Skip to main content

Steady yourself against seasickness

There are three things that are sure to ruin a day on the water: a bad departure from your slip or mooring, a screw-up while docking, anchoring or mooring, and mal de mer — seasickness.

Image placeholder title

Avoiding boat-handling mistakes is a matter of practice, situational awareness and attention to detail. Seasickness is a whole ’nuther kettle of fish.

Unlike most of the topics I write about, which often involve lessons I’ve learned, I’ve not experienced this digestive event brought on by wind, sea and other conditions. That’s not to say I’m immune to it — just lucky, so far. My wife, Lou, on the other hand, is an expert. She can get seasick in a bathtub. Interestingly enough, she doesn’t suffer from other forms of motion sickness.

Because she insists on accompanying me on boats, I have become something of an expert on the causes, symptoms and treatments of this dreaded affliction. Don’t kid yourself: Seasickness can be incapacitating, and if the victim is the skipper it can be serious.

Other people’s seasickness once put me at risk of bodily harm. After I was discharged from the Army, some friends and I went fishing on a party boat. Lou prepared a lunch of fried chicken and coleslaw. We were anchored in a heavy swell that made everyone except the skipper and me seasick. Watching me munching on a drumstick almost induced someone to throw me overboard.

Some of the warning signs of seasickness can be lethargy, sleepiness, queasiness and nausea, chills, lightheadedness, dizziness and a loss of balance, as well as a sudden desire to murder anyone munching on fried chicken or eating anything with an aroma. In other words, it’s similar to the symptoms of shock. Some people just feel like lying down; many lose their lunch, and that’s when dehydration can become a serious problem.
One of the worst things you can do if you feel seasickness developing is to go below. The conflict between what your eyes see when you’re down below — everything is stable — and what your inner ear tells you — you’re in motion — will make matters worse.

A boat moves in many ways. It can heave (no pun intended) up and down, and surge fore and aft. It can swing to port and starboard along its longitudinal axis (rolling). It can rotate around its transverse axis (pitching). And it can rotate about its vertical axis (yawing). Boats can execute several of these motions simultaneously. Think about what that’ll do to the senses. Being below is certainly not the solution, although the victim may insist on it.
One of the best solutions is to give the helm to the victim and have that person steer. By seeing the horizon move and the vessel respond, and by concentrating on maintaining a proper course, the sufferer might overcome the symptoms. It gives the person something, aside from misery, to concentrate on.

There are several treatments that can help combat seasickness.

• Anything that contains ginger — ginger snaps, ginger tea, even ginger ale, although the fizz could work against you — will help settle your stomach. Saltine crackers or flat soda also can help.

Image placeholder title

• Dramamine and Bonine are well-known medications for motion seasickness. The problem is that they can make you drowsy. However, non-drowsy or reduced-drowsiness versions are available. I’d recommend trying them at home before you use them at sea.

• Scopolamine transdermal (Transderm Scop) is effective but can cause dry mouth and drowsiness. It is available only by prescription.

• Acupressure wrist bands are said to stimulate the P6 pressure point, blocking nausea.

Lou used to use a prescription for phenergan and ephedrine. The phenergan settles the stomach, with the side effect of drowsiness, and ephedrine combats the drowsiness. Don’t even consider this solution without checking with your doctor because it could affect your heart.

The best solution we found was recommended by renowned world voyager Larry Pardey, whose wife, Lin, is very susceptible to seasickness. Larry told us about cinnarizine, sold as stugeron in Bermuda and the United Kingdom but not available in the United States. Lou has used it for years and finds it very effective against seasickness. And it doesn’t make her drowsy.

In general, take your medications of choice between one and three hours before embarking. Ginger and other natural remedies can be taken as needed while you’re under way. There is one other solution, short of death — Lou says you’d have to feel a lot better in order to die — and that’s endurance. Her theory is that if you can survive for three days, the symptoms will pass. Darned if she isn’t right.

Avoid alcohol and greasy or acidic foods, and get a good night’s rest beforecasting off. Also, stay away from the boat’s engine exhaust. And keep in mind that there will be less motion toward the center of the boat — on deck, of course.

There’s a boatload of additional information and opinions on the Web; just enter “seasickness” in your search engine. At any rate, good luck, and may the gods of mal de mer not learn you’ve gone boating until after you’re safely ashore. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.