Latest Expedition Journal
November 6: Day 35
This Ship Never Sleeps
“Thom, wake up! It’s time for class!” My watch mate Madelyn peeked into my bunk as she prodded me awake. I jolted from my sleep, disoriented, my mind in a fog. Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was already 1435—class was supposed to have started five minutes ago.
The entire ship was probably waiting on me to start, assembled on the quarterdeck in awkward silence. I was in the process of inadvertently, and somewhat unconsciously, committing what I considered to be a serious social crime aboard a tall ship: tardiness. It is a huge taboo aboard a ship to keep your shipmates waiting on a schedule. A good sailor is a prompt one, and I had just targeted myself as a careless and inconsiderate shipmate.
“Was there a class bell? I don’t remember ever hearing one!” I said back to Madelyn as I jumped out of my bunk and quickly began throwing on a shirt and shoes. “Yeah,” she responded, “But I don’t know if they rang back here in Sleepy Hollow,” referring to our common sleeping area, its apropos name an allusion to its remote location far from the main activity of the ship. As I scurried up the ladder into the doghouse in my half-asleep stupor, I nearly ran into Trent, another watch mate, also hurriedly dressing and rushing onto deck for the waiting class. We sheepishly stumbled from the doghouse onto the quarterdeck, mumbled apologies, and ducked into a corner to avoid any stares of resentment or impatience. A few people chuckled at our awkward arrival; I was relieved that our shipmates appeared to find our late arrival amusing rather than aggravating.
Sleep deprivation has finally begun to take its toll. Sighting our first land last night—a lighthouse perched along the southeastern Puna coast of Hawai’i—the anticipation for landfall has become palpable. As we round the Big Island of Hawai’i in search of safe harbor at Cook’s Bay (Kealakekua), the trade winds pick up to a steady Force 6, seas and swells stack up to 12 feet in height.
We set safety lines along the leeward side of the ship and restrict access onto the deck as the ship rolls steeply back and forth, making every step a challenge. The clear sapphire blue water of the Pacific shows through the portlights of the accommodations deck as we roll into the trough of large waves, showing a brief window into the surface layers we have been studying, even occasionally permitting us a glimpse of a piece of plastic as it drifts by.
Meanwhile, crew below decks, tucked away in their bunks, are tossed and turned like rag dolls against the bulkheads and fiddles. Attempts that my watch had made to sleep before and after our previous rotations were met largely with futility. Any effort I made to wedge my body into the corner of my bunk for stability almost invariably ended up with my head banging hard against the wooden shelf suspended one foot above my mattress as I jolted awake on a hard roll.
Captain Quilter clearly sensed our collective fatigue during class. “I know that many of you are having a hard time falling asleep under this seaway. I have changed our course ordered to a more southerly direction so that we are running downwind. This will hopefully reduce some of the roll from the swell and make it easier to sleep. Now get some good rest.”
The problem for me is not so much a lack of sleep, or insufficient time for sleeping, as a wholesale disruption in normal circadian rhythms. After five years of farming, my body had settled into a tempo intimately tuned to the seasonal and diel cycles of nature: waking at sunrise, working until sunset, sleeping all night, and then repeating. I would plant when the soil began to warm, harvest when crops were ready, and put beds to rest for winter once the fall frosts threatened. There was little need for watches (I never wore one) or calendars (I rarely used them) other than as reference points to the external world. Hours of the day and days of the week are largely meaningless when you’re working on the fickle schedule of Mother Nature.
Aboard a tall ship, things couldn’t be any different. Certainly there are some important commonalities between farming and sailing: both are professions at the mercy of the whims of Nature, depending upon the congeniality of weather systems over which you have no control. A single ill-timed hailstorm can wipe out your entire season’s crops, just as a rogue wave or white squall may threaten the stability of an unsuspecting and unprepared ship.
But aboard a tall ship, in contrast to farm life, your daily schedule is strictly dictated by the schedule of your standing watches, and by the watch you are obliged to wear on your wrist. And, unlike a farm, where the plants and animals as well as the farmer enjoy a respite from the daily grind during the hours between dusk and dawn, a sailing ship never sleeps. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is somebody at the helm, someone maintaining vigilance on lookout or at the radar, somebody conducting an hourly boat check and weather log, and someone collecting scientific data. The result: natural circadian rhythms are uprooted, keel-hauled, and deep-sixed.
You don’t “sleep” on this ship, not in the traditional sense: you nap, whenever you can manage to squeeze in some shut-eye. A few hours here, a few hours there. Even the popular “Sleep of Kings”, the nine-hour period between midwatch and lunch, is interrupted by calls to breakfast, the loud banging of your bunkmates returning exhausted from their watch, the high-pitched whine of the hydrowinch spooling out during a deployment, or the roar of the fire hose for the morning deck wash.
The very notion of night and day at sea begins to morph into an altogether different connotation than on land. Nighttime at sea is not so much a time for sleep, quiet, and rest, as the time that the doghouse lights go red to preserve night vision during navigation and radar checks; the period between sunset and sunrise when all crew are required to report their presence to the watch officer and wear harnesses and strobe lights whenever on deck; the opportunity for learning stars, observing bioluminescence, and keeping a close eye on the weather.
Even the intuitive concept of the 24-hour day, defined so clearly on land by that consistent period of sleep, is blurred and abstracted here on the ship. I cannot recall how many times I have overheard shipmates express surprise at the deceptive passing of time. “You mean that just happened yesterday?” one watch mate said as we discussed the previous day’s maneuvers. “It feels like it was three days ago!”
Being a scientist at heart, I recently collected data on sleep patterns, suspecting a marked difference from land. Whereas sleep on land tends to occur in solid blocks of about six to nine hours per day for most people, I suspected that, aboard the ship, the average duration of each sleeping interval and the total number of hours of sleep per 24-hour day would be notably lower. With data from four eager, enthusiastic, and exhausted volunteers (including myself), I found that the average duration of sleep per day was 8.4 hours, whereas the average length of each sleeping interval was 3.8 hours. In other words, it appeared that people were getting about as much sleep as they do normally on land, but this sleep is broken up into two or three intervals, or naps, per 24-hour day.
Although scientific deployments have finally come to an end, we find ourselves as busy as ever preparing for anchorage, stowing gear, cleaning the ship, handling sails, and maintaining equipment. As the ship dips into the trough of a large swell, the crest of the oncoming wave rises above the heads of sailors on board, completely obscuring the horizon and dwarfing the crew. Pots and pans crashing to the sole in the galley, usually followed by muffled curses of frustration, have become a commonplace sound. Sailors seasoned by six long weeks at sea struggle to maintain their balance on the erratically rocking deck.
This is no place for a fatigued sailor, I thought. Looking at my data again, I noticed an outlier. One of my subjects was getting less than six hours of sleep per day. That wouldn’t do. So now, to follow Captain Quilter’s orders: Thom Young, S-243, Plastics at SEA North Pacific Expedition, signing out for some good rest.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Whitney, Gary, and Marina for sharing their sleep data with me. Also thanks to Madelyn for waking me up for class, and to Laura and Trent for being unwitting co-conspirators in holding up the ship’s company due to sleep deprivation.