Watchstander Fatigue – Sleeping on Watch

Sleeping on watch

The Shipping Gazette has an interesting article on a study conducted by World Maritime University that shows 73% of mariners admit to having fallen asleep on watch, at least one time. The article also asks if adding another person to the watch would help solve the problem. Here’s some of the story:

Onshore research in industries and in the traffic environment shows that fatigue is a safety issue, particularly during the night. Fatigue and sleep deprivation do not only contribute to the increased risk of accidents on a short-term scale. There is also evidence of long-term health effects with an increased risk of cardio-vascular problems, an already over-represented health problem among seafarers. The mind is also affected, leading to stress symptoms, lack of concentration and memory degradation.

The Fatigue at Sea study contained an onboard study and a simulator study. 29 deck officers participated in the onboard study, representing both the two-watch and the three-watch system. In the simulator ten seafarers sailed the two different watch systems for six days in a simulated environment as close to reality as possible.

…The analysis of the data from monitoring the activity level and sleep efficiency has not yet been completed. Preliminary results show that sleep efficiency is around 75 per cent for officers in the two-watch system and 79 per cent for officers in the three-watch system. The findings are low, according to Mats Gillberg at the Karolinska Institute.

“Sleep efficiency should be around 85 to 90 per cent to be considered a good sleep. The values we found here are equal to what we see among people with sleep disturbances”.

There is a discussion on the topic, and some disbelief, over at the Ship Spotting Forum. My take… I would say the study is accurate. I have fallen asleep once on watch as a young third mate, not something I will ever forget. It happened during a 00-04 anchor watch in calm weather, and I was alone for the watch. This is a dangerous situation but I think there is one omnipresent problem more dangerous than an accidental nap in calm weather; motivation.

I’ve found the problem with being tired is that it’s much harder to complete the everyday tasks that are essential to a safe watch. It might be forgetting to take every fix or deciding not to take the extra steps you might if you were awake and bored. It’s difficult to make yourself take the extra measures to ensure a safe watch and what tasks you do have the motivation to tackle take longer and are more difficult.

Mariner fatigue is a major problem and one that this captain now wishes he managed better. Read the rest of the Shipping Gazette article HERE and take a look at a pilot’s POV HERE.

John A. Konrad, Master Mariner

John Konrad is a USCG licensed Master Mariner of Unlimited Tonnage currently working as Chief Mate aboard a 865′ ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Since graduating from SUNY Maritime College he has sailed in 4 of the worlds oceans and reports from his ship via satellite.