In the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, How Does the Crew Sleep?

A natural question from anyone who does not race under sail on the ocean might be, do they sleep on those boats? The simple answer is yes. And no.

They don’t sleep well.

On the fastest boats in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, the crews count on covering the entire 628 nautical miles in a day and a half. Sacrificing a good night’s sleep is nothing compared with the bragging rights of competing. However, “Sleep is a weapon,” said Christopher Lewis, navigator on LawConnect, a 100-footer that recently won the Australian Maxi Championship, and is expected to race starting on Monday.

While the rest of the boat’s crew divides into scheduled watch groups to alternate between sailing and sleeping, pressing ahead day and night, Lewis, as navigator, will plan catnaps around weather forecast updates, radio schedules and transition points on the course.

Any time he has done his work and might reasonably hope conditions will stabilize for a bit, that’s an invitation to sleep. Perhaps it’s never enough, but he said, “Whenever I have to force myself back up, I ask, ‘do I want to sleep, or do I want to win?’”

Chances are, Lewis will have a warm hotel bed his second night after leaving Sydney. Life is different on smaller, slower boats. Most sailors on those boats will be out three days and nights or more. There are well-established strategies for structuring work and rest. Three hours on watch and three hours off is a popular system, applied aboard Shane Kearns’ 34-foot White Bay 6 Azzurro. But as a veteran of 18 races to Hobart, Kearns, the skipper and owner, has his own version of the three on, three off.

“The boat’s interior is small,” he said. “It doesn’t work to have three people pulling on their gear at the same time.” So, on his boat, he changes out one person each hour for a three-hour watch. He added, “There are advantages as well, because we never have three groggy people taking over from three tired people. When the new guy comes on deck, he has time to get dialed in.”

Kearns knows that it takes time to orient — especially if it’s day two or night three — crawling out of a bunk after three hours off watch, with less than three hours of sleep, perhaps wedged into a bunk with a spare sail.

And there is a lot behind that word, orient. The breeze could be up or down from the way it was before. The forward sail might have been changed. The seas could be driving in from a new and awkward direction, slapping the hull, nudging the boat off course and making hard work for the person at the helm.

Steering at night, the goal is to note the compass direction, then pick a star and aim for that. The rudder must be worked with alert finesse, no more than necessary; too much input slows the boat. And stars move across the sky, so your lodestar from three hours ago will no longer do. Only when all of this is taken in is the new watch stander prepared to join the fight.

Kearns said he was a 25-year veteran of the Australian Army, where he learned plenty about sleep deficit.

“They’d make us work all night, then test what we could do,” he said. “You can’t ask that of civilians.” As skipper, Kearns has responsibilities that cut into his three hours of time off. That’s his normal. Twenty-five years in the army, remember.

And Kearns can tell you what happens when it all goes wrong. He raced in 1998, the year a storm claimed five boats and six lives.

“When the storm hit, the watch system fell apart,” he said. “With six people aboard, we kept two in the cockpit and four below, so at least we knew where those four were. But they weren’t sleeping. Dog-sick and thrown around too much for sleep is more like it. Thirty-six hours later we were becalmed off the Tasman coast, not a breath of wind.”

And that, he might have added, is how the breaks go in yacht racing. At least it’s a good chance for someone to catch up on sleep.

Then, different again, there is the two-handed division, introduced last year, in which Martin Cross will be racing with his son John. But there are ironies.

“It’s called double-handing, but you’re really sailing single-handed and then turning the deck over to your other single-hander,” Martin Cross said. “The only time we’ll be on deck, two together, will be at the start and finish.

“We’re planning three-hour watches, but if I’m feeling good, I might give John a little extra time in the bunk and vice versa. We know for sure we’ll both be tired.”

This will be the first two-handed Sydney Hobart for the father and the first one for the son. Martin Cross once thought he might sail with all three of his sons, “but babies got in the way,” he said.

Martin and his son scheduled training around John’s work, but both have ample ocean experience, and they’ve done enough as a twosome to have stories.

There was that race aboard their 33-foot Transcendence Crento where Martin Cross said that his sleeping son had to “swim up from the very deep.”

“I was literally screaming at him, and it wasn’t until I shook him hard that he came to,” he said.

In racing two-handed, Martin Cross said: “The one advantage we have is that we are allowed to use an autohelm device. We don’t have to steer nonstop.”

The autohelm, or autopilot, can often perform as well or almost as well as a human, and better than a fatigued human. That allows the person on watch to adjust the sails as the wind changes, make inspections and repairs, prepare meals, wash dishes, navigate, consider strategies and check the time to see how much longer till he’s finally off watch.

While father and son don’t expect to spend time together during the race, the time spent visualizing the race, planning the race, prepping the boat and sailing short races is a collaborative adventure. “It’s a great bonding experience for both of us,” Martin Cross said. “John and I are closer now than we’ve ever been.”

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