Acute total sleep deprivation and partial sleep deprivation have negative impacts on cognitive performance. Studies in subjects who regularly experience sleep loss, however, are rare and often restricted to examination of internal sleeping disorders. To address this issue, we set up a pilot study to explore the effects of a week characterized by sleep disruption on cognitive functioning, using a case–control setting in a maritime pilot group with chronic exposure to intermittent extrinsic, work-related sleep disruption. Twenty maritime pilots (aged 30–50 years) were compared to sex- and education-matched controls with normal sleep behaviour, from the same age range. We assessed subjective and objective cognitive function, including attention, psychomotor speed, memory and executive function using the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB). Although we were able to confirm poorer sleep in maritime pilots and subjective complaints in some cognitive domains, we did not find objective cognitive deficits in the maritime pilot group compared to controls without sleep disruption. This could suggest that in this group of healthy, young maritime pilots, exposure to sleep disruption resulted in some subjective cognitive complaints, but objective deficits of cognitive function were not detected in comparison with a non-pilot control group. However, given the small sample size, the absence of an effect does not exclude the possibility that sleep disruption could result in cognitive deficits in general. Therefore, our findings have to be confirmed in future prospective studies with a larger sample size and matched controls, regarding age, education and work history.