Fatigue, sleep deprivation major factors in Northwest accidents

Fatigue and sleep deprivation figure in about half of the maritime accidents in the Pacific Northwest and manage to defeat even the most modern wheelhouse technology, experts said at the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle yesterday.

“There is only one solution to sleep deprivation. It’s eight hours of sleep in 24 hours,” said Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Association.

U.S. and Canadian investigators found lack of sleep was a central factor in the October 2016 grounding of the Kirby Offshore Marine tug Nathan E. Stewart in the Inside Passage of British Columbia.

Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. Kirk Moore photo.

Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. Kirk Moore photo.

The National Transportation Safety Board and Transportation Safety Board of Canada found the second mate dozed off and missed a course change before the  95’4″x32’x12’, 3,400-hp Nathan E. Stewart and its 287’6″x77’8″x8’ double-hulled barge ran aground just before 1 a.m.

Over the preceding three days, the mate had slept between 4.5 hours and 6.5 hours on mornings, but not during his off-watches after noon, the agencies reported. The Canadian board put much blame on the six hours on, six hours off watch system widely used in the towing industry, which they said does not allow enough time for crew rest.

The NTSB report called for watch alarms in towing vessels, that helmsmen must reset at intervals or an alarms sounds to alert other crew members.

In the Northwest fishing industry, fatigue and sleep deprivation is a common factor in vessel casualties, said Mike Lynch of the Washington state Department of Ecology spill investigation and response unit.

A former ferry pilot and research vessel captain, Lynch recalled his days on the six-on, six-off watch system and the worry of “nodding off the in the wheelhouse.”

“So I know from first-hand experience in our business that fatigue is a big problem,” he said.

Over five years, fatigue has been implicated in 82 accidents in the region, inspiring a cautionary video for mariners titled “Fatigue Bites,” a cooperative production of the Washington spill prevention program and the Coast Guard’s Sector Columbia River.

The film is just one in a series of stories about deeply experienced captains undone by fatigue, their perceptions and reactions dulled, and sophisticated vessels run up on jetties and rocks.

There was the a 78’ Titan, an East Coast scallop boat converted for crabbing, lost in December 2014 when the captain dozed and the autopilot ran the boat and its 50,000 lbs. of crab onto a Columbia River jetty at Ilwaco, Ore.

The Titan, a newly refitted Northwest crab boat, was a total loss of $1.8 million after her captain dozed and the vessel grounded on an Oregon jetty in December 2014. HD Fisheries photo via NTSB.

The Titan, a newly refitted Northwest crab boat, was a total loss of $1.8 million after her captain dozed and the vessel grounded on an Oregon jetty in December 2014. HD Fisheries photo via NTSB.

“This was a well-appointed vessel: dual GPS, autopilot, a watch alarm which was not functioning,” said Lynch. “Weather was good, clear, west wind, slight swell, yet there they were.” The vessel was a total loss at $1.8 million.

Two months later, the 82’ pot fishing boat Savannah Ray grounded at Long Island, Alaska, and sank. Like the Titan, the Savannah Ray had redundant instruments on the bridge and a watch alarm, yet the captain dozed off for another total loss at $800,000.

NTSB investigators reported the Savannah Ray’s crew got no more than 4.5 hours of sleep daily, while the captain told them he slept “a little less.”

The watch alarm had been set for 60 minutes, but the captain drifted into inattention about 15 minutes before it would have sounded. In a January 2017 advisory Coast Guard officials recommended setting watch alarms for 15-minute intervals.

Dzugan said the effects of sleep deprivation are so severe that it is recognized as a form of torture under international law: “In four or five days, you’ll get them talking.”

But mariners, like most people, tend to dismiss the hazards of not getting enough sleep, he said.

“One excuse I hear is, ‘I’ll catch up on my sleep,’” said Dzugan. But sleep deficits persist until they can be treated with a solid eight hours, he said.

Chronic sleep deprivation erodes work skills, alertness, concentration and reaction time, and can heighten tendency toward risk-taking, said Dzugan. Over time there are health effects, including obesity — brought on by snacking during times of stressed and fatigued work — and anxiety and depression.

While a solid eight hours of sleep is healthy, taking any sleep when it can be gotten helps, Lynch and Dzugan said.

“Doing this eight-hour stretch is a construction because we have electricity” to extend work into the evening hours, said Dzugan. “For most of this time on Earth we’ve been four and four,” a natural resting rhythm in traditional societies with afternoon siestas, he said.

The six-on, six-off watch system has come in for renewed scrutiny with the advent of Subchapter M safety regulations for towing vessels.

Of his days on the watch system, Lynch says, “I would have qualified for a zombie movie. It’s very tough to get the full six hours (of rest).”

The six-by-six watch system “is not real life,” said Dzugan. “When you come into a harbor with a fuel barge, it’s all hands on deck.” Circumstances vary, and in fact there is “no perfect watch cycle,” he said.

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.


  1. Avatar

    Ben there and done that very same thing, BUT, there was no aftermath. Some people are more forgiven than others and get away with it the first few times?

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    Capt Ron Opheim on

    I agree 6 on 6 off is not ideal BUT 8 hrs of sleep is very unrealistic on a “working boat” for example unloading/loading a gravel barge while on the hip pushing on the beach or a fright barge handling 20 & 40 ft container’s lot’s of crashing & banging! WATCH ALARMS interfaced with the autopilot help

  3. Avatar

    As a retired Inland/Offshore Captain,I know what it is to not get enough sleep during the 6 hours off time. Due to the constant throttle changes during in fleet operations, digging out barges and building tow,or locking a double through Upper River Locks or getting bounced around in rough seas while offshore, a few days of that sleep loss will tend to make it hard to stay alert even during the afternoon watch. Also the inspections,crew reports,safety log up dates, and other office issued paper work that must be turned in on time adds to the problem.

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    In the 90s we worked 8 hour watches.eith just 2 Wheelman ,we got plenty of rest .but according to coating it’s a violation.
    But with 7 hours of sleep after watch worked good

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    Im a tankerman on a tug boat, we work 6 on 6 off schedule. On my 6 hours off i have to eat, shower, and then run and jump in the bed and get 3 to 4 hours of sleep then get up in time to eat brush my teeth and use the bathroom. When you do this twice a day it starts to take a toll on you after a while. You find yourself dozing at critical stages. When you are doing a transfer on a barge with hazardous chemical this can’t happen. If you have a spill you can be fined and or go to jail. An 8 on 8 off schedule is great but you’re not allowed to work 16 hours in a 24 hour period. I think that should be changed, if i work 8 hours and get 8 off i can pull another 8 with no problem. Something needs to be done.

    • Avatar

      12 and 12 I think would work best. Plenty of time to rest, shower, eat, etc. being on for 12 hours is no big deal especially with plenty of rest.

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    Herman Barfield on

    Six hour watch has got to go, been saying that for over 30 years. Plus ever boat should have two men in the engine room.

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    I was a Captain in the industry for about 40 years running from New Orleans, Corpus, and Houston horbor.We did the 6 on 6 off and had no problems.Kirby has a schedule you can work 8/4 or 7/5 or 6/6 it is up to the crew to change the way they work if they want to.

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    I think anyone who’s ever worked at sea has experienced fatigue while on watch. Most vessels do not allow enough time off watch for a full 8 hours of sleep. Not until you get home.

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      Timmy guidry on

      I work the 12 on and 12 off.it seems noone wants to talk about that watch but I get 10 hours of rest a day easily.with time to chill and do what I want for 2 hours.if my sleep is interrupted,I have plenty of time to go back to sleep.i actually feel like I could get to much sleep.always well rested. Also after a 12 hour shift,I feel like I’m done for the day.i only need to go to work once a day.

  9. Avatar

    I’m mate on RV David Thompson heading to the Arctic right now. We’re doing the 8/4, and though not perfect, its decent.
    I do 2200 to 0600 on, then 0600 to 1400 off giving me the chance for 6.5 sleep during that 8 off. Then I do 4 on / 4 off before starting my 8 on again.
    If I manage myself well, watch the coffee intake and too much grub right before off watch, then I may get another 1.5 to 2.5 hours on that 4 off.

    I’m pretty knackered leading up to the end of my 8 on, especially if you’re fighting weather. But it’s doable without extreme fatigue.

    As far as watch alarms, we should all be using them, but the must be activated! Activated at appropriate intervals, not one hour in channels or in proximity to traffic or terrain.

    Captain Bob Steer

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