Sleeping at sea
Spindrift for Schools

BY  DONA BERTARELLI

I WANT TO THANK ALL OUR PARTNER SCHOOLS, IN FRANCE AND SWITZERLAND, AND THE 2,000 STUDENTS WHO ARE FOLLOWING US. WHENEVER I CAN, I WILL BE ANSWERING YOUR MANY QUESTIONS THROUGHOUT THIS JOURNEY AROUND THE PLANET, A JOURNEY THAT WE ARE TAKING TOGETHER TO DISCOVER THE WONDERS OF OUR WORLD.
WITH ALL THE CREW OF SPINDRIFT 2, THROUGH OUR OBSERVATIONS AND OUR ENCOUNTERS, NOT ONLY WITH MARINE LIFE, BUT ALSO WITH THE ISLANDS AND PENINSULAS THAT WE PASS, WITH THE METEOROLOGICAL PHENOMENA WE EXPERIENCE, AND WITH THE BIRDS AND THE STARS THAT ACCOMPANY US DURING OUR VOYAGE, WE WILL HELP YOU TO LIVE THIS ADVENTURE, LIKE PHILEAS FOGG IN JULES VERNE’S FAMOUS BOOK. WE ARE CALLING OUR SPINDRIFT FOR SCHOOLS SERIES - OUT OF THE CLASSROOM.

Questions from Pergaud Saumur school (France) 

For more than two weeks we have been sleeping for three hours, then working for five, then sleeping for another three, and so on.

So, did we do any special training to achieve this? No, we don’t do any onshore preparations for this sleep pattern. The work on board is so physically and mentally demanding that after a few days at sea, your body quickly adapts to the conditions. But sleep is not be taken lightly, and we keep a close eye on each other’s fatigue levels. Things can get complicated if the sailing conditions are tough and the watch schedules get messed up, such as when there is more than one manoeuvre in short succession requiring the entire crew on the deck.

A few years ago while preparing for the Figaro single-handed race, Thomas (Rouxel) found out that when a sailor, or for that matter any person deprived from sleep, gets extremely tired and goes for a nap, only the body benefits from the rest. It requires longer periods of sleep for the mind to recuperate.

Sleeping well, eating well and avoiding illness – even professional sailors can suffer from seasickness – are essential for the balance of our bodies, enabling us to maintain a sustained pace for several weeks without a drop in performance. Tiredness does build up, however, and once you’re back on terra firma it takes a few days, or even weeks, to fully recover.

The benefits of sleep

Sleep is an effective remedy against many of society’s problems, including stress, anxiety, lack of energy, moodiness, weight gain and headaches. Research has also shown that 7 to 8 hours of sleep in adults can reduce the risk of heart problems, strengthen the immune system, increase one’s pain threshold and have a positive effect on relationships with people.

Sleep is essential to our well-being, so how do we manage 45 days at sea in an often hostile environment if we only sleep for three hours in each five hour period?

I like to think that we live like many migratory birds and seabirds, such as the swift, the frigate and the albatross, which sleep in relatively short cycles while they fly. These birds feed in flight and can travel hundreds of miles without ever landing. Swifts congregate in groups and sleep in a circle while being carried by temperature inversions. Frigates, meanwhile, rise to almost a mile above sea level, spread out their huge wings, and immobilise their bodies, bringing their heart rate right down.

This scientific knowledge should help to strengthen measures to preserve this unique biodiversity and to establish the first management guidelines”, explained the the Director of Natural Heritage Conservation for the French Southern and Antarctic Lands and chief of mission during a 2011 expedition, Cédric Marteau, in the journal Science et Avenir.

But these recent findings still do not provide all the answers to this mystery.

Two theories exist. The first, is that the birds are able to alternate between sleeping with one half of the brain and sleeping with the other. In other words, one hemisphere of the brain is asleep while the other is awake. The other theory is that they can switch rapidly between a sleep phase and being awake.

What is certain is that they can have effective ‘sleeps’ in just a few seconds,” says Yves Handrich of the Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien, which belongs to France’s National Scientific Research Centre, the CNRS.

Hypnosis

Swiss researchers have shown that the positive impact of hypnosis on sleep quality is surprisingly big.

My friend Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss doctor, psychiatrist and aviator, will shortly attempt to circumnavigate the globe by plane fuelled only by solar power (Solar Impulse), and will use self-hypnosis to manage stress, fatigue and sleep deprivation and to maintain his stamina levels while remaining alert.

Like migratory birds, Bertrand is able to separate his mind from his body so that he can stay focused on the measurement devices and commands, even while he is resting.

In flight, I won’t be able to have a continuous sleep lasting several hours, so I’ll have to have ten 20-minute phases a day. The plan is to use hypnosis to fall asleep more quickly each time and to wake up in better condition. I’ll use the technique at times when, even though I’m tired, I’ll need to stay awake for unpleasant tasks, such as controlling the plane if the autopilot fails. The aim, in this case, is to achieve a “time warp”. Thanks to hypnosis, hopefully these difficult or boring times will fly by!

Perhaps some day in the near future these techniques will be more accessible and more common, within and outside sport, so that we can have shorter sleep phases that are more restorative and effective.

On average, humans spend a third of our lifetimes asleep. Perhaps one day, like the swift, the frigate and the albatross, we will be able to visit the wonders of the world while we are asleep.