Sailors aboard the attack submarine Scranton tried a 24-hour watch schedule, instead of the traditional 18-hour setup, on their most recent deployment. Here, the sub pulls into Diego Garcia on Dec. 4. (MC3 Laura Bailey / Navy)
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The submarine force has long resisted 24-hour watchbills during deployments, but the skipper of the first sub to test them said they yielded better sleep and more alert watchstanders than the standard 18-hour rotation.
The Los Angeles-class attack submarine Scranton returned from a seven-month deployment in January, the first sub to try out a new schedule of eight-hour watches spread throughout a 24-hour day, rather than the old six-hour shifts.
More time to sleep was an obvious perk, Scranton’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Seth Burton told Navy Times, but it was really the extra downtime that led to the biggest improvements in his sailors’ performance and well-being.
“Unless you’ve lived it, you don’t really understand it, but the 16 hours between watches is a huge difference from 12 hours between watches,” Burton said in a Jan. 21 phone interview. “They were able to do all their professional duties, and then get a lot of PT in, which was great for their physical conditioning. And that helps for their mental health and everything else.”
The Navy has been studying human performance for decades, trying to figure out the best way to combat fatigue and diminished alertness while keeping up round-the-clock watches.
Burton said he had been involved with several experiments over the last decade under the direction of the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory in Groton, Conn., leading up to the Navy’s 2012 decision to allow 24-hour watchbills for submarines, which are in tune with the human body’s natural 24-hour rhythm.
The chance to sleep at the same time every day was the biggest benefit for Scranton crew members, Burton said. That squares with the findings of sleep scientists.
“What happens is, you actually get more benefit from the sleep,” said Nita Shattuck, who researches human performance at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
How it works
Shattuck has published multiple papers on the importance of conforming to circadian rhythm in watch schedules. The human body naturally operates on a 24-hour cycle, with peaks and valleys in strength and energy recurring at about the same time every 24 hours.
Put simply, an 18-hour watch schedule might have a submariner going to sleep at 10 p.m. one day, then 4 p.m. the next day and 10 a.m. the next. That schedule wreaks havoc on the body. The sailor might end up wide awake when it’s time to rack out, then barely keep his eyes open on watch the next day.
On the flip side, going to bed at 10 a.m. every day keeps everything running more smoothly, Shattuck said.
And, Burton said, even if crew members weren’t getting a solid eight hours a night, the extra time made a difference.
“Everyone sleeps differently. Some guys would only sleep maybe six hours, some guys would sleep maybe eight or nine hours,” he said. “But having that chunk of time every day, their quality of sleep was significantly better.”
The new schedule was better from an operational standpoint as well, Burton said. While a submarine is a self-contained environment, dealing with the outside world can be a challenge when everyone else is on a different schedule.
For example, sailors who are on watch at the same time every day will be better able to deal with frequent situations, like an area crowded with fishing vessels every morning.
“In the six-hour schedule, you stand a different watch everyday, and then come back to the same watch in three days,” he said.
Most of the crew worked in a “straight eights” model, with three teams working in eight-hour shifts. They rotated their watches about every three weeks, Burton said.
The sub’s supervisors and principle leadership were on an all-hands schedule, working a regular 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. day. That way, they were all awake for scheduled meetings and operational planning.
Measures were in place to make sure the day-sleepers were interrupted as infrequently as possible.
“We didn’t run all-hands drills that would impact their sleep, unless it was a specific time, where we would broadcast ahead of time when it was going to be,” he said. “In material management, if there was a broken piece of equipment, it had to rise to a certain level of priority for me to allow people’s sleep to be interrupted to fix it.”
Burton admitted there had been some hesitation from crew members about the longer shifts, but by the end of the deployment, pretty much everyone had been converted.
“Their biggest feedback was the stability of the schedule,” he said. “The opportunity to work out way more than they’re used to, and just being able to sleep the same time every day, made a world of difference in their mental psyche, as far as managing the daily challenges of life on a submarine.”
That extra time off also made up for the challenge of staying alert for two hours longer than usual.
Chief Electronics Technician (SS) Geoffrey Gimer, on his second deployment, said the new schedule didn’t require much of an adjustment.
“The extra two hours of watch were mitigated by the extra time off watch,” he said. “Plus, there was always someone available to provide a watch relief in their off-going time since their on-coming was now eight hours, as well.”
Rather than spend eight hours in the same spot, Burton scheduled a midwatch break for every shift, giving crew members half an hour to get something to eat and move around a bit.
The crew adjusted easily to the schedule mentally as well as physically, he said.
“The last two hours of a six-hour watch, you’re always looking forward to the end,” Burton said, “No matter how long the watch is, always at the last hour or two, you’re looking forward to the end of it.”
On his second deployment, Machinist’s Mate 1st Class (SS) Correy Wilson said the adjustment period after rotating watches wasn’t an issue, either.
“It usually took me at least a week for my body to get used to the new schedule, but once adjusted, I couldn’t tell the difference,” he said.
The longer days also saved some time in the larger scheme of things.
“I was excited about the potential efficiency of it,” Lt. j.g. Brendan McCook said. “Every transition costs some time (pre-watch briefs, meal time, etc.), so minimizing the number of the transitions created some time in a schedule where even a little time is very valuable.”
All three sailors, who answered Navy Times’ questions via email, said they liked the 24-hour model, each sleeping about six hours a night on average and spending their downtime on collateral duty, studying, training or working out.
For the first few months after the Navy opened up the 24-watch option for submarines, Burton said, sub commanders from boats on both coasts were calling him for advice on implementing the new system.
“We were getting routine requests for our models, of how we’re doing our schedules, how we’re managing laundry, all the things that you never think about,” he said.
Burton said he understands the reluctance of some submarine crews to switch, but if it works with your operational schedule, he suggests giving it a try.
“I would never say you have to do this or you must do this,” he said. “My biggest advice would be to remain open to it. It’s a very viable option.”