#18 – Seasickness

To get in the mood for this piece we took our boat Tackless II on a round trip passage to the French island of Futuna about 250 miles north of Fiji. A friend visiting from the States was looking forward to his first open ocean passage. It should have been a nice reach up and back. It wasn’t. The north bound leg was an obnoxious slog by motor. In the anchorage, we were bewitched by baguettes, croissants and tiare blossoms into staying too long and got beset by nasty five-foot swells pinning us in (couldn’t get the dinghy up to escape). Once we did get out, we had 25-30 knots (the forecast was for 15-20) 50 to 60 degrees off the bow.

Our friend got sick about a half hour out of Savusavu, and he pretty much stayed that way the whole nine days. He had not brought seasickness meds, and the only ones I could find aboard expired with the last century. In Futuna we borrowed some Australian tablets called Qwells, and they gave him a two-day respite in the rolly anchorage, but we weren’t underway an hour on our return when he was forced to take to the sea berth for the duration. Our friend says he hasn’t been seasick since he was 25. In the States, he has his own boat, plying the waters of the Gulf, the Intracoastal and the Chesapeake.

Seasickness stems from a mismatch in the brain between the motion information supplied by our eyes and our inner ears. Some people are more susceptible than others, and sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. I am one of those obnoxious people who don’t get seasick. I don’t say “never.” I’ve had headaches on occasion, and I once went two days on a brisk beam reach where I couldn’t go below to cook or work the radio as I usually do. But that’s once in thousands of sea miles. My husband Don regularly gets kind of quiet and unsmiling on the first day or two at sea and does not go below if he can help it. Our usual remedy is to split a Coke. The resulting burp usually cures things for us.

If I felt as miserable as our friend looked, if I felt that miserable for one day let alone nine, I have trouble imagining that I could make cruising my life!

And yet people do. Quite possibly a majority of the cruisers out there! Almost every one of my Admirals admits to getting seasick at least some of the time.

I never gave seasickness much thought before we left Miami in 1996,” says long-term racer Ellen of Cayenne III. “So when we crossed the Gulf Stream, I didn’t have one Bonine aboard and I suffered all the way to Nassau, horizontal and in the dark. By the time we got to St. Croix, I knew I had a problem, a killer concern that could affect the life I had chosen.

My Admirals pretty much agree that drugs are required, but they differ widely on which one works the best. Ellen espouses Bonine, an over-the-counter product. “It causes less dry mouth than other OTC products, doesn’t cause drowsiness, and is easier to find than Stugeron.” Not available in the US, Stugeron is a product many far-ranging cruisers recommend. Jean of Jean Marie, on the way for their second circumnavigation, says she and her husband always take a Stugeron 1-2 hours before departure. “One seems to be all we usually need; it allows our bodies to get accustomed to the motion, although in rougher conditions, I’ll take a second.” Kathy of Hale Kai also likes Stugeron. “It doesn’t make me as sleepy as some of the other OTC meds.” Like Jean, she usually takes a pill before departure. “But if I don’t, and later start getting queasy, it usually works for me to take one when I first feel the symptoms and then take a nap.

Donna of Exit Only, however, says she cannot use Stugeron. “Instead I use a Scopolamine patch, cut it in half, and apply only one half at a time.” Cutting Scopolamine patches used to be a popular thing for smaller women and scuba divers who wanted to reduce the dosage, but as Judy of Ursa Minor, also a patch advocate, says, “Recently I’ve read warnings that the patches shouldn’t be cut, so I guess I won’t do that anymore!” Lisa of Lady Galadriel likes the new low-dose 12-hour Dramamine. “I do get a little sleepier, but it doesn’t diminish my performance when I’m needed.” Lisa tried Stugeron once, just a half a pill, but “it put me on my butt. I couldn’t wake up.

Clearly, what seasickness remedy will work for you will come from some trial and error. All of the Admirals have tried wrist bands, ginger, ear drops (Motion-eze), “a cotton ball in one ear” , “cotton balls moistened with vodka behind both ears,” “crackers”, “pretzel rods” and fizzy sodas like Coke or ginger ale, and they are fairly unanimous that these cures may work in light conditions, but aren’t up to 25 knots in the open sea. Donna found the “electronic stimulation watch” (a techno variation of sea bands’ acupressure) worked well for her, but Karen of Sequester says she couldn’t stand it for the ten days it took to sail north from New Zealand.

If they differ in their choice of pharmaceuticals, my Admirals completely agree on strategy. Here is a checklist I’ve assembled from their suggestions.

  1. Be as informed as possible about the upcoming trip to lessen anxiety. Anxiety is not the only reason people get seasick, but it is a contributing factor.
  2. Prepare food for the crew for the first three days, including “grab & go” meals like sandwiches and “two-way foods” like bananas, applesauce, peaches and oatmeal.
  3. Gather together all things you will need in the cockpit – meds, sunscreen, hats, charts, binoculars etc. – to minimize the need to go below
  4. Do all departure preparations the day before, including checking out and hoisting the dinghy. Leave yourself some time to relax, but avoid alcohol.
  5. Avoid leaving straight from a protected marina. Anchor out.
  6. Have something in your stomach before departure (not just coffee!)
  7. Engage as much as possible in boat operations. Steering almost always helps.
  8. Avoid tasks with prolonged close visual effort. Likewise, avoid reading. (Try books on tape to while away the time!)
  9. Get as much fresh air movement as possible. Use fans when below.
  10. If all this fails and you must retreat below, lie down as near to the center of the boat as possible, the salon cabin sole if necessary!
  11. Keep a bucket handy, so you don’t have to risk hanging over the side. If the side beckons, absolutely be sure to have on your harness. (“First you’re afraid you’re gonna die; then you’re afraid you won’t.”*)
  12. Guard against dehydration, especially if you are vomiting. Force yourself to sip fluids (water or Gatorade). Get a prescription for and keep seasickness suppositories in the medicine chest against the chance things get bad. They are the only real option when you can’t keep anything down.

Here’s the good news: For most people, seasickness goes away within 72 hours, and over time, your susceptibility – your sea legs – will get better and better.

The moral of the story is that just because you get seasick once, doesn’t mean you always will,” says Judy of Ursa Minor,and even if you do, it usually goes away. I’d never let seasickness deter me from sailing off enthusiastically into the sunset.

Contributing Admirals: Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Jean Service, Jean Marie; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Donna Abbott, Exit Only; Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Lisa Schofield, Lady Galadriel; Karen Cary, Sequester; *Jan Loomis (formerly of Meridian Passage and author of the Healthy Cruiser Handbook), and others.

This article was published in the January 2008 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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