Sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge conduct watch. Fatigue impairs a sailor's judgment and reaction time, research indicates. (MC3 Scott Pittman/Navy)
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Sleep is an afterthought in the surface Navy. A nice-to-have that comes after drills and meetings and training and maintenance and fitness and chow and, of course, watch. But fleet leaders are trying to upend this sleep-deprived culture and have embraced evidence that irregular sleep patterns may be needlessly putting sailors in harm’s way.
“The aviation community has long embraced the concept of crew rest as a foundation for safe operations,” said Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, head of Naval Surface Forces, and Rear Adm. David Thomas, the head of Naval Surface Force Atlantic, in a joint May 3 message to the fleet. “It has a place in the surface force, as well.”
Their message is the biggest endorsement yet of 24-hour watch cycles, which allow sailors to sleep at the same time every day, and comes on the heels of a Navy study that found predictable sleep and shorter watches enhance a sailor’s alertness. The message aims to further discussion of watch-keeping and suggests various watch schemes and emphasizes the importance of sleep.
Even so, the missive doesn’t change anything on the deck plates. There is no talk of boosting manpower to increase watch sections. Nor have the brass decreed that ships adopt 24-hour watch cycles or changed the commanding officer’s prerogative to set his ship’s watch bill.
Still, one Navy researcher who has tested performance during various watch cycles hailed the message as a sign that the fleet is serious about changing its culture.
“We’ve got these systems that are high-speed, high-tech and we’ve got to have well-rested sailors who can operate them,” said Nita Shattuck, a human performance expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “Before this time, I don’t think there was that acknowledgment of what a dangerous place we live in.”
She added: “I think now we can’t afford to have lapses in attention.”
Sleep sea change
Fatigue impairs a sailor’s judgment and reaction time — exactly the qualities most needed on watch, whether you’re a lookout or security rover. But getting sleep at a different time every day, as many watch bills require, can compound the effects of sleep loss and lead to poor watchstanding.
A growing body of research has found that performance drops when a person is subjected to irregular sleep, including not adhering to the 24-hour “circadian” cycle that human bodies naturally follow.
The fleet doesn’t hew to a 24-hour cycle. Often important watches in the pilothouse, the combat information center and the plant have three watches sections or even “port and re-port,” as two-section is less than fondly known. What’s more, sleep must compete with maintenance checks, training, fitness and emails during a watchstander’s off-time. The message acknowledged this upfront.
“The basis of our circadian rhythm is the 24-hour day,” it said. “We take it for granted while on shore duty and generally ignore it at sea.”
Nowhere is that more true than in the submarine force, which has long operated on an 18-hour day and has also experimented with circadian cycles.
The surface bosses offered a variety of circadian-friendly options.
* Four on, eight off. Instead of the “five and dime” — five hours duty, followed by 10 hours off that causes crew members to sleep at different times — ships could adopt a four on, eight off, three-section watch that allows you to stand watch at the same times every day. But with two long watches and limited down time, the fleet bosses warned that this scheme limits sleep, and interruptions can lead to “drastic effects.”
Unexpected disruptions, from special details and drills to covering a shipmate’s watch, are part and parcel of underway life.
Four-section watchbills are better.
* Three on, nine off. Navy researchers have found this four-section watch may boost alertness by keeping the watches shorter; it has the downside of more frequent turnovers. The biggest test is the mid-watch, the middle of the night shift when the human body’s alertness naturally ebbs. A study on destroyer Jason Dunham found that crew members were more alert during this watch on the three on, nine off schedule than the more common four on, 12 off. Many crew members told researchers they preferred the three-and-nine schedule.
* Six on, 18 off. This four-section watch allows sailors to stand the same watch daily, but it comes with the risk that watchstanders will lose focus during the six-hour watch.
The destroyer Benfold is trying the six-and-18 cycle, said Shattuck, who has measured crew performance on many ships over the past 12 years. She plans to conduct more watch bill trials in the coming years to help ships adopt circadian cycles suited to their crew and missions.
* Five on, 20 off. Sailors love this for quality of life. Watch is the same time from day to day, with one watch shortened by an hour to match the 24-hour schedule. But it requires five sections, a bevy of qualified people usually only seen at the tail end of a deployment.
'Set the goal'
The goal is to get more ships to experiment with circadian watch bills, rather than impose another requirement from the top, said one official who worked on the message.
“I see this as a readiness issue,” said Capt. John Cordle, the SURFLANT chief of staff and an advocate for these watch bills since he saw their benefits as the CO of the cruiser San Jacinto. Cordle sees the message as a way to encourage shipboard leaders to try it out and noted that a few ships, such as destroyers Barry and Benfold, were already doing this.
“So it can be done, but you have to kind of set the goal,” Cordle said.
The changes shouldn’t end with the watch bill. The fleet bosses made clear that the ship’s routine should adjust to suit the watch cycle. Those who stood night watches should be allowed to sleep in and important meetings or all-hands training should be pushed to the afternoon.
“Best practices include adjusting meal hours, allowing late (or early) sleepers for midwatch personnel, and holding most meetings or briefs during the middle of the day (e.g. between 0900 and 1500),” the message said. “Management of time between watches is key to allow watchstanders sufficient time to conduct [preventative maintenance], attend training and perform other duties.”
Some changes may need to be at the division level and will involve trial and error. Deck sailors on San Jacinto, for instance, were taken out of the division’s scut work while they were on the watch bill. After a week, they rotated back to the division and the second group went on watch. This had advantages, Cordle said, but also led each side to believe that the other was getting off easy.
But on the bridge, Cordle said he saw the effects of the new watch bill quickly.
“The days of the [officer of the deck] sort of snuggled up between the peloris and the alidade at 3 in the morning, hoping that nobody’s going to notice that his eyes drifted shut — those were gone,” Cordle said. “They came up at midnight well-rested and stood a three-hour watch and they kept that level of alertness.”
However, the initiative has some surface warriors rolling their eyes. They said the message does not address the myriad challenges that get in the way of better watch bills: manpower-intensive drills that consume the off-duty section’s down time; and watch stations like CIC and the plant that typically are in three sections, at most. Without more manpower or reducing the workload, little is going to change, some SWOs contend.
“I like that there is a message, but most just see it as window dressing,” said one active-duty SWO captain, who asked for anonymity to critique SURFOR policy. “There remains too much to do at sea with insufficient time.”
SURFOR’s previous watch-keeping initiatives, including blue-gold crews, ran into headwinds because they required altering the time-honored ship routines, said this former CO, who was skeptical that this latest push would leave any meaningful changes.
Without a “real study” of what is required to implement these watch bills, he said, “there will never be a change in the comfortable watch rotations that we have used for centuries.”