Sleep Routines for Long Passages


The US Navy has finally gotten around to a serious study of watch standing schedules ( As an active duty Navy Medical Officer, I certainly saw enough injuries related to sleep deprivation; fortunately, none were as disastrous as the recent collisions. I am glad to see the navy move away from a centuries old approach to scheduling watches.

Photos by Ann Key

Obviously, Navy warships have different needs and much larger crews than cruising sailboats. Do you know of any serious study of good and bad approaches to small-crew watch standing schedules?

Thomas Carlton, Capt. Medical Corps

US Navy, Retired

SV LAudace, Freedom 33

San Diego

Dr. Claudio Stampi, the director and founder of the Chronobiology Research Institute in Newton, MA has produced the most widely published information on sailors and their sleep patterns. Although his research focuses on single-handed sailors, many of his findings can apply to two- and three- person crews. Not every persons sleep patterns are the same, and you need to take into account each crews strengths and limitations when setting watches (night vision is an asset in shipping lanes, for example).

Here is the Swedish watch schedule that PS editor Darrell Nicholson used during a two person 28-day crossing in the Pacific.

1900-2200 – crew A

2200-0100 – crew B

0100-0400 – crew A

0400-0700 – crew B

0700-1230 – crew A

1230-1330 flex

1330-1900 – crew B

The schedule allowed for each crew to get five and a half hours of uninterrupted rest during the day, and put the skipper (crew B) on the last watch before sundown, when he could carry out a routine inspection of the rig, sails, and systems (battery levels, especially) in daylight before nightfall.

It also allows for a mid-day flex period to actually spend a little time with your partner, or for one crew to catch up on sleep.

Adhering to the daytime sleep/naps period is important because night off-watches are frequently interrupted with sail changes. Earplugs and eye-shades are essential.

John and Amanda Neal of Mahina Expeditions ( found that most cruising couples they have met followed similar a 3-4 hours-on/3-4 hours-off schedules, supplemented with a nap during the day. Although some schedules rotate the watch start times, some sailors find it much easier to adjust to fixed start times for each watch.

For crews of three or more, PS Technical editor Ralph Naranjo, author of the The Art of Seamanship, divides watches into three watches, 4-4-4 (day) and 3-3-3-3 (night) which rotates the watch start times.

Evans and Beth Starzinger, authors of The Voyagers Handbook present eight different watch schedules for two-person crews, including the Royal Navy watch schedule, which is 4-on/4-off except between 1600-2000, when each watch is cut to two hours. This causes the individual watch start times to change every other day.

A sensible approach would be to try a couple of proven systems and see which works for best for your crew. A well rested crew is essential to ship safety-as the Navy has found out the hard way.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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