Battling Seasickness

By Michelle Segrest

Simply put, seasickness is pure misery

Until you truly experience it, you can’t really say that you know what it feels like. You can say you’ve been queasy, or that you felt a bit dizzy. But make no mistake—when you truly experience seasickness, you’ll know it.

If you’ve never been seasick, let me try to describe it for you. 

Imagine the worst hangover you’ve ever had, combined with the worst possible food poisoning. Then throw in a nasty case of Type A Flu complete with vomiting, chills, cold sweat, dry mouth, and a pounding, throbbing headache. 

Then, feeling all of this simultaneously, step inside a washing machine and turn it on the fast spin cycle. Then, just to get the full effect, hop onto the fastest, most swirly, most topsy-turvy roller coaster you can find. As your insides are spinning with the rest of you and you begin to feel the contents of your belly rise to your throat, strap yourself into the cockpit to be sure you don’t fall overboard. More importantly, this will prevent you from voluntarily throwing yourself overboard because this is precisely what you will want to do. 

Charles Darwin once wrote to his father, “The misery I endured from sea-sickness is far far beyond what I ever guessed at. If it was not for sea-sickness, the whole world would be sailors.”

For some of us, the wretched phenomenon will strike every time we go to sea. At some point, you just accept that it’s going to happen. It can be minor, or it can be severe, but it will affect some of us to some degree on every passage. For others, the seasickness strikes less frequently. The bouts can be shorter and manageable, and perhaps they only show up in heavy offshore conditions or for other specific reasons. 

An experienced captain once told me that it’s all about tolerances. For him, he was fine until the waves reached three meters, then he generally became seasick. But in sailing conditions with less than three-meter waves, he was fine. For me, the seasickness hits me once I can no longer see land. It generally affects me for the first three days of any offshore passage, and then I tend to get my sea legs by using some natural remedies and mental techniques.

While some sailors only suffer mild seasickness and infrequently, for some, the debilitating effects can last nonstop for several straight days and nights, as it did for me while crossing the Bay of Biscay in a 43-foot steel ketch

Image courtesy of Cottonbro from Pexels

At times, I believe that every sailor experiences some level of seasickness—even if they don’t suffer as severely as I do. Experience can help. Preventive measures can help. There are ways to manage the uneasiness and to quell its effects. But let’s be clear—there is no sure-fire cure.

Seasickness is a fascinating phenomenon. I am ultimately intrigued by it when I am not experiencing it. Therefore, I have studied it deeply and tried almost all the so-called cures—chemical, physical, natural, and psychological.  

Seasickness, or mal de mer in French, is the reaction of your body’s inner ear balance system to the ship’s unfamiliar motion. Your brain sees things on the ship such as walls and furniture and instinctively knows from past experience that they should not be moving, but you are. Think of it as a battle of the senses. Your balance-sensing system (your inner ear, eyes, and sensory nerves) senses that your body is moving, but the other parts do not. For example, if you’re in the cabin of a moving vessel, your inner ear may sense the motion of waves, but your eyes don’t detect any movement. This sensory mismatch confuses your brain, and in turn, you feel sick.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 100% of us have—or will—succumb to seasickness on rough waters. 

Ancient Greeks referred to it as the “plague of the sea.” Even the most seasoned mariners can fall prey to seasickness. Producers of the popular TV show, Deadliest Catch, revealed that even Edgar Hansen of the Northwestern and Jonathan Hillstrand of Time Bandit still get seasick at the beginning of each season.

Experienced sailors who suffer from the phenomenon generally don’t stop cruising. Instead, they take precautions to lessen or prevent the miserable effects. 

There is no cure for seasickness—except maybe sitting under an apple tree. However, here are 30 tips that will help you battle your way through it:

Classic Tips

Try to stay on deck in the fresh air and focus on anything other than the moving ship. 

Remember that you need to let your brain adjust to this new unstable environment by allowing the horizon to act as the true point of reference.

If you choose to take seasickness medicine, it’s best to take it about two hours before departure. Once the seasickness sets in, it’s too late.

Try to avoid medicine that will make you drowsy if you know you have a shift at the helm within 6 hours.

When you begin to feel queasy, stay busy. Grab the wheel to feel a sense of control or focus on a small task.  

Many professional mariners suggest putting an earpiece or earplug in your non-dominant ear to provide balance. (If you are left-handed, place the earpiece in your right ear.)

Pharmaceutical Tips

Don’t take any medication or pharmaceuticals for seasickness without first consulting your doctor.

Scopolamine patches work for some people, but not for all. They require a prescription and can be expensive. For me, they caused severe headaches that were worse than the seasickness.

Some antihistamines can help with seasickness and motion sickness, but you should consult a doctor before taking them.

Some serotonin-based anti-nausea drugs have been known to help sufferers of motion sickness and seasickness, but definitely consult a doctor before using them.

Migraine medications have been known to help with motion sickness, but please be sure to consult a doctor before using them.

Some seizure medications may help with seasickness, but you should consult a doctor before using them.

Natural Tips

If possible, lie flat on your back in the cabin in the middle of the ship and try to sleep (sometimes this is not possible if you are sailing with a small crew). Either stand up or lie flat on your back when you feel the seasickness set in. Don’t sit.

Try to eat, but avoid spicy, acidic, or fatty food. Eat bland foods (crackers, bread, bananas, rice, plain pasta, applesauce, toast, etc.). Avoid dairy, alcohol, and anything that may make you feel bad on land. If it upsets your tummy on land, it will most definitely upset it at sea. Consider the reverse tastes of food (for example, an apple or banana tastes a lot better coming back up than tuna or yoghurt).

Stay hydrated. Hydrate well the day before and the morning of departure. This means avoiding alcohol and also taking at least a few sips of water, even during heavy bouts of vomiting. Hydration will also help to prevent muscle cramps.

Don’t try to cook in rough conditions. Instead, prepare in advance some snacks and cold meals and have them available to grab and eat quickly in the cockpit.

Prepare a thermos of ginger tea before departing and keep it handy in the cockpit in case the queasiness sets in. In fact, anything with ginger can be very helpful for sufferers of seasickness. Try ginger tea, powdered ginger capsules, ginger candy, ginger snaps, ginger ale, even raw ginger between the teeth has a very soothing effect. 

Try peppermint to prevent seasickness. While sailing, I often would simply dab a little mint-flavoured toothpaste on my tongue and found it very helpful.

Try devices like wrist bands or sea bands.

Carrot juice, apricot juice, parsley, sage, rosemary and many other herbs and plants have been known to help with seasickness.

Aromatherapy has been known to help people avoid seasickness. Use a fine mist sprayer with distilled water, lemon oil, cedarwood oil, dill oil, lavender oil and a few drops of spearmint. Spray it lightly on your face.

If possible, lie in a hammock. This can greatly quell the motion.

Psychological Tips

Do not stare at objects your brain will interpret as stable. Anything that involves staring at one point such as reading a book, staring at a computer screen, doing detailed needlework, or even staring at a compass might bring on a bout of seasickness.

Try to relax and not focus on your fears. The anxiety of fear can greatly contribute to seasickness.

Hold a potato in your left hand or find another trick that you can convince yourself will work for you. Sometimes mind over matter works if you truly believe it.

When you feel the uneasiness set in, try to distract yourself with something that requires concentration (for example, recite the Greek Alphabet, count to 100 in German, sing or recite all the lyrics of a song, recite dialogue from your favourite movie).  Listen to an audible book or music. In other words, distract your brain.

Embrace the things you love about being on the water and try to focus on the good things rather than the queasiness or the fear.

Arm yourself with information but try to avoid doing too much research about bodies of water or conditions that scare you.

Focus on the destination rather than the difficulty of the passage. Picture yourself on a soothing, relaxing beach (or wherever is your happy place). 

Challenge yourself. For example, while suffering four straight days and nights of seasickness on a Bay of Biscay passage, I challenged myself to never miss a shift, no matter how badly I felt.

Everyone is different. If you are a sufferer of seasickness, use these tips as a guideline and then find what works for you.

About the Author

Michelle Segrest, journalist and sailor, has written a book about seasickness: “How to Battle Seasickness: 100 Tips to Help You Get Your Sea Legs,” available digitally or in paperback.  

Michelle was the two Dicks guest on the Ocean Sailor Podcast episode 9 (listen here).

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