An unsourced claim on Wikipedia is that single-handed sailors only sleep one hour at a time:

Most single-handers use the technique of napping for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, using a timer to wake them up for periodic look-arounds;

While it's clearly possible, is it really that common?

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    We did it for several days in basic training for the US Army. It is not just possible to do it but it happens regularly. US ARMY RIP(Ranger Indoctrination Program) used to go for 2 weeks and soldiers were only allowed 2 hours of sleep a day. Hundreds of new rangers were trained each year so it is Quite possible.
    – Chad
    Nov 23, 2011 at 16:31
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    Cleaned up the thread as it was quite confusing. The claim on Wikipedia is that it's a common technique, not that it is possible or that a single person did it one time.
    – Sklivvz
    Nov 23, 2011 at 16:59
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    @Sklivvz: Not when you breast-feed in 2hr intervals, of which >1h may be spent feeding the kid.
    – Jonas
    Nov 23, 2011 at 19:09
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    @Sklivvz - only the really really really lucky ones. When you got a breastfeeding infant added up to sick toddler at the same time, 20m is a luxury.
    – user5341
    Nov 23, 2011 at 20:10

1 Answer 1


EDIT DUE TO QUESTION EDIT: Well, how "common" are solo sailors on marathon journeys? I did a quick search, and wikipedia gave me a list of 49 names. Assuming that this list is most likely incomplete, we still have a very small sample size. Again, I think there are more Navy SEALS than there are solo sailors. The SEALS display this as a common technique because they are forced to do it. For the solo sailor, this would equally likely be the case since there are many things they need to do while navigating a boat.

There is a community of single handed sailors that discuss sleeping, and the "not being in control" part seems to be a frightening thing for them. Another consideration is that there are no navigation light signals that indicate a sailor is getting sleep. While the big ocean theory may hold for most, it would be a bad thing to get hit by another boat if you are sleeping.

Another factor to consider is that as technology changes, the sailors may be able to get more sleep and only get woken up if a condition warrants their attention. Many folks (myself included) don't consider things like auto-pilots for boats, and a proximity warning system. So while the sleep deprivation may have been a normal technique to deal with the requirement for attention, that requirement may be getting solved by technology, thus reducing the need to take this drastic sleep measure.

This 2002 trans-Pacific race features the plans some of the sailors were going to use, and they say things like:

The plan is sleeping during the morning and sailing all night with naps interspersed here and there.

So I would say that it was absolutely common from the tales of those sailors, however is falling out of favour due to technology.

ORIGINAL ANSWER: Asking "Is that possible?" may not be the best way to phrase this question for the format of this site. That said, there are well documented cases of Navy SEALS during "Hell Week" training (Or BUD/S as they call it), where they gather only a total of about 4 hours worth of sleep during 5.5 days.

Here is a document (PDF) where they talk about the sleep deprivation in a study on the effectiveness of caffeine as a stimulant and its effects on marksmanship.

So, there, it's "possible"...

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    I changed the question to be clearer about the claim investigated. As Sklivvz said in the comment section "The claim on Wikipedia is that it's a common technique, not that it is possible or that a single person did it one time"
    – Borror0
    Nov 24, 2011 at 5:58

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