Asleep At The Helm?

How sailors manage fatigue may yield insights for business

There aren't many great places to nod off while you're on duty and alone at the helm of a $1 million yacht in the middle of the ocean might rank among the worst. Yet it has happened--at least five calamitous times since the quadrennial Around Alone race began in 1982. One exhausted sailor cruised right into a reef; another ended up on a beach near Sydney's harbor.

So sailors in the 1998-99 race--which should conclude in Charleston, S.C., around May 5 after eight months and 27,000 miles--are in the forefront of the battle against fatigue. Of the 9 remaining contenders who left the docks of Punta del Este, Uruguay, on Apr. 10 for the fourth and final leg of sailing's longest and toughest race, seven are disciples of Dr. Claudio Stampi, a Harvard University sleep researcher. And what they are discovering about fatigue may have important lessons for business.

Industrial accidents and lowered productivity--combined with car, truck, and plane crashes--cost the American economy up to $100 billion a year, according to the National Sleep Foundation. In a survey of 1,000 adults conducted last year by the NSF, 62% admitted to driving when they were drowsy and 27% to dozing off at the wheel. The cost of car crashes due to fatigue alone runs $12.5 billion a year, and that's a "very conservative" estimate, says Darrel Drobnich of the NSF.

"We're becoming a 24-hour society," says Stampi, a consultant to the trucking industry and NASA. "And what we're seeing now is nothing compared to what we'll see in the future. Because machinery and equipment are becoming obsolete so quickly, there's more pressure to keep factories working 24-7 to recoup the capital investment. We're also becoming used to obtaining whatever we want anytime we want it, so there's a lot of competition among companies to provide service as fast as possible."

The answer for a few far-thinking companies is simple: Let 'em sleep. For example, Deloitte Consulting in Pittsburgh has a napping room, and other managers are starting to realize that 20 winks might be worth the "lost" time it takes to keep workers alert and alive.

REFRESHED. Frenchman Jean-Pierre Mouligne, who left Uruguay with an impressive eight-day lead in the Class II division of Around Alone (50-foot boats), credits much of his stamina and focus to Stampi, himself a round-the-world sailor. To track sleep patterns, Stampi uses two microcomputers. One, attached to a sailor, measures the distinctive motions of the wrists that everyone makes when fast asleep. The other records the movement of the boat. By comparing data from the two after every leg of the race, Stampi's Cambridge (Mass.) lab is able to pinpoint when a sailor is asleep and help manage fatigue.

Stampi's method is based on three parameters: the best time to sleep, how little sleep one needs to function efficiently, and the optimal length for a nap. All people, says Stampi, have their own sleep requirements. For some, 15 minutes can refresh; others may need 22 minutes. Mouligne is now so attuned to his own biorhythms that he can fall asleep for 20 minutes, wake up for five to make sure everything is fine, sleep another 20, and wake up again. He can repeat the cycle--without an alarm clock--until he's enjoyed three hours of rest. "It really makes a difference," he says.

Most workers don't need that sort of precision napping, but Mouligne has to grab every minute he can grab in the next couple of weeks. In the final leg of Around Alone, says race organizer Mark Schrader, the sailors will have to cope with the constantly shifting winds of the Doldrums, heavy commercial traffic in shipping lanes, and flukey offshore winds. "Just recognizing that fatigue is a problem is a biggie," says Schrader. "A single-handed sailor is making all kinds of very important decisions all alone. There isn't anyone to tell you you're about to make a terrible mistake."