How do solo (long distance) sailors sleep?

I understand quite a few people have sailed solo across the Atlantic and some even around the world, so; Who drives while they sleep? I realize that some craft probably have a sort of “autopilot”, but it seems to this non-sailor that merely maintaining a compass heading wouldn’t account for wind changes (don’t you need to keep the sails at some optimal angle to the wind?). Is the ocean so empty that the chance of a collision is negligent (just hit the sack and hope for the best)?

While we’re at it, how do they keep food cold? Is there some sort of water-driven generator providing electric power?

Thanks in advance for satisfying my land-locked curiosity.

I wrote a lenghty answer before realising that I have never sailed “solo” and was basically talking out of my ass, based on my experience as a “proper” fisherman. :wally

Oh, the ocean is so empty that the chance of a collision is negligent and you don’t have to cool dried and canned food.

UselessGit - Epitomising uselessness since 1979.

Yes, negligent…There is little to no traffic even in main shipping arteries across most oceans to have to worry about collision…Though not unheard of (John Kennedy andhis PT-Boat) it is never the less a rareity.

Yes most sailboats have a generator, or they power off the motor. You are not talking about a pure sail boat are you…one that is motorless? I wouldn’t dare cross an ocean without power…I know it’s been done, several times…but I wouldn’t do it.
I live in a coastal community here in Connecticut, where several residents have circumnavigated the globe solo. It is funt o listen to their stories when they get back.

As for the Original Post…most moderately equipped sailboats have an autopilot. But some do not…and they usually are not under sail when they are sleeping…some sail at night and doze during the day as well. Usually calmer waters are at night.

IANAS But from reading I know that they have auto pilots, and alarms in case a problem arises. Also they use an alarm clock to wake up every few hours to check things out, and when your life depends on it you are a very light sleeper. There are known shipping lanes that could be a problem, so therefore you would chart your course to avoid the higher congestion areas. I think most boats have at least an auxilary generator to supply current for modern conveniences.

You sleep very lightly and very little, with one ear listening to your radio at all times.

The winds on the open ocean tend to stay steady for miles and days. There are well established zones where the wind tends to blow in the same direction at about the same speed for months at a time. Look up “trade winds” and “westerlies” to find some charts which can explain this.

Once you establish your tack an autopilot can keep you on your heading for the longest time. You do need to be somewhat alert to a sudden squall but oceanic winds do not shift around the way land winds do.

The ocean is big enough and most commerce stays in established shipping lanes, so as long as you are not trying to cruise through the Sunda Strait asleep you have little to worry about. Commercial vessels (all vessels actually) are required to keep a watch, so if you have a good radar reflector (sort of reversed stealth technology to make you appear as a much larger radar image) you should be reasonably safe. If a container ship does run you down, no one will ever know. Many small craft are lost each year leaving no trace.

Keep food cold? Silly. You bring supplies which do not need refridgeration. You can run a small generator from a wind turbine to keep your batteries charged, but that power is better used for navigational equipment and lights than for a fridge. I find that using a diesel engine to run the generator works well, and the purists be damned, I will motor into a harbour or out of a calm if need be.

In the book Tinkerbelle, Robert Manry described his 1965 solo voyage across the Atlantic in a 13.5 ft. boat. His answer was:

  1. He had an automatic sailing mechanism – basically a line to hold the tiller steady and others that automatically trimmed the sails. This kept the boat going while he slept.

  2. The ocean is indeed pretty empty, so he stayed out of the main sea lanes and didn’t worry about collisions. However, in the early part of his voyage near NY harbor, he did stay awake a day or so until he was clear of the sea lanes, since NY is a very busy port. He described how he hallucinated during that period due to the lack of sleep.

  3. I doubt he brought any cold food – just dehydrated stuff and water.

Normal electronic autopilots are not much use for long distance sailing as the actuator uses a lot of electrical energy - you’d need to run the engine often and/or fit more solar cells than practicable. On the few sailing yachts that I have been on (in the 30-42 ft LOA range) that were fitted with an autopilot we had to ration the convenience of using the autopilot even on 2-day legs. An autopilot is very convenient because a long trick at the wheel is a test of concentration, even with quite low waves.

What a lot of long-distance sailors use is a wind vane type self steering system that steers not a compass course but a certain angle with reference to the (apparent) wind direction. This does not need electricity.

From what I have read about solo races the sailors habituate themselves to short naps of maybe 15 minutes, but that seems to be less due to the danger of collision, more because they need to adjust the sails to every slight change of wind (e.g. when it drops from force 11 to a measly 10…)