A Beginner’s Guide to Sleeping at Sea

Posted on November 30, 2021 by Annika Lassen

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Foto: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa

Written November 28, 2021

Adaptability is key when attempting to do anything on a ship, and sleeping is no exception. Berths aboard are about six feet long and not quite tall enough to sit up in. The first step, when attempting to get some sleep aboard, is to take the bulky emergency life vest that takes up so much of your small storage space, and stuff it under one side of your mattress so that it tilts towards the wall. This puts the mattress on such an angle that it wedges you between it and the wall. This gives you some hope of staying put, and not rolling around in your berth. There is a flip-up wooden board along the edge of the berth entrance that should be latched in the “up” position, so that you don’t get launched from your bed with the ship’s rolling and heaving. However, this only extends about five inches above the mattress, so it is always a good idea to then take the fabric flap attached to your mattress and tie it up to the ceiling so that the opening to your berth is now completely closed off, and there is no way you could tumble out in the night. When going to bed, which, if you are on the 2-4am watch like I am, happens around 1930, you may get a false sense of security if, as you retire, the sea state is calm and there is little movement. Never count on this condition continuing. Ensure you still follow the above procedures, or you will likely have a rude awakening on the floor five feet below your berth a few hours later. Trust me on this one.

Sleeping is not the only activity that requires you to counter the movement of the ship. Walking becomes something between a stumble and a dance. Going up and down stairs or even opening and closing doors requires some substantial effort to avoid getting hurt. One hand for you, one hand for the boat. Always. Keep an eye on your food, especially your drink or soup, or you’ll end up cleaning it off the floor. With university courses to attend, backshaft (chore) duties, and four hours of watch a day one must also adapt to limited amount of sleep. Eventually, your stomach and ears stop fighting about whether you are moving or not and adapt as well.

One of the more interesting things an English speaker must adapt to on the Alex-II, however, is sailing in German. Conversations and basic instructions may be conducted in English, but any official commands and all the parts of the boat are, without exception, spoken in German. At first it can be quite the challenge, but like anything on board, it becomes familiar and instinctual with time.

I believe that was what this first leg of our journey was all about… adapting. Merging school with sailing, Alex-II with Classafloat. And I realize that with all the adjusting I am working hard to accomplish in this new and sometimes intense environment, I must also remind myself not to take anything for granted. I don’t think I will ever get used to the dolphins playing in our bow wave during almost every sunset. The stars on night watch will never get old. And for some reason, I’m still surprised in the morning when I come up on deck and see a horizon of water completely surrounding me. Every time there’s a call for someone to help furl sails or fix ratlines up in the rigging I want to go up, and I still get excited when it’s announced that we are bracing the yards or setting the sails. I don’t want that to stop. In five months, I hope that my competence and confidence around the ship will have increased, but I don’t want the sense of wonder surrounding my life and work here onboard to ever change.