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Fatigue, Hydration, and Nutrition

Adequate sleep and nutrition contribute to a crew that performs well on the job and in an emergency.

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Fatigue, Hydration, and Nutrition

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Jerry Dzugan and Susan Clark Jensen, 2018

Would you give up half of what you own for a pill that would allow you to get by with only one hour of sleep daily? This question, raised by Dr. Gregory Stock in The Book of Questions, may seem like the answer to the commercial fisherman’s dream. Unfortunately, no such pill exists.

Lack of adequate sleep is as much a part of commercial fishing as rough seas, sore hands, and black coffee. However, over the past few decades, increased competition, short openings, and large debts
have pushed fishermen to work around the clock. Working crews with little or no sleep may appear economically attractive but it can lead to serious problems. Tired people are careless, less attentive, less capable of making quick decisions, and a liability to themselves and fellow crewmembers. Hydraulic valves get turned the wrong way, hands go through blocks, fingers get cut by bait knives, boats run aground, knots get tied wrong, and gear or lives are lost.


Fishermen are athletes. Studies show that athletes that get only six hours sleep injure themselves at twice the rate of athletes that get eight hours of sleep. Adding to these problems, fatigue brought on by just four hours’ exposure to the noise, vibration, sun, glare, wind, and motion that occurs while on the water. The resulting fatigue slows reaction time as much as being legally drunk.

Extensive research has been conducted on sleep, partial and total sleep loss, and the effects of sleep deprivation on human performance. While these studies have found no cure for sleep deprivation other than sleep, they have led to a much better understanding of the problem and solutions that can be adapted to the fishing industry.

Effects of Sleep Loss

We all have an internal biological clock that establishes our daily rhythm of physical and psychological actions. Our bodies tend to want to follow this routine even when our normal sleep-wake cycle is altered.
Our alertness and stamina normally reach their daily low between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., when we are usually asleep. When we don’t sleep during these hours, our work performance bottoms out, the effects of sleep loss are amplified, and a large number of accidents occur. 

Fatigue is a factor in many vessel groundings and accidents. Commercial fishing vessel hard aground in Atlantic City, NJ.

Fatigue is a factor in many vessel groundings and accidents.

Researchers agree that sleep loss has significant impacts on physical, mental, and cognitive health. Routinely getting less than six or seven hours of sleep impacts the immune system, doubling one's risk of cancer and increasing the risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Studies show the less you sleep, the shorter your life.


Missing just one regular sleep cycle also causes a deterioration in your mood. We have a tendency to become more irritable, depressed, disoriented, and unable to concentrate. Sleep experts have found many links between sleep loss and performance that relate to fishermen:


  • Decision making and the ability to process new information deteriorate as a result of sleep deprivation. Skippers and crews constantly assess changes in weather, fishing activity, and vessel and crew conditions in order to safely operate their vessel. Research shows that sleep deprivation deteriorates the ability to process new information needed for good decision making.

  • New and complex skills are often more seriously affected by lack of sleep than simple tasks that are second nature. When you haven’t had enough sleep, the more troublesome skills are those that are longer, more complex, newly learned, or not well practiced. A wise skipper should keep an eye on new, tired crewmembers and recognize that learning new skills and knowledge is more difficult when sleep deprived.

  • As sleep loss increases, performance becomes more uneven. The poor performance that results from lack of adequate sleep is more likely to be sporadic than continuous. For fishermen, this means that a tired crewmember who is performing well and appears to be okay, may lapse into unsafe behaviors with no warning.

  • Sleep loss slows reaction times. Lack of sleep leads to slowed reactions, a dangerous situation when precision is needed to work with heavy equipment in rough seas.

  • Most people take 10 to 15 minutes to fully function after waking up. The groggy muddiness of mind that most of us feel just after we wake up significantly affects our ability to work. It is a wise practice to allow someone to wake up for at least 15 minutes before they take over a critical duty such as standing a wheel watch.


One of the major conclusions from sleep loss research is that the only sure way to completely recover from sleep deprivation is, you guessed it, to sleep. Five to twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep allows
most people to recover from even many days without sleep. You can take steps to minimize the effects of sleep loss.

Before an Opening
The 12 hours prior to a long period with no sleep—such as before an opening—should ideally be spent resting or sleeping to help minimize later problems. Prepare for an opening ahead of time instead of leaving all the details to the last minute. Then get some rest.

While Fishing
Anything that increases mental arousal, or enhances mood and motivation, improves job performance. This is especially true during the 2 AM to 6 AM lull. One tried-and-true technique for reducing boredom, and thus increasing work productivity, is periodic job rotation. The ideal situation is to cross-train the crew for all deck jobs so they can swap back and forth. Interesting jobs are less likely to be affected by fatigue than tedious jobs.

Good communication between the skipper and crew also improves work performance. Crewmembers need immediate feedback, both positive and constructively negative, on how they are performing, when their next break will be, etc.

Wake crewmembers at least 15 minutes before they are needed to stand watch or perform other activities that require them to focus. Ways of increasing arousal include moderate exercise (such as
jumping jacks to increase circulation and oxygen intake), listening to high-spirited music, splashing cold water on the face, chewing flavored bubblegum, and drinking soda pop and hot drinks.

Brushing your teeth, washing up, or quickly shampooing your hair can improve your mood and help keep you awake. Stimulating the sense of smell with aftershave, soaps, and hand lotion can also have a refreshing effect. Good hygiene before hitting your bunk has the added advantage of helping you sleep better. Humor can be extremely effective in improving mood, as can contests and safe games between crewmembers. These techniques can increase alertness. However, they become less and less effective, the greater your sleep deprivation.

Practice Safety Procedures
Accidents often happen when crews are tired and performing poorly. Hold fire drills and abandon ship drills often enough so they become second nature, and the crews are not as likely to be affected
by sleep loss.

Critical Tasks
When working without enough sleep, it is important to pay extra attention to critical tasks such as running the hydraulics, leading buoys through the block, and snapping gangions. All senses are needed during these potentially dangerous times.

Working Together
Military studies have shown that the central factor that determines the overall performance of a group is unit cohesion: how well everyone works together. This is also true for fishing crews. Important
components of a tight crew are trust and confidence in the skipper, fellow crewmembers, oneself, and the vessel. The best skippers know that there are better ways to motivate a crew than fear and pain, and that tight crews should be better able to resist the effects of fatigue because of the positive environment they create.

Naps can be very beneficial, but to be most effective they should be taken during the 2 AM to 6 AM low. Otherwise, crewmembers might be too wired to fall asleep quickly even though they are very tired. This sort of insomnia can be caused by anxiety or fear of missing something. Encourage crewmembers to get some sleep when off watch, instead of watching videos, playing cards, drinking coffee, or mindless eating. Avoid caffeine eight hours before sleep.

Naps help improve performance. Commercial fisherman sleep in a berth.

Naps help improve performance.

Consider the following:


  • 75 percent of Americans are chronically dehydrated.

  • In 37 percent of Americans the thirst mechanism is so weak it is often mistaken for hunger.

  • Working outdoors in the cold further dulls the thirst mechanism.

  • A mere 2 percent drop in body water can make it difficult to think clearly.

  • Mild dehydration will slow the body’s metabolism by as much as 3 percent.

  • You can lose one gallon of water in sweat in just a few hours.

  • In hot climates, sweat can leach electrolytes out of the brain at life threatening levels. Be sure to hydrate with fluids that contain electrolytes.


Water is needed for all bodily functions. You cannot be at your peak work performance without water. According to the Arthritis Foundation, you can calculate the number of ounces of water you need per day by dividing your body weight in pounds by two. Remember that physical activity and sweating will further increase your water needs.

Do you have back and joint pain? Studies have shown that 8-10 glasses of water per day ease the pain for up to 80 percent of sufferers. Make sure you stay hydrated with water or electrolyte replacement drinks. Remember that coffee, alcohol, soda pop, and caffeinated teas are diuretics, and they are not as effective as water with electrolytes. Avoid highly sugared and caffeinated energy drinks. They can give you a temporary boost, but your performance will drop later.

Eat Well
Bodies, like boats, need fuel to run. For people the fuel is food, and good food is premium. Eating well is especially critical when you are low on sleep and increases morale. A good breakfast is especially important. If you want to be irritable, moody, depressed, uncooperative, and slow-performing, skip breakfast and eat foods high in carbohydrates (this includes sugar).

Eating too many carbohydrates causes your energy level to rise for a while, but then fall very rapidly, often making you feel more tired, grouchy, and slower-thinking than before you ate. If you want to feel better and have a sustained level of energy, eat meals that include protein, carbohydrates, and some fat. Protein
is found in foods such as seafood, meats, nuts, milk and milk products, beans, rice, and soy products like tofu. Grains and cereals, bread, pasta, vegetables, beans, and many fruits are high in carbohydrates.
Foods with high fat content include whole milk products, red meats, nuts, oils, fats, shortenings, and many desserts and breads.

Try eating sandwiches, nuts, or fruit for quick snacks instead of high fat, high sugar doughnuts, candy bars, cookies, or other junk foods. Your tired body will be thankful. You will also get more productivity
out of your crew.

Gain energy by taking the time to eat nutritious foods. Commercial fisherman eating a nutritious meal.

Gain energy by taking the time to eat nutritious foods.

Avoid Alcohol
Alcohol is a diuretic and thus dehydrates you (which contributes to a hangover), and alcohol also disrupts deep sleep patterns needed for good physical and mental health.


Until openings no longer require sleepless days on end, fishermen need to know how to reduce the problems associated with fishing without enough sleep. Understanding how sleep loss lowers performance, and taking steps to decrease these problems, can make the difference between getting to port tired or arriving with a seriously injured or dead crewmember. Adequate sleep will extend your productive years and help you to keep your fishing gear in the water for years to come.

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