupants. I am now, again, putting serious thought to the question of managing rest.

Boats are often uncomfortable; one adjusts to living with a certain amount of discomfort, and often simply ignoring it. But the discomfort of fatigue is not so simple as ignoring it and going on. For the safety of the entire operation, it’s important to say, “oh, this is *significant* fatigue discomfort – it’s time to stop!” This isn’t so easy to do, with a perfect wind, but it looks like it’s time for me to develop that ability. And at bare minimum, knowing that one is in that condition of “fatigue impairment,” it’s possible to be particularly vigilant for its effects.

A lot of this could be looked at as a singlehanding issue, and partly it is. But managing fatigue is important for everybody in a sailboat, and opportunities for fatigue abound. It’s my hope that by writing out this pesky tale, perhaps it will resonate with other sailors, and contribute to the idea of managing rest, toward the safety of all of us.

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[Woodblock print: Dave McDermott]