5 ways to manage fatigue

In a job as demanding as commercial fishing – with its long hours, unpredictable conditions, and physical challenges – fatigue is always going to be a risk. But that doesn't mean it has to be a problem.
a group of six deckhands are tending to nets on a large fishing vessel.

The good news is once you've got strategies in place to manage fatigue, you can keep on top of it – and minimise the chances of it causing serious harm. We've put together a few ideas to help you. Some are common sense. Others come from lessons learned by other operators and skippers. All will help you to either eliminate fatigue or prevent it from becoming a problem.

1. Make everyone aware of the risk and look after one another!

Talking about fatigue is a good place to start. It's no use being the only one who understands it and knows what signs to look for. Share what you know and download our Stay Alert to Fatigue brochure to hand out to your crew. Also, most importantly, urge the crew to tell you or someone else if they ever experience signs of fatigue – and be sure to act when they do.


2. Encourage healthy sleeping habits

Every fishing operation is different and there are no hard and fast rules about sleep. The most important thing is that everyone has recovery time and gets enough hours in, so the risk of fatigue is minimised.

Here are some suggestions from skippers we talked to:

“20 minutes during the day is worth 3 hours at night.” – Peter

“We do turnover trawling. 2 hours on, 2 hours off. Or sometimes 3 hours.” – Stan

“Make sure when you do get downtime, you make good use of it.” – Rory

“Have a sleep when you can.” – Steve

It also helps to:

  • make having ‘a good night's sleep’ before sailing a priority for all
  • allow enough time off between sailings for recovery
  • encourage the crew to be open about their sleep problems.


3. Install watchkeeping alarms

If your vessel sails with a solo watchkeeper after midnight, we recommend installing a watchkeeping alarm. Alarms don't prevent crew from becoming fatigued, but they do help manage safety when there's a high risk of falling asleep. Make sure that the watch alarm suits your vessel.

While most fatigue-related accidents happen at night, people fall asleep at the wheel any time of the day. About half of all of these accidents happen when leaving port.

Keep in mind:

  • the alarm should operate independently of all other equipment in the wheelhouse
  • the alarm should always be on during a navigational watch
  • if it's key-operated, an off-watch person should mind the key
  • the silence switch should be placed far enough away from the wheelhouse chair that the watchkeeper needs to get up to switch it off.
  • it is good practice for the skipper to keep the key once the alarm is set

And don't forget that radar, sounds and AIS can all be alarmed or have guard rings set.


4. Take extra care on trips home

The trip home can be particularly perilous, especially after a tiring day. Often the crew feel alert, even after working long hours. When the watchkeeper is left on his own while others sleep, however, this feeling of being fine can quickly disappear. In situations like this, it's crucial that the skipper has a few plans up his sleeve to manage their safety.

Here are a few strategies to think about:

  • the first watchkeeper has a 20-30 minute nap before taking watch (while others finish the work)
  • limit the first watches to 90 minutes – as well as minimising the effect of sleep enertia (grogginess) for the person coming onto watch, this also means the person on watch doesn't have to stay awake long
  • make it a rule to use the watch keeping alarm
  • in peak fishing seasons, you might find it useful to hire a steaming skipper (especially for vessels over 15m).


5. Plan for the unexpected

The worst causes of fatigue often happen out of the blue – when the engine breaks down and takes hours to repair, for example, adding hours to the trip. Making plans for dealing with these kinds problems before they happen prevents the skipper from needing to make snap decisions. It can pay to get everyone together to brainstorm what's happened in the past and what potentially could go wrong in future – and come up with plans to cope with unexpected events.


Other steps to managing fatigue

Make sure the sleeping area is comfortable

Why? If the space is too hot or cold, too light, or noisy, sleeping can be difficult.

How? Think about installing ventilation, blocking out light (or offering eye masks), and soundproofing and/or reducing engine noise/vibration.

Keep hydrated and well-nourished

Why? Dehydration and poor nutrition can contribute to fatigue.

How? Provide water bottles, especially if it's hot, and offer healthy meals and snacks (low sugar, high energy) like nuts, trail mix and boiled eggs.

Control use of games and TV

Why? Crew may be tempted to forgo rest in order to play games or watch TV, and games can also distract watchkeepers on duty.

How? Introduce a policy on the use of TVs and devices. For example: Recommend 10 minutes of checking social media and messages from family, then sleep while you can.

Make sure everyone wears appropriate clothing

Why? Being too hot or cold can lead to fatigue.

How? Wear 3 layers in the cold (including a windproof outer-layer), cover the head, and keep feet warm and dry in layered socks and insulated boots.

Take extra care on long days

Why? Lack of sleep has a cumulative effect.

How? Encourage napping, especially at natural sleep times (3-5pm, after 9pm).


 Fatigue facts

  • Fatigue will always be a risk, but it can be managed.
  • The worst causes of fatigue often happen out of the blue.
  • Lack of sleep has a cumulative affect.