Polyphasic sleep: management solo, watches double-handed and crewed


Polyphasic sleep management when sailing single-handed is one of those aspects that terrorises each and every sailor who has not yet sailed by themselves. It is not a simple subject to deal with and requires plenty of practice. It is only with time that we learn how to manage polyphasic sleep both single-handed and short-handed. Obviously the two are quite different. However, the basic principles that are at the basis of the single-hander’s sleep management, are useful in determining watches when sailing double-handed.

Polyphasic sleep management – fundamental principles

In order to understand the difficulties in managing sleep we have to take a step back. When we are born we sleep and wake regularly to breastfeed. Our body isn’t in fact programmed to stay awake for the whole day and sleep during the whole night. It is between birth and the age of 4-5 that we learn how to sleep like an adult, but we do so going against nature.

Sonno polifasico di un roditore
Polyphasic sleep in a rodent

Observing the behaviour of a newborn growing tells us lots on what are the natural cycles of polyphasic sleep. In ancient time humans were already used to sleeping at night and hunting and gathering during the day. However if we think of our ancestors living in caves their sleep was probably a series of naps. It was important to be able to react quickly in case of an attack from predators.

If we go even further back, we didn’t even have the protection of fire. Before we learnt how to control this element, humans certainly couldn’t afford to take a long night-long sleep. In fact it has been demonstrated that our DNA is not wire for such behaviour. The management of polyphasic sleep for our ancestors was a matter of survival. The management of polyphasic sleep in modern times is on the other hand totally related to social organisation. Homo Sapiens’s sleep management is the only exception in the animal world, among mammals, having changed from polyphasic to monofasic (only one sleep phase at night, rather than several sleep phases during a 24 hours period).

Nessun mammifero dorme tutta la notte, solo alcuni uccelli
No mammal sleeps an entire night, only some species of birds do.

How a newborn can disrupt our routine

When we observe a newborn and we think of humans before the discovery and control of fire, we notice how polyphasic sleep and alertness are totally unrelated to day-night cycles. A newborn does not sleep more or less during day or night, this creates a lot of disruption in the habits of a parent otherwise used to monophasic sleep. It is the mother, often, to pay the worst consequences, especially if breastfeeding and having to wake up repeatedly whilst not being used to it.

Sonno polifasico: come cambia il sonno dei bambini crescendo
Polyphasic sleep: how sleep patterns change as children grow up

Sleep cycles in a newborn just match their stages of sleep and wake, nothing more. The duration of each phase of sleep during their polyphasic sleep initially does not goes past two hours. Growing up however the newborn will start skipping some of their moments of wake at night, giving us a full 3-4 hours of sleep. This change slowly brings about sleep that is defined as semi-monophasic. During the day the newborn may by contrary skip one of the naps and stay awake a little longer. Progressively a child may only wake up once a night, but still need an afternoon nap.

It is towards 3-4 years of age that the afternoon nap is often lost. Children of this age start to concentrate all their sleep during a single phase during the night. The exact age can vary considerable from child to child. After 4 years of age our little ones are the best of sleepers and can easily clock 11-13 consecutive hours of night sleep without ever waking up. It is important to understand that it is the child that has adapted to the surrounding world, to parents sleeping at night. Ancestral instinct would have the child carry on sleeping in naps in a polyphasic sleep pattern.

Sleep management: monophasic and polyphasic

A baby that alternates sleep and wake during the whole day follows a pure polyphasic sleep pattern. “Poly” simply means multiple, a sleep in many phases. At the beginning, much to the desperation of the mother, the polyphasic sleep pattern is perfect. That is, the child not only will naturally wake at night but may stay awake and play at night before falling asleep again. Many parents know full well how disruptive this is and yet how normal and natural it is too.

Progressively polyphasic sleep becomes purely monophasic. It will all start with the child finnally skipping some awake time at night and sleeping fewer naps during the day. When night time sleep becomes predominant we speak of semi-monophasic sleep.

Sonno polifasico e monofasico
Polyphasic and Monophasic sleep

As a toddler grows up goes through many changes, walking and talking as well as adapting to monophasic sleep. Eventually the child may stop altogether even the habit of an afternoon nap, in this case it is important to ensure they are still getting enough overall sleep hours, and it is important to fully understand where that nap came from in the evolution of their sleep pattern.

Day-night cycles

You would probably think that a person under experimental condition would follow some sort of cycle linked to the 24 hours duration of a day on earth. In fact it has been demonstrated that our natural cycle under controlled conditions is of approximately 25 hours. This is defined the primary circadian cycle. I leave it to the curious to find out more about this aspect which is somewhat less important to our needs. It was studied by Claudio Stampi during his participation in the Whitbread and during Ellen MacArthur‘s round the world record attempts. In absence of external factors humans would tend to increase their sleep-wake cycle to up to 36 hours, however we are digressing here.

Ciclo cicardiano primario (25h)
Primary circadian cycle 25h

Then, there is a secondary cycle within the primary circadian cycle defined simply secondary circadian cycle. Our feeling of tiredness or alertness is typically associated with specific time of the day. Every helmsman that has been at the wheel in a deserted cockpit just before sunrise knows well how difficult those hours can be. This is because our body is fighting against the natural circadian cycle that brings a heavy desire to sleep. Another such example is of the circadian cycle is the desire to nap in the afternoon still part of normal culture, the siesta. This tradition is almost universally lost due to the organisational needs of modern society, but it’s function was very clear and dictated by circadian cycles.

 Minore efficienza nel primo pomeriggio

Lesser efficiency in early afternoon

In its natural cycle, 12 hours after the low point which occurs at night, our body experiences a secondary low point in the afternoon. It is important to note that this has nothing to do with daylight. The ability and possibility to sleep when our circadian cycle demands it would be fantastic. Unfortunately it is not compatible with modern life which requires we are awake all day. However when we get older and we get out of the normal working hours patterns and purely monophasic sleep pattern slowly breaks apart and progressively we return to a semi-monophasic or purely polyphasic sleep which is normal in old age.

Il passaggio dal sonno monofasico a quello polifasico
The passage from monophasic to poliphasic sleep

The single sleep cycle within polyphasic sleep

Not all sleep is the same, this is a cardinal principle to understand sleep management for the sailor. When we go below deck, we dont fall asleep instantly, we go through an adaptation phase. The moment we fall asleep, our sleep becomes progressively deeper. We take approximately 20 to 25 minutes to enter deep sleep which peaks at around 40 to 50 minutes after falling asleep.

Sonno polifasico - turno di riposo - Global Ocean Race - Sergio Frattaruolo
Polyphasic sleep – rest time – Global Ocean Race – Sergio Frattaruolo

After reaching the peak of deep sleep, we return progressively towards a state of wake. During the night we think we are sleeping uninterruptedly all night long, in fact we sleep a series of cycles. From deep sleep, after another 45-50 minutes, from a cerebral activity point of view, we are awake. This is the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase during which we dream. If we were to be woken up at this moment we would feel quite fresh and ready to go. So a whole sleep cycle lasts approximately 1h 20′ to 1h 40′. This is the total time from falling asleep to reaching the first REM phase which occurs after deep sleep. To become an expert in managing polyphasic sleep, you must learn how long is your typical full cycle.

When conditions allow, single handed, short-handed or fully crewed, we should try to sleep one or more cycles during the day. The time spent in our bunk should be a multiple of the each cycle and must include the time to get comfortable and fall asleep. If we include the time spent going below and taking our foulies off we should aim at a minimum 2 hours for any given attempt at sleep. When sleeping a full cycle is possible we should sleep at least one cycle at a time, wake up, do our routine checks then sleep again. There are conditions when however we cannot sleep a full cycle and we will look at how we can substitute polyphasic mono-cycle sleeping with napping.

Short-handed sailing sleep management

By short-handed we refer to the typical double handed race. There are various strategies to manage watches. A lot depends on how two co-skippers get on well and their level of preparation in respect to polyphasic sleep management. My piece of advice is that the less you know each other the more the rules must be strict. Two co-skippers that have sailed many miles together on the other hand can use much looser watch systems.

To give some practical examples, when I sailed with Paul Peggs, we didn’t have fixed watches. We had already sailed together at the Round Britain and Ireland as well as many other training miles. It was also quite evident that I had a propensity for being awake at night. On the other hand Paul didn’t like nights, especially as he likes spending a lot of time at the helm. On the other hand I dedicated a lot more time to the study of the weather and the optimal route. Therefore, during my watches I used mainly the autopilot and helmed only for pleasure or need. This ultimately led to me during more night watches on average.

Paul Peggs alla barra - Global Ocean Race 2011/2012
Paul Peggs at the helm – Global Ocean Race 2011/2012

This flexibility also meant that each would quite freely declare when we were tired and could sleep accordingly. Going to sleep when you feel tired is much more efficient than having to stick to a given schedule so that ultimately you need less sleep. The natural alternation still meant there were times when we were both awake and those were the times to discuss the strategy for the following hours. When one was asleep we tried to wake the sleeper only if strictly required for manoeuvres in tricky conditions or when in turn feeling tired.

Don’t miss the sleep train

Managing sleep freely like Paul and I did is a luxury. It solved many problems but laid its foundations on the total reciprocal trust. I tended to cover most of the night but Paul worked hard at the helm during the day and we knew that we could ask for a watch change at any point in time. This approach however requires that both are used to single-handed sailing, carrying out most manoeuvres solo, and a good knowledge own needs. Sailors with lesser experience struggle to adapt because they are required to disrupt their habits. Much like a parent dealing with a newborn no longer allowed to chose when to sleep.

Paul and I had respectively also sailed many miles single-handed and knew our needs. When we felt our body was calling us for much needed rest we knew we didn’t have to “miss the sleep train”. In the management of polyphasic sleep, when tiredness calls you must to your best to go to sleep. “Not missing the sleep train” is an expression dear to Claudio Stampi, world guru in sleep management for sailors. We therefore have individual sleep cycles that fall within a secondary circadian alertness pattern which is part of the primary circadian daily cycle. We can certainly learn to recognise the two circadian loss of alertness moments before sunrise and in the afternoon and plan, wherever possible to catch some sleep then.

Breaking habits

Unless you know your co-skipper very well, like in the case of Paul and I, I always recommend fixed watches in all other situations. With a co-skipper that is less used to the transition from monophasic to polyphasic sleep it’s important to break the ordinary habits earlier on. The person with less experience will struggle to sleep during the day until totally shattered or might be unable to keep a decent course in the middle of the night when the circadian cycle strikes. The more expert skipper usually has a tough time dealing with this situation and must be smart and prevent trouble by anticipating his sleep as early as possible and giving the co-skipper time to adapt.

Quando la stanchezza si fa sentire
When tiredness becomes a struggle.

In many respect you could say that a newborn is the best training that can be envisaged for a solo sailor. Breaking monophasic sleep pattern is what is required to become a solo sailor.

A single-handed sailor on the other hand will already have gone through this disruptive process of his own habits. Even though once we return ashore we return to a monophasic sleep pattern the memory remains. Most of all we have learnt how to listen to our body, recognising the stages of wakefulness and tiredness. We learn how not to wait too long when sleep calls, when we just collapse. We learn in fact how to manage polyphasic sleep.

How to switch to polyphasic mode

During your first solo races, the switch from monophasic to polyphasic sleep can be very hard. It can take up to 3-4 day of adaptation, this effectively means that for shorter races you never even get to see the benefits. During longer races on the other hand, after the third or fourth day we will notice that our body has adapted. We no longer feel the same impulse for sleep as direct correlation with day and night.

Non perdere nessuna opportunità di riposarsi
Never passa a chance to rest

Especially at the beginning falling asleep sis hard, this in mainly due to anxiety. However we have to start somewhere to reach our goal. The first step is to go below deck, find a comfortable position and force ourselves, with the help of a timer, to keep our eyes shut for at least 10 minutes. At the beginning we won’t fall asleep, however it is proven that even keeping our eyes shut provides some level or rest for our brain.

After these 10 minutes we can go and check our course and sail trim and try again immediately. Always use a powerful alarm, initially you won’t see the point as you struggle to fall asleep but eventually you will need it. At the beginning you won’t fall asleep and go into deep sleep. Attempt after attempt magically you will open your eyes and wonder “did I sleep?”. Perhaps you had a small dream or something doesn’t quite make sense in your thoughts. You probably briefly stepped into a REM wake phase of sleep. You were not fully asleep but came close. Next, before you know it, you will indeed fall asleep and won’t wake up without an alarm.

Power naps in polyphasic sleep management when sailing single-handed

When you learnt how to fall asleep when single-handed the hardest work is done. It is here that the proper “management” of polyphasic sleep comes into play. How long and when to sleep? Here we have to make some distinctions and realise that the answer depends on the type of boat, the weather conditions and the area of navigation. If we sail through busy waters, or we have the kite up with a breeze it’s unlikely that it is safe to sleep much. In a vast open Ocean far from fishing boats, on a steady beat we can certainly take a completely different approach and recharge our batteries.

OSTAR - Marco Nannini - British Beagle
OSTAR 2009 – Marco Nannini – British Beagle

When we can’t sleep much we must make the most of an important aspect of polyphasic sleep. The first 15′ of sleep are the most restorative of the entire sleep cycle which as we said lasts approximately 1h 30′ as a whole. If we can’t sleep a whole cycle we have to sleep exactly 15′, no more. Some perfect this art and discover their power-nap time is 10′, 12′, 15′. This depends entirely on our body and we must get to know what is the length of our perfect power nap. This is wired in our DNA and dates back to those ancestral times when we cat-napped to be always alert against predators.

Cats would in fact be the best sailors, they like nothing better than many small naps. For us, on the other hand the art of power napping must be learnt, as there is a huge difference between a power nap and a hole sleep cycle. What we must avoid at all cost is to allow ourselves to fall asleep and reach deep sleep then wake with an alarm, it can be dangerous, we may not even recognise where we are, we must give ourselves the time to come out of deep sleep. So, we must sleep around 15′ or around 1h 30′ any other combination requires care.

When and how much to sleep when single-handed in busy waters

When sailing solo the rule is that you must never miss a sleep window. If you are too stressed to sleep close your eyes and rest them. As lont as we navigate in busy waters or in shifty wind conditions, power naps are our only possibility. We need a minimum of 4 hours total sleep in any given 24h to retain a sufficient level of efficiency and, I may add, sanity. So if power naps is all we can do, we have to somehow schedule and allow for at least 16 power naps. It needs careful planning and no opportunity must be wasted.

The less experienced sailor typically will wait for the first night for the first sleep. Soon he/she will realise that they can’t catch up with sleep. When the nightime circadian cycle strikes it will be a moment of extreme struggle. Those with more experience will be wary of the fact that they should try to throw in some naps, or at least lie down and rest as early as possible after the start. The memory of the monophasic sleep needs breaking, but resting in your bunk is a first step. After some time, with the sailor being increasingly tired, the first power naps will provide some respite.

OSTAR 2009 - Marco Nannini - La gestione del sonno su 22 giorni di navigazione

OSTAR 2009 – Marco Nannini – 22 day crossing time

Once we enter a polyphasic sleep management state it’s crucial that we don’t forget to sleep whenever we can. If our attention is not required we’d better sleep as we never know what can happen. If the situtaion does not allow for longer sleeps we can try to catch up with sleep by squeezing 2-3 power naps in the same hour, waking up to check course and trim.

Sleep management in open waters

In long distance ocean racing, I took the habit of fixing a waypoint somewhere on the edge of the continental shelf. I would pick the point where the sea bed passed rapidly from few hundred meters to thousands. This is because that’s typical (with some exception) the limit reached by fishing boats as there is limited types of fishing that takes place in deep waters. Once off the continental shelf we only have to deal with commercial traffic and other competitors.

Commercial traffic and those of other competitors can easily be monitored with our AIS. Unfortunately during short races many sailors switch off their AIS, this is really unfortunate but tends to be less frequent in short-handed events. Once we are in less busy waters, with a good AIS alarm we can hope to switch from power naps to pure polyphasic sleep. When conditions allow, the wind is stable we can sleep our first full hour and a half! It will fill like luxury. I know of a few sailors, especially those of multi-hulls and namely Ellen MacArthur who never transitioned from power naps to polyphasic sleep management, but I think the majority of sailors will confirm they use a combination of the two techniques.

Sonno polifasico - l'importanza di dormire per l'efficienza

Polyphasic sleep – the importance of sleep to preserve performance

Every time we have the opportunity, we will sleep a full hour and half cycle. We can repeat this several time in a row after checking everything around us each time. After 2-3 days of sailing in commercial shipping, surrounded by fishing boats, with competitors still close by, we will need to recuperate our energies and this switch is crucial.

Polyphasic sleep management when sailing double-handed

We looked at the example of two sailors that know each other well. Paul and I could arrange our watches as we pleased and this was more an opportunity than a problem. With two skippers that don’t have much experience sailing together we should use fixed watches. The first option is to alternate ever 3 hours. The skipper in charge should try not to wake up the resting co-skipper, unless necessary.

When you wake your co-skipper bear in mind they may be in deep sleep. Don’t rush things and always give a few minutes to the waking co-skipper before manoeuvring. 3 hours on 3 hours off works quite well if there’s disparity in experience between the two sailors, the less experience skipper can be “corrected” within 3 hours. Clear instructions must be left but things might change and the least experience skipper may not make the most of the changing conditions, making the watches longer can be detrimental to racing performance. It is a rather tiring watch system but the best performance wise.

If the two skippers are capable of reacting to changing conditions and are both experience then i prefer 6 hours on 6 hours off. A 6 hours shift sounds quite long, especially at night, but the opportunity to sleep for example 3 full cycles (4 and a half hours) is golden. This also leave the time to manage other necessary activity such as checking weather, changing clothes, eating.

Sleep management when fully crewed

If we are fully crewed the options are many. If you rotate on two team my choice would fall again for 6 hours on 6 hours off. The faster 3 on 3 off pattern we saw for double handing is often impracticable fully crewed. This is because we have more people moving around and the risk is that not everyone will get enough sleep. We can therefore make it a quite common 4 on 4 off or even 8 on 8 off. It is for the skipper to decide. If the second in command is totally equivalent in experience that you can consider 8 on 8 off, if not, for the reasons explained before 4 on 4 off may be preferable.

Sonno polifasico - Route du Rhum - 21 giorni di navigazione in solitaria

Polyphasic sleep – Route du Rhum – 21 days single-handed