You are headed into rough weather and thinking to yourself that you’re not going to get much sleep in the next few days. You’re rightfully concerned about the strength of the rig, the aspect of the vessel in relation to the storm-tossed waves, the safety of the crew, and any of a number of things that can go wrong when the storm hits.
If the storm lasts three days, can you stay awake the entire time? What if it lasts through a fourth day? Will you still be making clear-headed decisions? When faced with the possibility of a lack of sleep, planning ahead is the difference between a safe boat and one commanded by a captain with greatly reduced mental and physical capacity.
The typical adult in good physical condition can stay awake performing physical and mental labor — pumping the bilge, navigating, discussing options with the crew, changing and repairing sails, etc. — for 18 hours before the ability to make decisions is significantly impaired. Specifically, efficiency drops by 67 percent after 18 hours of this type of activity, according to a study (“Ultrashort sleep-wake patterns and sustained performance,” 1989) by sleep researcher Dr. Claudio Stampi.
Your body can theoretically keep going for three days, but by that time you might think you’re functioning when you’re really not. That length of time without sleep is too much to expect from yourself and is dangerous for the boat and crew.
The takeaway, then, is that even in stressful situations like a storm, the captain of a vessel needs to find time to rest and get any sleep they can. A boat in a storm, for example, needs a leader who can think as effectively as possible in order to guide the crew.