Can You Sleep While Sailing?

Sleep is one of the most important factors in your health. If you go on an extended voyage, it would be very hard to be safe if you weren’t able to sleep. Those on single-handed voyages must take on a whole new sleep schedule to sail as safely and comfortably as possible.

Can you sleep while sailing? Yes, many people will sleep in 20-minute intervals when they’re in higher traffic areas near ports. They can sleep around 3-6 hours when they’re crossing over oceans far from the coastline.

When you are only sleeping in 20-minute intervals, it is very hard to get the deep sleep that your body needs for restoration. For this reason, you cannot expect to do this for an extended period of time.

The extended sleep periods are very important for your overall health, but these can only be taken when you are in areas very far away from the coast and other boats.

20-Minute Sleep Periods While Sailing

There are a couple of different approaches to this problem. One of the ways a sailor can travel long distances that are also far from the coast is to sleep most of the night and some during the day.

You will sleep in 20-minute periods. This can easily be done with an alarm that rings every 20-minutes. Every time it rings you will get up and check the horizon, rest the alarm and try to fall back to sleep.

Another way to execute this method is to set a 22-minute alarm cycle, and every ring you get up and check around for 1-2 minutes. This will limit your time to check around the boat or the horizon, but you don’t have to keep resetting the alarm.

Many people that you meet will run this system. There have been reports of some people doing 10-minute alarms, and others will just blackout and sleep without checking anything. We wouldn’t recommend either of these methods as the first is too tough, and the second isn’t safe.

Sleeping at Night While Sailing

There is another approach that is a lot more relaxed and is usually used when you aren’t in a hurry. You also get the added benefit of being fully rested for the last 48 hour stretch of your journey. You will need to be alert because this is when you will encounter the most traffic.

During the day, you will sleep 3-6 hours at a time, and when night falls, you drop all sails, hoist 2 red lights vertical and 2 black balls, lastly set a large drogue. This is the symbol for “Not Under Command.”

You can be prepared by having these hoists ready to go, so all you have to do is raise them up the backstay with a mainsail topping lift. A power cable will come off and get plugged in. This will take mere seconds to drop or set.

You will essentially stop in the water. Even if you move slightly, it is close enough to alert all nearby vessels that you are not making way, and there is no current navigation.

This should only be done in the mid-ocean, so make sure you sail about 100 miles off of a coastline instead of simply port-hopping. If you see any traffic around you, this method shouldn’t be used because there’s a much higher chance of problems.

Once you start approaching these higher traffic areas near the port, you should switch to 20-minute intervals, which won’t be too bad because you have a lot of sleep banked up.

If things really came down to it, many people can go up to 40 hours without sleep before they start seeing hallucinations, and their judgment is greatly clouded. This could easily be detrimental to you and your craft, who knows what you could see and how you could react.

Try to arrange your routine around, not needing to be awake for long periods of time. It has historically been the case that those who lacked sleep, along with strong convictions to make it to harbor, have sunk many times.

How Do Single-Handed Sailors Sail at Night?

Depending on where they are at, these sailors can either use the 20-minute interval to sail at night, or they can effectively “deaden” their ship so that they move slightly but are able to get a lot of sleep.

It is also a good idea to steer your boat further offshore, so you have fewer encounters with boats. You should always test your equipment as well to make sure you can trust your alarm and radar. It is also imperative that you have plenty of warm clothes on hand and that you have a head torch that can be used in the dark.

If you’re sailing with friend who has his/her own vessel heading towards the same direction, you can then position yourselves so that you follow the same heading just 200 meters apart from each other. You will effectively “open” up the path for each other while the back person can sleep.

How Hard Is It to Sleep on a Sailboat?

If it is your first journey, it will probably be pretty hard. Some can sleep very soundly on a sailboat. If there are strong gales, it will be significantly harder, especially when you are single-handed, and you’re running the boat under bare poles.

If it takes a soft mattress, a super quiet environment with lots of room, then it will be pretty hard to sleep on your boat. You may need to eventually experience fatigue to finally get a good rest.

For many people, the light winds will be one of the hardest parts of sleeping, but others have said that when it is dead quiet, it can be very eerie out on the water, and your wild imagination will keep you awake.

To fix this, you should turn on the engine and run it just above the tick over. You will be motor sailing even though the light wind will be enough to push you along. The constant hum of the engine can help you sleep better.

The general population prefers some background noise, and this may be because it signals security and safety from when we were in the womb.

Many parents have taken this fact to the next step. If their kid is crying for no reason and can’t fall asleep, they will take them in a car and drive around for a while until they fall asleep.

Modern Navigation

Make sure you don’t set your waypoints to chartnav or GP. This will lead you to converge with boats around the UK, and you may also hit seamarks and buoys.

You should never use shoal marks as a tracking point when you’re trying to make a turn before you reach it. If you’re tired, you can easily not make this turn.

Waypoint safety must be considered for modern navigation practice. Those who are sailing by themselves must especially keep this in mind because they will be more tired than others.

Make Use of the AIS Radar

Most boats come equipped with AIS radar. This will give you a warning whenever you start approaching other boats. This can only be successful if the boat you’re approaching also has an AIS radar equipped. Nevertheless, it is another good safety measure that can save you from a wreck.

The Takeaway.

Sleeping can definitely be done; it is an absolute necessity when sailing alone and is one of the most important aspects to take into account when on long trips. Most of your sailing should revolve around your sleep schedule that you choose to incorporate.

These methods will allow you to not only be alert when you need to but will also allow you to get the well-deserved sleep when you can.

Remember that a lot of things can go wrong on a solo voyage. Make sure you have a satellite phone and a good first aid kit in case you run into problems.


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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