11 Expert Tips for Sleeping on a Boat in the Ocean

Written by William Porter in Sailing Guides

Getting sleep offshore isn't just a comfort issue, it's a safety issue. Tired crew makes mistakes, and it's easy to use poor judgement when you're not mentally sharp. Offshore, you can't just drop an anchor and sleep, and a boat in motion is a noisy, tippy thing.

So what can you do to make sure you and your crew get the best sleep you can? With a little planning and setting good habits, you can make sure everyone on board is sharp and ready.

Only you know your body and what works for you, but here's a list of a few tips that can make the difference by keeping your crew mentally sharp.

  1. Optimize watch schedules
  2. Use lee cloths
  3. Get a sleep mask
  4. Use ear plugs (with care)
  5. Sleep across the bed
  6. Have instruments handy
  7. Manage seasickness
  8. Avoid caffeine
  9. Set a routine
  10. Reef early and often
  11. Avoid the V-berth
  12. BONUS TIP - Heaving To

Why Getting Sleep on Passages is a Challenge

Sleeping on a boat in motion is worlds different from spending a quiet night at anchor. When you're offshore, you can't stop, and you need someone awake on watch to be safe. It's worse for solo sailors even, but any watch schedule is going to break your time up into chunks and limit opportunities for long blocks of sleep.

Things which mess with your sleep include:

  • The constant motion of the boat.
  • Noises. Whether it's creaks and groans from the hull or when the engine or generator is running, a boat in motion is a noisy place down below.
  • Watch schedules, especially on short handed vessels.
  • Temperature and weather.
  • Other crew moving around and sailing the boat.

If you are someone who needs everything "just so" to sleep, you're going to have to make adjustments. But it will be a change for everyone, unless you're used to broken up sleep and being awake at all hours.

Optimize Watch Schedules

The watch schedule is probably the top driver of getting good sleep. There are many schools of thought on how to do it, but the goal of the watch schedule is to get everyone some sleep while keeping someone awake in the cockpit all day and night.

Obviously, the more people you have on your boat, the easier your watch schedule is to make for good sleep. Cruising as a family, we had two adults and two teenagers, and we all shared watches. For family watches, we divided up the night time into a set schedule, but we were more loose during the day since someone was always up. My oldest took 9:00pm to midnight, one adult took midnight to 3:00am, the other took 3:00am to 6:00am, and my youngest came on just before dawn and watched until others started waking up.

You may do better with a fixed schedule for all 24 hours, and that may be best when crewing with people you don't know well. But there are a few key takeaways to a good watch schedule.

  • Work around people's strengths. I always stay up later than my wife, and she liked to see the sun rise. So I'd take 12-3 most times, and she'd take 3-6.
  • If you're planning all 24 hours, try to get everyone at least one six-hour block off watch. That's difficult with two people, but with three or more crew you can get some quality sleep in with longer chunks of time.
  • Let people swap shifts if they need to. If someone is tired and someone else isn't, it makes little sense to force the watch to the schedule.

Use Lee Cloths or Boards

A lee cloth can turn a bunk or settee into a more comfortable sleeping space, especially if you're heeling. The lee cloth (or board, if your boat has them like ours does) holds you in your berth, so you can sleep without getting rolled out when the boat shifts.

Set them up before you leave, unless they're quick and easy to deploy, because you won't want to be rigging them up when the boat's on an uncomfortable tack.

Get a Sleep Mask

A sleep mask was a game changer for me, especially for catching up on sleep during the day. Even at night, it blocks out all the ambient light which might disturb you. Most boats aren't that dark. In our case, sometimes my wife would come in to use the head in our room or come get more warm clothing, and as careful as she was with a flashlight, it would wake me up. With the sleep mask, she can turn the lights on in the cabin and I don't notice.

Daytime sleeping to recover from night watch is common offshore, and a blackout mask helps get better, deeper sleep when it's sunny and bright up above.

Use Ear Plugs (with care)

Like the sleep mask, blocking out noises helps you get more solid sleep. But with one caveat - you need to make sure crew can easily reach you in an emergency. If there's only two of you on board, stuffing your ears outside of shouting distance can be dangerous if you're needed quickly. Sailing with just my wife, if I wanted to block my ears, I'd be sure to sleep in the saloon on the seats or settees where she could still shout loud enough to wake me.

But if you know you're not the first backup to the watch person, they can help a lot. Or if the situation is very benign. When we're motoring in calm conditions at night, there's little to go wrong, so that's a good time to block out that noisy engine to sleep. I prefer the soft foam type which you can't feel when you're asleep.

Sleep across the bed

Or pick alternate sleeping locations, depending on how the boat is moving. Sleeping while sailing upwind can be quite uncomfortable since everything slides down to one side of the bed, and high side sleepers can get rolled out of berths. In our aft cabin double bed, we just turn ninety degrees and sleep across the bed with our heads to the windward side. You still slide down the bed a little, but it's a lot more comfortable than having someone else sliding into you or constantly rolling back and forth.

There may other spots for good sleeping which aren't so great when the boat is flat, but work well when the boat heels. We have very comfortable chairs in our saloon which turn into great sleeping spaces on starboard tack. The tilted back seating is reminiscent of a ride in an Apollo capsule, but I've spent many hours sound asleep in these seats in full foul weather gear because it's more comfortable at twenty degrees of heel than the master stateroom.

The most comfortable place to sleep offshore on starboard tack upwind!

Dress Well

It gets cold offshore, even sailing to and from warm places. Dressing in layers is the key to comfort offshore, especially if you are transitioning from cold to warm climates. It also lets you peel down for sleeping in comfort, because you can stay warm in your base layers if you need to.

Your foul weather gear is important safety equipment, but it's not comfortable to sleep in. Unless conditions are dodgy and you think you'll be needed quickly, set them somewhere for easy access and get comfortable when you're off watch.

Manage seasickness

Seasickness is a topic unto itself, but managing it is important to staying rested offshore. If you can't go down below because it will make you sick, it's really hard to find a comfortable spot to get a good rest in the cockpit. And seasickness can make you sleepy, but sleep often helps sea sickness!

There are a few steps you can take to minimize your sickness, and everyone who is serious about offshore sailing needs to figure out what works for them, and try out some medicines to see what works for you, and how it affects you. For example, it took me a few trips to figure out that while taking a whole Stugeron 12-hour pill kept seasickness at bay, it also made me sleepy and made watches difficult. If I broke it in half and took that, it kept both seasickness and excessive sleepiness at bay.

The availability of various seasickness remedies varies around the world. Many of the medical remedies require a prescription, and you should take most of them before you sail. And not all medications are available everywhere. For example, Stugeron, our preferred remedy, is not available at all in the U.S. But you can buy it over the counter throughout the Caribbean.

A few other things we do before and during passages to help with seasickness include:

  • Avoid alcohol for at least a day or more before heading offshore. And we don't drink on passages.
  • Cut back on caffeine starting a week or two before we plan to leave. Coffee is acidic and can upset your stomach offshore.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Pick milder passage meals.

Avoid caffeine

This is tough for us, because my wife and I are both avid coffee drinkers. But we found that using lots of caffeine to stay awake on watches was counterproductive, since it can hamper your ability to get back to sleep when your watch was over.

One way we countered on-watch sleepiness this was good watch snacks. The energy (and small caffeine boost) from chocolate or other snacks was enough to perk you up, but don't keep you awake when the watch is over.

If conditions are good for it, there's nothing wrong with a cup of coffee offshore. But in rough weather, when no one wants to make coffee and it might make you sick, caffeine withdrawal is just one thing we don't want to deal with.

Set a routine

This works well for getting better sleep on land, too. But having a pre-sleep routine can help you to drop off to sleep when it's your time to sleep now, even if you aren't sleeping at your usual time because of the watch schedule. You don't want to lie awake for three hours of your four hour off-watch time!

So just like you might do on land, set up the same routine that you might use pre-sleep, whether it's brushing your teeth, dressing a certain way, reading for a few minutes, or whatever helps you get into "pre-sleep" mode easily.

Your routine should also include an assigned spot for your foulies, PFD, and tether. It makes it easier to sleep a little more if you aren't hunting around for your gear, never mind if there's an all hands emergency on deck.

Reef early and often

We found the best way to avoid "all hands" calls in the middle of the night is to set the boat up for the expected overnight conditions before it gets dark and people head to sleep. This doesn't work for racers, of course - they're pushing the boat for every knot of speed all the time.

But cruisers don't have this concern. If we're expecting the wind to pick up from 12 knots to the twenties and shift during the night, we'll rig up and be ready for those conditions before there's only one person in the cockpit. We've found it's better to lose a knot of speed for a few hours than to wake people up to make sail changes in the middle of the night.

Preparation in advance and expecting changes will make your trip less stressful, so taking a few minutes when it's light to make sure the preventers are ready to go and rigged before the wind backs at 2:00 a.m. will keep everyone happier.

Avoid the V-berth

The V-berth in a passage is usually a terrible place to sleep. It's loud at the front of the boat with the waves, and the motion is more pronounced and violent than anyplace on the boat.

It's just not a comfortable place to be, and you're better off "hot bunking" with other crew than trying to force someone to sleep up there.

Hot bunking is sharing a berth with someone else when they're not using it. This can be a formal arrangement worked into a watch schedule, or a "sleep where you drop" approach to picking beds. But reserving bunks exclusively isn't always optimal, if it forces some crew to sleep in very uncomfortable berths in poor conditions.

BONUS TIP - Heaving To

At the beginning of this article, I pointed out that you can't just drop anchor and sleep offshore. But you CAN stop the boat and make a comfortable motion, it's called "heaving to." The details vary for every boat, but it's a combination of back-winding sails and locking the tiller to windward that slows the boat to a slow crawl and stabilizes motion.

So, if your crew is getting beat up in rough conditions and everyone is bleary-eyed and exhausted, you can heave to and take a break. When you're hove-to, the boat's motion is gentler, the slamming and pounding stops, and the boat flattens. You don't move very fast, and you rarely move in the direction you need to. But it's a good way to take a time out and let everyone catch up on sleep and recharge to continue the trip.

Every skipper should know how to heave to on their boat. It's an important safety skill to have.

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