No matter your job responsibilities, age or experience level, sleep is an equalizing factor for anyone aboard a maritime vessel. From those struggling with insomnia, broken sleep patterns or natural circadian lowness, being awake and alert is a key factor in preventing serious accidents and deadly collisions on the open water.
A recent collision highlights the dangers of sleep inertia and the need for maritime awareness. After only 4.5 hours of sleep, the captain of the towing vessel Ava Claire assumed watch duties and took the helm mere minutes before maneuvering the tow into the Leland Bowman Lock. While guiding two fully loaded tank barges, the tow drove the lead barge into a locked gate resulting in $2.5 million in damage.
Was sleep inertia to blame?
Lack of sleep is a common problem on seafaring vessels. While most ships operate on a set rotation, this does not mean that every individual comes on shift alert and attentive. From medication to simple lack of sleep, it is not uncommon for a crew member to come on struggling with sleep inertia.
A concept studied by sleep researchers for decades, many believe sleep inertia is a biological protection against unwanted awakening. Feelings of grogginess, disorientation, drowsiness, cognitive impairment, impaired visual attention and impaired spatial memory are all symptoms of sleep inertia. Essentially, the brain is fighting to help the body fall back asleep and dulls the senses to the point that an individual remains in a difficult balance between sleep and wakefulness for anywhere between 15 and 60 minutes. Attempting to assume significant responsibilities during this time can lead to serious accidents.
As yet, there has been no official finding in the Ava Claire collision, but factors seem to indicate that sleep inertia was a factor. The captain assumed control after only 4.5 hours of rest and only minutes before navigating a complex maneuver. Unfortunately, in this instance, a serious collision occurred threatening the safety of those onboard and the causing devastating property damage.