Fuel for fatigue

Everyone needs sleep, especially when working long hours. A lack of sleep is a leading cause of fatigue, which we all know can be extremely dangerous on board.
a photo of a dish of food that has a single brown fish on it that's surrounded with lemons and tomatoes.

Fatigue is about more than working hard and not resting enough. Other factors, including not getting the right foods and liquids, can also be to blame.

But while you might not be able to change your work hours, you can control what you eat and drink. Food and water are your body's fuel. Look after your body with the best fuel available, and you'll up your odds of beating fatigue.

“Grab a feed whenever you can. Cook up a good feed. Don't have 2 minute noodles!” – Steve (skipper)


The power of hydration

Everyone knows that water is an important part of staying healthy. But did you realise that a lack of water is one of the main causes of tiredness and low energy levels? Keeping hydrated – especially by drinking water – is a key way to keep your body working normally. If fluid isn't replaced, your body has to work harder to maintain your water balance instead of on giving you the energy you need. This means even a slight drop in how wmuch water is in your body can change the way you feel and how well you can do your job.

The easiest way to make sure you get enough liquids is fix a water bottle holder in the mess somewhere – and aim to drink 1.5 litres a day. Water is best. Coffee, tea, juices, alcohol and soft drinks are seen by the body as food and, in some cases, can cause you to dehydate.

“You gotta keep your eye on hydration. I usually don't drink enough.” – Ray (skipper)


The worth of water

  • Around two-thirds of your body is made up of water.
  • Water's many jobs include:
    • helping control body temperature (through sweat)
    • moving food through the intestines
    • helping with joint movement
    • producing energy
    • flushing out poisons.
  • Water helps to prevent us from feeling hungry.


Food as fuel

The food you choose to eat can make or break your energy levels. If you spend long periods at sea with less sleep than you need, eating well will equip you with the energy you need to ward off fatigue.

“Make sure they're very well nourished during the day. It's about the food. Food is a bit like sleep.” – Peter (skipper)

“Learn how to cook. Encourage input from all crew when stores list is bing drawn up. Spread the cooking duties out amongst all crew.” – Alec (ex-skipper)

The benefits of breakfast

There's a reason breakfast holds the title of ‘most important meal’. Research shows that eating first thing improves alertness and concentration. (Added bonus: By preventing overeating during the day, it helps reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease).

For the best results, combine carbohydrates (starches, sugars and fibre - for energy) and protein (for endurance). Try, for example:

  • wholegrain toast or bagel with cheese
  • wholegrain toast or bagel with peanut butter and fruit
  • cereal or oats with fruit and yoghurt
  • eggs with wholegrain toast and fruit (opt for citrus fruit to help improve your absorption of iron from eggs).

Remember to watch how much sugar and fat. Sugary breakfasts have been shown to make you even hungrier.

Keeping up your energy

Breakfast is just the beginning. To prevent your energy levels from dropping, stick to healthy foods throughout the day by including the following:


Build up your energy stocks with a combination of complex (long lasting energy) and simple (immediate burst of energy) carbohydrates.

Complex carbs are found in whole grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes, pumpkin and carrots (these foods should form the bulk of your carb-intake).

Simple carbs are found in fruits, vegetables and honey.


Keep your energy at a consistent level with protein from fish, eggs, meat, soy, nuts, beans, and dairy foods.


Sustain your energy for longer by slowing down the rate the carbs are released – eat wholegrain bread, pasta and rice, beans, and bran-based cereals.


Get a concentrated source of energy from the right types of fat – healthy, unsaturated fats – found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados.


Warning: some food may cause tiredness

Foods to avoid (or keep to a minimum) include:

  • processed food (e.g. muesli bars, cake, biscuits, savoury snacks like crisps, meats)
  • coffee, tea, energy drinks, other drinks with caffeine and
  • alcohol.


Still feel sluggish?

If you eat healthily but still feel tired, try eating smaller amounts more often. We all have different energy needs, so while three meals a day suit some people, eating smaller meals more often might work better for you. Eating at regular times can also help keep your blood sugar levels stable for longer, preventing tiredness. Also avoid overeating. It can make you feel lethargic and can lead to weight gain, further draining your energy levels.

5 tips to help fight fatigue

1. Start with a healthy, hearty breakfast.

Combine carbohydrates (for energy) and protein (for endurance) e.g. eggs on wholegrain toast with fruit.

2. Stick to a well-balanced diet throughout the day.

Aim for a balance of the four main food groups:

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • wholegrain foods
  • some milk and dairy, some seafood, lean meat, beans, eggs or chicken.

3. Swap high-sugar snacks and drinks for energy-boosting food.

While sugar gives you an immediate energy surge, snacks like nuts, trail mix, cheese with wholegrain crackers and boiled eggs keep you going for longer.

4. Drink lots of water.

Carry a water bottle and aim to drink 1.5 litres.

5. Limit caffeine.

The effects are short-lived, can interfere with sleep, and could help cause dehydration. Stick to water.


Fatigue facts

  • Good nutrition gives you the energy you need to ward off fatigue.
  • Lack of water is one of the main causes of tiredness and low energy levels.
  • Research shows that eating first thing in the day improves alertness and concentration.