Fatigue and sailing

Fatigue -“25% of all ships caused 51% of marine accidents and one reason behind these accidents is seafarers’ fatigue at sea!”

According to a survey conducted in Great Britain, there are sound scientific reasons why the sea makes people feel better. Apart from the nutritional properties of seawater itself, the ocean provides a variety of other health-giving elements you can benefit from. The research showed that the sound of waves alters wave patterns in the brain, lulling you into a deeply relaxed state. Also, if you go swimming, floating in water means blood is diverted around from your lower limbs and pumped towards your abdominal region. Fresh blood being pumped around the body brings more oxygen to our brain which makes us more alert and active. And if you’ve ever wondered why we always sleep more soundly after spending the day sailing, it’s because of the sea air. Sea air is charged with healthy negative ions that accelerate our ability to absorb oxygen. Negative ions also balance levels of serotonin, a body chemical linked with mood and stress. Which is why after a sailing holiday you feel more alert, relaxed and energised.

When we’re on a boat, the heat of the sun affects our endocrine system – the part of our body which secretes endorphins – the natural chemicals in our body designed to make us feel relaxed and less stressed. So if we are happy, relaxed and full of oxygen it is no wonder that while at sea we are more prone to fatigue. Fatigue is a term used to describe an overall feeling of tiredness or lack of energy. It isn’t the same as simply feeling drowsy or sleepy. When you’re fatigued, you have no motivation and no energy. Being sleepy may be a symptom of fatigue, but it’s not the same thing. Not getting proper rest before going boating (or when driving a car) can lead to serious lapses of judgement and accidents. How many of us have had the shock of just spacing out and suddenly saw another boat or car they just completely missed, or the road sign they overlooked? For those making long passages (as well as casual day sailing), proper rest and breaks are vital. Even spending a few hours on the water can lead to fatigue. Crew positions and the helm (driver) should be rotated regularly with one of the “positions” being a rest position to help reduce fatigue. The summer heat can lead to dehydration if a person is not careful and stays properly hydrated (drink the proper amount of water as the day goes on). Or a person can drink a single beer when they are dehydrated and unexpectedly find that the alcohol went straight into their system and they are now having trouble standing up. While driving and at the helm, distractions such as texting, using your cell phone or turning to talk to another person on the boat and no longer paying attention to what is happening outside the boat can lead to accidents. The almost constant sometimes subtle movement of recreation vessels while underway can also lead to fatigue as your muscles never quite relax all the way and lead to general tiredness that can slow reaction time and alertness. Both mental and physical fatigue can sneak up on a person and they will not be fully aware of how badly they are being affected reducing their awareness of what is going on around them as well as reducing their ability to react to sudden events, the reduced awareness, can dramatically reduce the powers of observation, concentration and in the end judgement. People on the boat need to take responsibility for watching their crewmates for signs of fatigue or impairment. The reduced judgement ability can lead to poor decisions at a point when you are the least able to deal with problems, being alert and able to look ahead and use good judgement is critical to not having an accident.

Some factors that can contribute to fatigue and reduced awareness are:

  • Operating in extreme temperature weather conditions both hot and cold
  • Eye strain from sea spray or glare from the sun
  • Movement of the boat requiring extra effort to hold on or maintain balance, even movement of the boat when you are in a seat with side rests can be very tiring if the motion is large enough
  • Stress
  • Noise
  • Sun, heat or glare
  • Not in a good physical condition
  • Lack of sleep
  • Boredom, the 1,000-yard stare as some people refer to the look, make an extra effort to move around a bit and turn and look all around you and around the boat, the movement can help to prevent boredom
  • Wind and rough sea conditions
  • Rain or snow
  • Vibration from the boat’s engine

Remember to keep warm in cold weather and cool in warm weather, drink an appropriate amount of the proper liquids on warm days to help prevent dehydration. Drinks with alcohol in them are not a good idea, on warm days the effects of alcohol can be multiplied when a person is dehydrated.

Some symptoms of fatigue are:

  • Mental confusion or judgement errors
  • Inability to focus or concentrate, shortened attention span
  • Decreased motor skills (hands feet or whatever just don’t work quite right)
  • Decreased ability to sense the environment around you, hearing and seeing.
  • Increased irritability, short temper
  • Decreased performance
  • Decreased concern for safety, taking chances they would not normally do

Everyone from the captain down to the deckhand, junior member of the crew or guest on a boat needs to take responsibility for preventing and recognizing fatigue.

Preventative measures are:

  • Adequate rest, get a good night’s rest and don’t get drunk and show up with a hangover in the morning
  • Dress properly for the weather, don’t forget the sunscreen
  • Rotate duties and assignments so nobody gets bored, this also helps cross-train the crew and helps the entire crew understand the other jobs on the boat and improve their skills
  • Have appropriate food and refreshments for the boat and the conditions
  • Watch your fellow crew members for signs of fatigue and bring concerns to the attention of the proper people so any problems can be dealt with before the concerns become a real safety issue.

Working in an isolated and confined environment (ICE) can be challenging for the psychological functioning of employees. Simultaneously living and working in the same confined environment, restricted social contact and isolation from family and friends, and the inability to leave the work-place for prolonged periods are some of the stress inducers. Stressors facing seafarers are receiving increased attention. In addition to those mentioned above, several important aspects of seafaring have been highlighted. For example, noise within the vessel, vibration caused by the engine and motion caused by harsh weather are all known to be significant stressors. The motion of the vessel can lead to a disorder known as the sopite syndrome: a symptom complex that includes, among other things, drowsiness, lethargy, apathy, disinterest and disinclination to work, lack of participation in group activities, sleep disturbances, and mild depression. A more general state of mental or physical fatigue is also a known risk factor of working at sea. Seafarers perform a large variety of duties around-the-clock, such as maintenance, navigation, and cargo handling, activities that often take place under time-pressure and hectic activity. Watch-keeping and critical operational activities that frequently take place during the night require long and irregular work hours. As a result, the circadian rhythm and normal sleep patterns of the seafarers can be disturbed, which in turn can lead to poor sleep quality and fatigue. 

Surrounded by good people and supported by those ashore makes for a happy ship. So go out, enjoy sailing and be careful.


  1. https://captnmike.com/2016/06/03/dead-tired/
  2. Sleep and Fatigue Among Seafarers: The Role of Environmental Stressors, Duration at Sea and Psychological Capital Sigurd W. Hystad*, Jarle Eid
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