Dead Tired – Tips For Preventing and Dealing With Fatigue On The Water

Mariner Fatigue by Lou Vest (Click HERE to read the story behind the photo)

Mariner Fatigue by Lou Vest (Click Here to read the story behind the photo)

Tired, lack of sleep and environmental stress factors (sun, heat, cold, vessel movement) are often overlooked by recreational boaters as well as professional mariners and this can contribute to accidents on the water.

A person who has been awake for 17 hours faces the same risk of a crash as a person who has a BAC reading of 0.05 g/100ml and those who are awake for 24 hours will have a driving performance similar to a person who has a BAC of 0.1 g/100ml. – Adelaide Centre for Sleep Research

If being tired is equivalent to being drunk – why does shipping culture equate working hard with not resting?

With all of the studies that have been done on fatigue in the past 80 years, it would make sense to have a consensus about how much rest is necessary to avoid it being a contributory factor in accidents. The only result that is seen time and time again is that fatigue can be catastrophic.

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 on a regular basis with one of the “positions” is a rest position to help reduce fatigue.

Most boaters also underestimate the effect of environmental stress factors such is the sun and the glare off the water as well as the constant movement of small boats.  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.  I have seen times when a single 12 oz. beer when drank by a person that was quite dehydrated from the sun and heat caused the person to behave as they were drunk and had trouble walking and standing up.

Partying too much the night before can also impact judgement and make a person more susceptible to motion sickness (sea sickness).  I used to travel as part of my job and if I did not get a good nights rest the night before traveling, sometimes I would be a bit nauseated on the airplane the next day.

While driving and at the helm, distractions such as texting, using your cell phone or turning to talk to another person in the boat and no longer paying attention to what is happening outside the boat can lead to accidents.

A few years ago I was sailing with some friends just outside the Shilshole Marina when we observed a small power boat with four people on board on a collision course with us.  By looking at them we could tell they had not a clue about what was happening around them.  We were able to pinch up and took their stern by less than a boat length and they never saw us, they were the give way vessel.  We thought about sounding a horn to get their attention but thought that the sudden noise might startle them and cause them to alter course into us, so in the end we let them hold their course in oblivion.

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 a 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 crew mates 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 good physical condition
  • Lack of sleep
  • Boredom, the 1,000 yard stare as some people refer to the look, make an extra effort to more 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 quire right)
  • Decreased ability to sense the environment around you, hearing and seeing.  You plain miss things going on around you, I have seen people that missed large large freighters or other boats operating in their area.
  • Increased irritability, short temper
  • Decreased performance
  • Decreased concern for safety, taking chances they would not normally do

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

A few preventative measures are:

  • Adequate rest, get a good nights 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 own 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.

Many times I have been on boats and volunteered to trade with someone on a job or take a job over when a person showed beginning signs of fatigue or when a person had been doing a job for some time.  Some vessels have a rotate after no more than an hour at any given job, shorter times in bad conditions.

Please see 2014 Boating Accidents & How You Can Reduce Your Risk Of Having An Accident for more suggestion for improving your safety on the water.

Read the full article on sleep deprivation and vessel operation at

Thanks for your interest in and support of Boating Safety.

 – c / m –

This entry was posted in Boating Safety, Safety Thoughts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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