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Mistakes from fatigue can put you at risk

I remember hearing about a couple in their late 50s to mid-60s who decided to follow their dream while they still could. They sold their home, put some of their more precious and sentimental belongings in storage, and bought a boat.

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They'd sailed San Francisco Bay for years and were competent sailors. Then they took off on their adventure of a lifetime. The problem was that they had never been out of sight of land -

really out of sight of land. Not prepared for the phenomenon of being cut off from the familiar, they eased their boat back east until they could glimpse the California coast.

There was a problem. The prevailing winds are westerlies and that placed them off a lee shore. They knew their position was potentially dangerous, so they kept their watches. The stress of being off a lee shore and starting their adventure took its toll. Emotionally, they were incapable of making an offing beyond the north-south traffic patterns.

They soldiered on, but lack of sleep - restful sleep - caught up with them. They lost their boat, their savings and, perhaps worst of all, their dream. Despite eating properly, fatigue caused by fear-induced stress and lack of sleep had them running on empty. Fatigue robbed them of their dream and almost their lives.

A friend of mine - a fine seaman and excellent sailor who has switched to power - had prepared his 27-foot British cruising sailboat for his first solo passage to Bermuda. Retired, he worked tirelessly to ready the boat for the voyage. His boat was ready and able to go. He, however, was not.

In his rush to beat hurricane season, he neglected to prepare himself. As soon as the boat was ready, he cast off. He didn't give himself time to acclimate to the motion of the boat. He'd sailed her for years, but in this instance he didn't even sleep aboard at the dock before taking off. He went into the standing waves off the east end of Long Island, N.Y. The combination of rough water and light wind on the nose forced him to motor, and he exhausted more than half of his limited fuel capacity.

Moving farther east to make more of an offing from Long Island would have eliminated the problem, but he was tired and his thinking was not as sharp as normal. Like his boat, he, too, was running on empty.

Fortunately, he was sharp enough to realize that he was in trouble. He made an intelligent choice: abort the passage to Bermuda. After resting in the Great Salt Pond of Block Island, R.I., he sailed the New England coast, which, in my opinion, is a greater challenge to seamanship than going to Bermuda. Fatigue did not become an issue because he recognized the symptoms and exercised proper judgment.

Fatigue is different from drowsiness. Drowsiness is the feeling that you need sleep. Fatigue is a lack of energy and motivation. Drowsiness and apathy can be symptoms of fatigue. Fatigue can be a response to physical exertion, emotional stress or lack of sleep. Allergies, depression, grief and a host of other things also can bring about fatigue.

I once suffered from sleep deprivation for several days - or was it more than a week? To this day, I don't know the duration of my ordeal. After several days without being able to sleep, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. That was an extreme situation, but it shows what can happen when fatigue sets in.

Regardless of the cause, it's not a good thing to be suffering from while boating.

Fatigue can put you in harm's way. It can cause you to make mistakes, and even small mistakes have a way of cascading into major problems on a boat. Relax. Your Type-A personality is what enabled you to afford a boat in the first place. Have the good sense to take advantage of your opportunity.

You can avoid fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating well and keeping a low-stress environment. Normally, time afloat is a low-stress environment, though not if you are psychologically, physically or emotionally not ready to be on the water.

For me, spending time on the water is relaxing - except, of course, for the occasional bout of bad weather, or a tricky entrance to a harbor at night, or berthing or getting under way under difficult conditions. I learned the wisdom of waiting for improved conditions whenever possible. So can you.

If fatigue is chronic despite attempting to sleep and eating properly, etc., it may be time to see a doctor. Get your rest and try not to put yourself under stress. In particular, don't cruise to a tight schedule. Avoid running on empty, enjoy yourself and stay safe.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.