A mere four to five hours of average sleep per night for enlisted sailors while on duty at sea? A recent survey of 5,536 active-duty personnel (half of whom were enlisted respondents) throws up a picture of severe sleep debt.
Navy officers, on the other hand, seemed to fare better. The study reported 29 percent of officers getting between the minimum recommended seven and eight hours or more of sleep. Only half that percent of enlisted sailors reported reaching this figure.
Yet, 31 percent of enlisted and 34 percent of officers reported getting about only six hours of sleep – below recommended levels. In reviewing this study, Nita Shattuck, a human performance expert at the Naval Postgraduate School (and who has closely studied fatigue in the fleet), felt officers have an easier time nodding off because of their better living spaces.
If shipboard life is difficult for sailors, catching sleep during the day is even more so. Their attempts to do so are frequently interrupted to take away not only their hours of sleep but its quality as well.
Worse than the attendant health issues of chronic sleep deprivation is the difficulty to realize you are sleep deprived. Errors are common and decision-making suffers without the person knowing so.
There are now signs that surface fleet leaders are beginning to pay attention. Ship skippers are experimenting with watch rotations to get sailors adequate rest. Adjusting meal times and scheduling special evolutions to take crew rest into consideration are also being practiced. The Los Angeles-class attack submarine Scranton reported trying out a new schedule of three eight-hour watch rotations over a 24-hour day, rather than the six-hour shifts that result in the 18-hour day standard.