Few people have as much experience as Dee Caffari at living in offshore race mode for weeks on end. She tells Andy Rice about the importance of sleep routines at sea

Dee Caffari knows the importance of sleep to any offshore sailor, whether you’re racing solo, double-handed or fully-crewed. “Most sailors don’t understand how the lack of sleep can affect your performance and your ability to make decisions,” she says. “If people increased their awareness of the topic they’d be much better at it.”

Dee says it was skippering a team of amateurs on the Global Challenge that really opened her eyes to how differently we all deal with sleep deprivation. “Some people are natural at it, some people really struggle. And as conditions change, so does people’s ability to sleep or not sleep. And then I went from that environment, leading a team, to being on my own.

“My biggest transition between my ‘wrong way round’ circumnavigation and the Vendée Globe was the psychology, learning about myself and how to get the best out of myself. Understanding how hydration, my food intake and my sleep, all affected my ability to make a decision.

“It can be something as simple as getting a weather forecast and looking at the routing, and not really understanding what the options are. Then, after a 20 minute sleep and waking up, looking at the routing again and the answer being blatantly obvious.”

Here are Dee’s five most important tips for fitting a good sleep into your offshore routine.

Don’t be a martyr

In our enthusiasm for wanting to look keen and be a good team player there’s a common tendency for sailors to say: “Oh, no, I’m fine. I don’t need sleep.” But actually, if you’re on your off-watch, your job is to sleep. It might be to eat and drink and fix something as well, but your priority is to get your share of sleep. You never know when your next chance to rest is going to arrive, so get sleep while you can.

Don’t think you’re doing everyone a favour by staying on deck because further down the line you’ll be in worse shape, and then you’ll be no good to anybody.

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Get in a routine

It’s important to know when to push through and when to stick to a watch pattern. If you’re only expecting to be at sea for three days or less, most people can manage with minimal sleep. You can get by with cat naps, and without being in a routine. But once you go beyond three days you need a routine and day one is critical.

Let’s say you’re doing the Fastnet Race and you’ve just battled your way out of the Solent in 30 knots, and it’s been full on and you’re out the other side. Then you start the long beat to windward and everyone’s still quite excited. But this is the moment when the people on the first off-watch need to get their heads down. Because you still want that level of enthusiasm and focus at midnight or three in the morning, and to carry on through to the end of the race. It’s really hard to get that initial group to go off-watch, but it’s essential they do.

How much is enough?

For me, my best sleep comes just before it gets light in the morning. So I like the early hours and if I can be off-watch in that time it makes me much more productive. Of course you don’t always get the choice to sleep when you want and everyone is different.

When I was sailing solo I used to grab cat naps of 10 to 20 minutes, and a long sleep for me was an hour and a half. I became conditioned to sleeping while listening to the sounds of the boat. If one of the sounds is wrong, you’ve got to get up and do something about it.


It’s important to get as much sleep as possible when off-watch

If you’re sailing with other people, be honest and tell each other what you need to function at your best. Conversations might include: “How long have we got on this leg? This is at least six hours, right? I just need to get my head down for two hours. If you can give me a solid sleep now, then I’ll be alright later.”

Take earphones

I like listening to the noise of the boat because I can anticipate what’s coming. But now the IMOCAs are up on foils, the sailors are saying they can’t sleep or even function without noise-cancelling headphones. It allows the sailor to switch off, otherwise it’s living in this torture of constant white noise. That means you have to really trust all the alarms you’ve got set on your instruments so you can react quickly, because you’re not hearing the sounds of the boat.

But on fully-crewed boats, just work out what works for you. Some people like to plug in their earphones so they can mentally switch off, as well as tune out someone else’s loud snoring.

When to wake your co-skipper

Whether you’re racing or cruising double-handed, you need to work out a system between you. You have to look at when and where the critical moments of the passage are likely to be coming up. For example, for a sail change, a manoeuvre or approaching a headland, you know you’re both going to need to be awake. So your downtime is when you’re straight line sailing.

Once the boat is settled and there’s not much to do, one of you can get your head down. You just need to agree that actually waking somebody up is fine. Anything that can be done more efficiently with two of you, that’s when it’s okay to wake up the other person.

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