Can You Sleep While Sailing?

Can You Sleep While Sailing? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

August 30, 2022

Sailing trips can last multiple days—so how do you get your rest? Can you sleep on a sailboat, and if so, how do you sleep safely?

Most sailboats have cabins with sleeping quarters. While underway in the open ocean, sailboat crews sleep in shifts between two and six hours long. Single-handed sailors wake up briefly every few hours to check their heading and watch for other ships.

In this article, we’ll cover how to sleep aboard a sailboat in port and on the open ocean. Additionally, we’ll go over the safest ways to sleep during a voyage and how to make the most of limited sleeping space when sailing with others. Additionally, we’ll cover how to sleep safely at anchor.

We sourced the information used in this article from experienced long-distance sailors. Additionally, we researched traditional singlehanded sailing guides and sleep health resources.


Table of contents

Sailboat Sleeping Accommodations

All blue water cruising sailboats have sleeping accommodations of some kind. These vary dramatically between boats and even between models. The simplest sleeping arrangement found on sailboats is a flat surface of an open cockpit, where a sleeping bag can be laid out for overnight anchoring.

However, the vast majority of cruising sailboats have enclosed cabins. The smallest cabin sailboats have a V-berth in the bow, which is a triangular bed where one or two people can sleep comfortably. Many others have additional sleeping spaces, such as a bunk underneath the cockpit that’s accessible from the cabin.

Under-cockpit berths, which are partially covered but open at one end to the cabin, are common on boats 25-feet in length to 35-feet in length. Other vessels have central sleeping areas as well, and areas that convert from dining or sitting space into sleeping space.

Older sailboats have much more spartan sleeping arrangements. Vessels with limited cabin space and low cabin height often used pole berths, which were essentially canvas cots strung up between two iron poles. Though uncomfortable, these berths are secure in rough weather and fold out of the way with ease.

Hammocks were once common on sailboats and are occasionally used to this day. Ship hammocks are not wide and rigid like garden hammocks. Instead, they’re usually narrow canvas bags with rope on each end and sway along with the boat, which (counterintuitively) can actually keep you stable during rough weather.

Is Sleeping on a Sailboat Comfortable?

It depends on numerous factors, but sleeping on a modern sailboat is generally comfortable. You can always add a foam pad to the top of the factory mattress if it’s too hard or have it redone to be more comfortable.

Weather is the primary determining factor when it comes to comfort. It’s more comfortable to sleep on a sailboat during cold days, as most sailboats have heaters of some sort aboard. However, sleeping

Is Sleeping on a Sailboat Safe?

Sleeping on a sailboat can be safe—and it’s completely necessary on longer voyages. But how and when can you sleep on a sailboat safely? The answer depends on several factors, including weather and sea conditions, the size of your crew, and your location.

How to Sleep on a Sailboat

Sleeping on a sailboat in port is no problem—and requires no further explanation. Lots of people do it for lots of reasons, including convenience and to save money. However, things get a bit more complicated at sea.

Most sailors (single-handed or otherwise) don’t sleep long hours. Instead, they break up a full (or partial) night’s sleep into two or more blocks, which are divided by working and eating. Here are the most common ways crews sleep aboard sailboats.

Sleeping in Shifts

If you have a crew, it’s pretty easy to find time to sleep safely. Each person can sleep in shifts, which keeps someone on watch all the time and in all conditions. On smaller boats where sleeping space is limited, people can “hot bunk,” or utilize a single bed at different times.

The larger the crew, the longer you can sleep. Shifts of six or eight hours are easily accomplished with three or four people on a boat, as shifts can rotate every four hours, and there will always be someone waking up at the time when a shift ends.

Sleeping on Single-Handed Voyages

If you’re sailing singlehanded, you won’t have the luxury of long uninterrupted sleep. Open-ocean sailing provides some flexibility, but you’ll still need to wake up periodically to check your heading, speed, and surroundings.

Many single-handed sailors sleep in two or four-hour blocks, interrupted every hour or two by a brief look around and heading check.

Why do Sailors Sleep Short Hours?

Long-distance singlehanded sailing requires careful attention and navigation. The sea is vast, and a small change in course can have an enormous impact down the line. As a result, sailors need to constantly plot their course on a chart to confirm their heading and reach their destination on time.


As we mentioned previously, navigation at sea is complex and requires careful attention. This is especially true on boats that aren’t equipped with a GPS-guided autopilot. Sailors must plot chart points and keep track of speed and heading to reach their destination.

Standard autopilot systems and traditional headsail-rudder self-steering systems work, but they need periodic attention to maintain the proper course. An hour or two is a reasonable amount of time to leave these systems unattended in good weather conditions—but eight hours is far too long.


Safety is a key concern and a major reason why sailors need to wake up so often. The good news is that, under most conditions, all you have to do is pop your head through the hatch and look around. No ships? No problem—at least for a while. At slow speeds, a clear horizon buys you some time before you have to look again.

However, it’s essential to continue looking out. Collisions on the open ocean happen frequently, and small sailboats are the guaranteed losers in most scenarios. Cargo ships have a turning radius of several miles, and they physically can’t get out of the way.

However, small boats can get out of the way and are expected to. Large ships may not even know you’re there, so a collision is a definite possibility. Warships are encountered occasionally as well, and these vessels can fire on small boats that get within their arbitrary safety perimeters.


Barometers can change on a dime, and so can weather conditions. Waking up to check the weather equipment can keep you out of dangerous situations, especially when storms are avoidable. Gails usually don’t come out of nowhere either, so careful observation is essential to avoid being caught with too much sail up.

Additionally, a sudden decrease in wind speed can slow you down without proper adjustments, so it’s best to wake up periodically and make sure you’re rigged in the most efficient way possible.

Managing Your Health on Short Sleep Shifts

Health is a major concern, as irregular sleep can cause issues with memory, alertness and increase your susceptibility to illness. However, there are several strategies you can use to minimize the impact of a wacky sleep schedule. But first, here are some of the hazards associated with short-shift sleeping on a sailboat.

  • Reduced alertness
  • Increased chance of falling
  • Forgetfulness
  • Poor decision making
  • Reduced reaction time
  • Navigational errors
  • Accidental Oversleeping

Your body can adapt to some extent, and it will get easier as the trip progresses. Eventually, you’ll wake up naturally every hour or two as you train your body through repetition. Additionally, you’ll be able to get deeper sleep in shorter periods—as long as you don’t skip regular short naps to catch up.

Avoid using stimulants in excess. It may be tempting at first, but too much caffeine or other substances can skew your new sleep rhythm and compound the effects of sleep deprivation (such as anxiety). Additionally, don’t break your rhythm even if you can get away with it.

How to Make Sleeping on a Sailboat Safer

There are several ways to make sleeping safer on a sailboat, whether single-handed or with a crew. The first and most obvious is to train yourself before setting out, so your body naturally wakes up every couple of hours without an alarm. However, always setting an alarm is a great way to ensure you’re covered.

Additionally, you can install a radar system aboard your sailboat to alert you to the presence of other vessels. Radar like this has a sleep setting that will sound an alarm if your course crosses the path of another vessel or if a collision is imminent.

Radar is especially helpful if you use shipping lanes during your voyage. Most sailors are surprised with how often they see cargo ships on the open ocean, and you should always assume that the bigger ships have the right-of-way.

Also, you should always sleep near your VHF radio—and leave it on. On the off chance that a vessel approaches, they may notice you first and call over the radio. Apart from the welcome greeting on the open ocean, radio communication can help you easily maintain a safe distance and allow the larger ship to pass without incident.

Additionally, other ships can provide you with valuable information about weather conditions and confirm your charted location or help you correct your course. A large ship can also provide a report from its powerful radar to alert you of distant traffic you can’t see.

Sleeping at Anchor

You can get a full night’s sleep at anchor, which is a major benefit of stopping in protected waters. However, even anchoring at night has its hazards, and there are a few things to do to avoid trouble.

First, make sure your anchor is set securely. You don’t want to drift if you can avoid it, as you could end up stuck on the rocks or in the open ocean when you wake up. To prevent drifting, be sure you have a large enough anchor—and the right type of anchor for the underwater terrain you’re staying in.

You must take additional care when anchoring in rough water or on windy days, as currents and wind compound the risks of dragging your anchor. Additionally, be sure to secure your anchor line properly to avoid stressing the boat or uprooting the anchor.

Be sure to anchor an adequate distance from other boats. Your boat should be able to swing 360 degrees around the anchor point with plenty of room to spare. Also, don’t be alarmed if your position is different when you wake up—there’s a good chance that the wind will rotate your boat at night.

Also, turn on your anchor lights and make sure you have sufficient power storage to run them all night. Check the lights every night and morning and keep spare bulbs on hand. This will help other boats to anchor safely and avoid hitting you in the middle of the night.

Some sailors advise sleeping in two blocks while at anchor. If you wake up four hours in, you can check your relative position to make sure you aren’t dragging your anchor. This will only take a moment, and you can go right back to sleep after.

Keeping cabin lights on is another helpful tip to avoid collisions. This will illuminate your boat further, allowing other vessels to clearly distinguish what direction you’re pointing in when the anchor lights aren’t so clearly visible.

When possible, tie up to a permanent buoy instead of anchoring. Buoys are secured by extremely heavy concrete weights. They rarely drag, and they’re a much more secure option for overnight stay. Additionally, buoys are always positioned far enough away from other boats (assuming you don’t use too much line to tie up).

Can You Sleep While Sailing?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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