Salyers: Towboat crews need to rest during hitch and at home


Whether you work shoreside or live/work on a towboat, you’re always trying to improve your quality of life. With technology and resources at your fingertips — which is both a pro and a con — information about nutrition, exercise, managing stress, sleep, illnesses, medications, etc., is only a click away. The challenge for towboaters is that most of this information is for an “average” lifestyle. Living on a towboat 24 hours a day and sometimes 30 to 45 days straight does not constitute an “average” lifestyle and this information doesn’t always convert to this environment.

For years, workboats weren’t designed with comfort as the goal; they were designed to do the job efficiently. Many towboat companies have been addressing this issue by building and improving vessels in regards to noise, vibration and overall crew comfort.  But this is still a 24-hour/seven-days-a-week industry, which requires personal changes to improve the most important machine: the towboater.

This article will start with the towboater at home prior to going to the vessel to begin a hitch. From there, we’ll discuss boarding the vessel, evaluate the middle and end of the hitch and, lastly, the towboater getting home. Towboaters and their families have their own practices and routines when it comes to going to the boat and returning home, but we’ll discuss choices and reasoning behind them.


You’ve been home and working on your “honey-do” list, been able to spend time at your son’s ball game, see your daughter’s play at school and have had a family gathering for your brother’s birthday. In two days you’ll be heading for your vessel. So, do you A) try to get some last minute visiting in; B) start one more project to try to get done; C) help troubleshoot your mom’s car that’s been giving her trouble; or D) get as much sleep as you can so that you’ll be at a higher endurance level when you get on the vessel? The answer is C or D.  Emergencies happen and maybe you’re the only one available to help your mom out. Wait, don’t you have a brother? Ideally, you should try to get your sleep, stop drinking alcohol, eat healthier — all those things that will raise your endurance level to start your hitch.


You get to the vessel and may have to go directly on watch. Your endurance level will vary based on many factors. Some of these factors include how long you had to drive, ride in a crew van or even fly to get to your vessel, how rested you were when leaving home, and your overall physical condition, play a big role in the toll that the travel time takes on crewmembers.

Keep in mind that YOU are responsible for both the condition you’re in when you get to the vessel, and being able to do your job safely and effectively. Getting the rest you need prior to coming to the vessel and taking care of yourself overall, physically and mentally, will keep you in optimum endurance. Those times that you may not be able to get good rest, like on a crew change ride, won’t be as detrimental to you if you’re healthier.

Look at the situation when you get on the vessel if you have to go right on watch. If you’re so exhausted that countermeasures to fatigue — caffeine, light, or high protein snacks — don’t help, take a good look your situation and contact your port captain if decisions need to be made concerning holding up in order to get a short nap to give you enough energy to pull your watch. I don’t know many people who would do this, but play the “what if” game. Would you be able to defend your actions if you had a serious marine incident and the Coast Guard or, heaven forbid, the National Transportation Safety Board had to be contacted?


“You tell me you want me to get plenty of sleep and now you want me to exercise! Which is it?” I hear this statement a lot at my classes. Also factor in meals, showers, laundry and downtime to socialize with crewmembers and your family on the phone and/or computer — what’s a towboater to do?

First of all, prioritize. YOU are responsible for the condition you’re in when you get to the vessel and being able to do your job safely and effectively. Hmmm, heard that before. Additionally, as a wheelman, you are responsible for the condition your crew is in to do their jobs safely and effectively. I can hear the objections now, but think about it. If your deckhand is showing signs of fatigue, wouldn’t you talk to him about it? Or would you ignore the situation? If he/she fell overboard or had an injury after which the investigation determined that fatigue played a role, was it negligent for you not to have tried to find out what the fatigue stemmed from?

You’re right. You can’t make someone sleep or eat certain foods or use light management, but you can give them information and resources to make better choices. If you feel that he/she is a hazard to him/herself or other crewmembers, you have the responsibility to take action. Again, play the “what if” game. We’ve all been in those “woulda, shoulda, coulda” moments.

Let’s get back to prioritizing your precious time. I’m not being sarcastic; time is precious.  We have a set amount and that’s it! We’ll analyze the traditional “square 6” schedule on a towboat and discuss the off-time activities. This consists of two watches with the hours being as follows:


0100–0600, FRONT WATCH: For most towboaters this is the main, or anchor, sleep period and they get most of their sleep during this period. Get off watch, get a light meal or snack, shower and go to bed.  Use light management techniques and other conscious choices to help sleep.

0600–1200, BACK WATCH: For most towboaters on the back watch this is the main, or anchor, sleep period and they get most of their sleep during this period. Get off watch, get a light meal or snack, shower and go to bed.  The biggest challenge is trying to do all this without being exposed to sunlight or internal bright light. Light management and maybe tweaking this time to get off before sunrise would need to be addressed to afford good sleep during this time when our bodies tell us it’s not time to sleep. Also, personal choices will make a big difference.

1200–1800 for the FRONT WATCH and 1800–2400 for the BACK WATCH: This time off is usually used as a nap sleep period.  This may consist of two hours of sleep and the specific times will vary. Also, this may not occur daily but maybe every other day or every third day. So in six hours off you’ll require time to eat and shower.  Let’s also add in a 30-minute exercise period and two hours for socializing, either with individuals on the vessel or your family or friends via phone or computer. One hour to eat/shower + two hour nap + half hour exercise + two hour socialization = 5.5 hours. Not sure what you’ll do with that leftover 30 minutes but variances will occur: You may not exercise every day, you can do laundry while doing other things, you may not nap every day or may sleep longer on some days, you may want to watch a movie instead of nap and exercise, etc.

The point of the above is to demonstrate something everyone should do: Take inventory of how you spend your precious time and make the most of it!


You’re in the middle of, or maybe two-thirds through, your hitch and you probably haven’t been able to get optimum quality or quantity sleep. Other factors such as eating healthier, exercising, using light management, good time management, etc., may not be being utilized as well as they could.  This results in what some towboaters call “hate week.” The physical fatigue may not be as obvious as the mental fatigue. During this time individuals tend to be less sociable, lose their temper easier, may be a little less focused and just plain crabby! Does this resemble you?

I’m an optimist but a realist too. We won’t get you from 45 percent endurance to 95 percent endurance doing the things I mentioned because of your work environment, but if we can get you from a 45 percent to a 65 percent endurance level you’d be better off. We want to strive for as high as a percentage as possible but just that difference could affect the number of near misses, incidents, health and, in general, poor decision-making.


Well its crew change day. You’re thinking that I don’t know what I’m talking about — you have plenty of energy! That’s called adrenaline. Finally it’s time to go home, so your second (or tenth) wind has kicked in. If you’re going to be driving, please take care because that fatigue is still there.  Consider the distance you have to drive, time of day, etc., to properly use countermeasures like caffeine, which only work temporarily. We want you to get home safely to enjoy what you work so hard for.


The long-awaited time has come and you’re home. More than likely you’ll A) drop in your recliner, kick off your shoes and go sound to sleep; B) head to the ballpark, school or family gathering that’s scheduled, depending on the time you arrive home; C) call your buddy, pick up hunting gear and head out, or D) head over to your mom’s to work on her car that your brother didn’t fix.

In discussions with most towboaters, when they get home they need, on average, one to two days to “decompress,” so A tends to be the answer. The physical fatigue is there, but the mental fatigue is what really affects you and the severity depends on how long your hitch lasted.


The following diagrams are from the USCG CEMS material.

On the left is an average circadian rhythm illustrating the Red Zone (period of lowest energy) and demonstrates an individual at approximately a 60 percent performance level at the best of times. You want this level to be as high as possible when you board the vessel because you know it’s going to diminish during your hitch.  Note the two lowest dips fall in the times that the Back Watch is working. 

The diagram on the right illustrates the differences between a high level of performance (ideally at the beginning of a hitch), and the low level of performance after sleep debt at the end of a hitch. For different individuals, this performance level may indicate physical or mental performance, or both. This is the reasoning behind the need for that “decompression” time when a towboater gets home after their hitch.

Take the time to assess your actions and improve the ones you have control over. The goal is for you to maintain good health and retire one day in good enough condition to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Jo Ann Salyers is an independent consultant and owner of Salyers Solutions LLC, with 35 years in the safety, training and risk management areas of the maritime industry. Jo Ann is a certified USCG CEMS Expert and holds CEMS Coaches and Awareness sessions throughout the country. Visit or e-mail:, or phone (504) 236-4962.

By Professional Mariner Staff