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The Art of Sleep

Anyone who has sailed across an ocean in a small sailboat will most likely understand the concept of this blog. To all others I will try to explain this phenomenon.

To really grasp this concept, one must imagine trying to sleep while the rest of your whole world is in motion. Depending on the point of sail and the weather, sometimes that world is in a constant steady rocking motion akin to gently rocking a baby to sleep and conversely often it is more like being inside of a washing machine trying to sleep during the ‘spin cycle’... a challenge at best. And, to further complicate this issue, one must understand that no matter what... for safety, someone has to be ‘on watch’ all the time; i.e., one of the crew has to be awake, alert and at the helm (driving the boat) 24/7, regardless of weather or time of day.



To address this, seafarers developed a watch system wherein each day is divided into equal segments and each crew member is assigned duties in those segments. This watch system or schedule became known to mariners as the Swedish Watch System. On Nepenthe’s 1974 Pacific Ocean crossing with 4 crew members, our skipper Dave Killian set it up to be ‘2-on, 6-off’ (2 hours on-watch and 6 hours off-watch). This meant that for each crew member sleep was vital in order to be able to maintain vigilance and alertness while awake. During the daytime, if one crew member whose turn it was to be ‘on-watch’ was tired or sleep deprived he could catch a quick ‘cat-nap’ while another crew member could stand watch in his place. However at night, especially late at night or in the wee hours of the predawn morning, the man on watch was usually all alone at the helm and the safety of the ship and crew was solely in his hands. For this reason... he had better be fully alert, wide awake and ready for any contingency or emergency during his 2 hour shift at the helm. In order for this to happen, a crew member only has 6 hours ‘off-watch’ in which to do whatever including resting up or sleeping. At night one can’t dilly dally around too long because you’ll be back on watch before you know it and you’d better be ready!


I discovered that ‘sleep’ as an art form was a way to explain how we were able to get to sleep and stay asleep in extreme conditions. As sea and weather conditions worsened, the degree of difficulty to even get to sleep in the first place increased dramatically, not to mention staying asleep. Sometimes you were seemingly ‘upside down in a corner’ in your bunk as the boat pitched and yawed in angry seas. You had to be able to position your body to move in sync with the motion of the boat... being one with the boat! My sleeping quarters consisted of an upper pipe berth bunk on one side of which was the inside of the fiberglass hull of the boat and the other side was open to the main salon below. To keep from falling out into the main salon when the boat was heeled over, we installed a rolling canvas which is a piece of canvas cloth that runs the length of the bunk and is attached from the side of the bunk to the ceiling above. This allowed me to roll into the supported canvas without falling out of bed. Because I’m rather short, I was able to wedge myself solidly in between the hull and the rolling canvas perpendicular to the direction of the boat thus being in a more stable position in the turbulent seas. Wedged in this position, I was truly ‘one with the boat.’


Now that I was in sync with the motion of the boat, the actual position of my body was the next part of the art form. This was known as ‘po-sish’ (your perfect sleep position)... and once you get into that position (po-sish), you almost fall asleep instantly. That means every part of your conscious body, from your eyelids to your toes are in po-sish.



Another component of this art form is what we called ‘the drool pillow’. On Nepenthe, Willie and I, the two most ardent proponents of the Art of Sleep, discovered that the introduction of a small pillow that one drools into unconsciously while asleep provides a scent of familiarity into the equation of the perfect sleep position that magically seems to enhance the rapidity of the act of falling asleep. This combined with the wedging of one’s body into po-sish so that you’re ‘one with the boat’ and in sync with it’s movement creates the situation most conducive to not only falling asleep but staying asleep in order to gain that rejuvenation required for your next watch.

Wedged in this position, I was truly ‘one with the boat.’

To define your perfect sleep position is very personal and requires an introspective analysis of your physical condition; i.e., what’s wrong with you physically and what ‘pre-sleep’ physical position can you get yourself into where that particular ailment or those maladies are at least tolerable or mitigated to the point where they are not the focus of concentration. Then hopefully total relaxation can occur and one can get back to that perfect po-sish spot. It’s not easy, but it is definitely doable with a little practice even in the worst of sea conditions.


Back in the 60s and in that era of enlightenment as described in Paramahansa Yogananda’s book An Autobiography of a Yogi, it is the concept of Om that I believe best describes the most important component of the Art of Sleep. In a nutshell, that is a meditative focus to one’s soul to bring total relaxation of each conscious part of one’s body. So, simply put, these four components: being one with the boat, po-sish, the drool pillow and Om are the foundation of The Art of Sleep... and it usually works.


However, if all else fails a little cannabis added to the equation helps...

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