Thursday, January 05, 2012


Conditions like this can cause "mal de mer"
Mal de mer, or seasickness, is one of the worst side effects of has been known to turn people from sailing for good, can range from mild to severely debilitating and to the sufferer, anything - sometimes even death - can seem to be welcome relief from it. It's pretty much the most miserable feeling you can ever imagine.

I'm not sure why - but I don't suffer from seasickness aside from mild nausea from time to time in very rough conditions and I have never in my life actually been sick because of it.  Scott has only thrown up from being seasick once and that was very early in our trip.  But we have dealt with enough seasick people and read enough accounts to know just how awful and incredibly serious it can be.  I read one story of a man who had to lock his wife below during a particularly rough Atlantic crossing because she was so ill and delusional that she was seriously threatening to jump off the boat for relief.  My dad has also had to lash a severely sick friend to the boat for the same reason.  Seasickness is very real, and if one or more members of your crew gets ill - it can make for miserable passages fraught with anxiety, fear and lots of icky clean-up.

Luckily - there are lots of great ways to treat seasickness, but first, what are the signs?

A good captain will always be keeping an eye on crew to make sure they're feeling okay.  For some reason or another, people don't like to admit to being seasick.  I don't know why people get prideful about this, because denying it only makes it worse, but they do.  So if you are the captain, it's important to look for signs on passengers that might be too stubborn to admit it.

The first sign is sleepiness.  When we are out sailing with friends I'm always looking for the tell-tale yawn.  Frequent yawning is usually the very first sign.  This doesn't mean the person will be sick, but it does mean they are on their way.  For this individual - it's important they stay above deck and in fresh air. The next symptom is usually headache which is soon followed by nausea.  Once the nausea hits, people will usually start to fess up.  It is around this point that they will turn green.  And I'm not joking, truly seasick people will actually change color.  Unfortunately for them, it is usually too late to take any medication.  If it's mild enough - I'll always tell people to lie down and try to go to sleep.  Sleep seems to ward off seasickness and I think if you catch it early this can prevent losing your cookies.

What are some other ways to ward off mal de mer?
  1. Eat Ginger.  Ginger is a natural cure.  We keep candied ginger on the boat and ginger ale (even though it's not cold, it'll still settle a queasy tummy).
  2. Stay hydrated.  Before you head out to sea avoid acidic drinks like coffee or tea and make sure you drink LOTS of water.  Pre-hydrating can greatly help fight motion sickness.  Also, if you do become afflicted - it is very important to keep taking small sips of water to avoid dehydration.  If you are prone to seasickness, it's also probably wise to avoid the wild booze infested send-off the night before.  A hangover is really un-fun on a bouncy boat (trust me on this one!).
  3. Eat something.  Believe it or not, having something in your stomach will also help you to avoid seasickness.  Don't go crazy, but something bland like a bagel with butter or some toast with peanut butter is a great way to start a day off at sea.  Also - if you start feeling sick - best to nibble on something very simple like saltine crackers, as this too can help fight the nausea.  We keep Rasmus stocked with saltines for this very reason.
  4. If you are prone to seasickness, stay above deck in fresh air.  Some people will be fine while they are on deck and the minute they go down below, they will quickly return ill.  If you can avoid going below, do.  Trust me.  
  5. Avoid reading and anything that requires small motor skills.  On a boat that's bouncing around in rough seas is no time to play scrabble on your iPhone.  This is like an instant puke button for those who are prone to seasickness.
  6. Lay down, on your back, near the center of the boat.  For some reason, I think laying on my back is always best if I feel a little queasy.  Also - you want to try and stay toward the center of the boat if you can as that is the steadiest part of the boat.  Stay away from the v-berth!  You will be bucking and bouncing like crazy up there.  Find a nice sea berth and close your eyes.
  7. Avoid strong fumes.  Nothing will take a person from nauseous to puke like a good whiff of burning diesel.  Try to avoid!
  8. Steer the boat!  A good captain will always hand over the helm to someone he thinks might be suffering from seasickness, it's an almost instant cure.  For some reason, staying busy and concentrating on something simple like steering does wonders for a ill tummy.
  9. Swallow your pride.  Denying that you feel sick is NOT going to make you feel better, in fact, you will only slowly get to the point of no return.  The minute you think you might be getting ill is the time to tell the captain and ask for a remedy.  What will hurt your pride more, asking for some dramamine or loosing your lunch over the rail?
As I mentioned, there are many great medications available nowadays and from what I hear from cruising friends who need/use them - they work great.  Some are available over the counter, others via prescription.  Here are a few of the best according to our research:
  • Dramamine - this is the one medication we have aboard and it works great for mild cases of seasickness.  Take it about 30 minutes before you shove off and you should be good to go.  It does make you a little drowsy, but drowsy is a lot better than pukey.  Dramamine is widely available at drugstores and marine chandleries all over the US.
  • Scopolamine Patch - Scott and I have never used these, but apparently they work well - especially for people who suffer more severely and for whom Dramamine doesn't work.  You've seen these before - they are the little round patches that go behind the ear so they work well for someone already sick since nothing must be ingested (once seasick, pretty much nothing will stay down rendering any oral medications useless).
  • Bonine (Meclizine) - Again, Scott and I have never used this either - but we have friends who swear by it and love it.  This is also available over the counter and seems to be slightly more effective than dramamine.
There are also non-medicative solutions such as wristbands, but according to Mythbusters, these do not work well at all so I have not included them here.  Although we do have four ReliefBand's on board and have had people use them, I can't really say they have been super effective.  I also very strongly believe that, by and large, mild motion sickness can be dealt with mentally.  When we would take out friends, the ones that looked out and said, "Oh man, I'm going to get sick" did, in fact, get sick.  Try to think positively and remember the power of suggestion!

It's also important to note that some of the greatest sailors in the world are prone to seasickness.  For most people, the nausea will work itself out after you get your "sea legs" after a few days - and for others, there are ways to deal with it so you are comfortable!  Don't let seasickness keep you land-locked, just find what works best for you (it might be a combo of any of the above) and stick with it.

What is your best remedy for mal de mer natural or otherwise?

Brittany & Scott


Kent in Kansas City said...

A photographer friend on a shoot started becoming seasick as he focused through the camera to another boat. He thought he would have to cancel the shoot. The captain on his boat told him to keep his eyes out of the boat and concentrate on the horizon. The horizon, except in horrible weather, remains more constant. Focusing on the immediate area and its movement around the boat tricks your eye into thinking there is more motion than there actually is.
Second, I use Bonine because it does not have the same drowsy effect on me, and I frequently am the only really experienced sailor on a charter.

Paul said...

Brittany and Scott,
I am the guy who never gets seasick but I have two short stories with remedies that worked for these people.
My daughter is currently in Navy flight school and was about to be bounced out of the program because of “airsickness”, which is the same as being seasick but there is no place to puck but in your lap. She was doing everything her non-seasick father had always heard to do, ‘eat toast, bagel with peanut butter, crackers’ etc. Nothing seemed to be working and one more incident and she might be grounded for good. Then her flight instructor told her to eat something ‘heavy’ for breakfast or before she flew. He told her to have a cheeseburger or something on that scale, which sounded like he was trying to give her advice to fast track her out of flight school. However, his advice worked! My daughter started eating canned ravioli every morning for breakfast and poof, no more airsickness. Her training will continue for another year and with the airsickness issue behind her, she can now consecrate on the important stuff, like landings!
My ex-wife and I enjoyed diving however when we would go, she would be the first one with her gear on and in the water and down, because the longer she was on the boat, the more likely she was going to chum. Once she was below the surface of the water, she was fine. This method worked well in Key West and in the DR and most of the time in Jamaica but it was on one such trip in Jamaica that everything went wrong with her plan. The dive boat we were using was smaller than normal and the seas were rougher than normal. Before you knew it, we all got to see her breakfast again, IN THE BOAT! Needless to say, the dive master received a generous tip when we got back to dry land. Since we had several dives scheduled that week, he suggested she talk to the nurse at the resort, which we did. She gave my ex a product they called “gruval or gravel”, she told us in English but there was a language barrier all the same. It was over the counter in Jamaica but no one here in the states has any idea what it was. They were very tiny, white pills and I think she took one, maybe two, abut thirty minutes before we went out. All I know is that it worked! It worked so well that we made sure to get some extra before we left for future trips. Unfortunately they didn’t have any pills to help the marriage, ha!
As usual, that’s for a great read and good advice.
Full sails and sunshine,

Laura and Hans said...

I used to be the queen of car sickness so needless to say I knew I wouldn't fare very well on a boat. But a few years ago I discovered ginger root capsules. You have to take them before you set out and then continue to take them every two hours but for the most part they worked for me. I actually quit taking them as I seem to have become acclimated to life on a boat. However I still sometimes get sick during long rolly passages.
And you're so right about hangovers! Ouch.

Bettie del Mar said...

I've only gotten seasick once, and that was directly related to what I did to myself the night before. Really not pretty. But I have suffered from what I like to call "land sickness." When we first moved aboard, I would feel discombobulated and dizzy every time I stepped foot on the dock, and this lasted about 3 weeks. I should have tried the ginger!

Burnie said...

Hey Brittany, great post. You should have mentioned the main cause of sea sickness and that helps your suggestions make more sense. It is usually caused by your inner ear telling your brain one thing while your eyes are telling it something else. Your inner ears know that you are rolling up and down, so when you go down below that environment is not moving and stationary as far as your eyes are concerned because they are moving together. The same thing happens when you look down to read and lose sight of the horizon that is rolling up and down. The page is stationary to your eyes and not moving but those pesky inner ears know better. Look up at the horizon and that motion sickness feeling goes right away. That is why taking the helm works because you can see the horizon and your eyes are telling your brain the same thing as your inner ear and all is right with the world. So I alway watch for those tell tale signs and explain what is happening to them. Once they understand the mechainics of it, like you mentioned it can be overcome mentally. If they wont take the helm I ask them to at least breath in the fresh and watch the horizon and it works everytime.

Adam said...

Lots of good advice here. Many of these things have occurred to me, usually while I was busy mopping puke of the cabin sole.

I have not experienced sea sickness, but reading on the bus often makes me queasy. My theory is nausea by association... the muscle coordination you do while trying to compensate for motion just feels a lot like the muscle tension you get when your stomach is getting ready to return to sender. I have found that relaxation techniques work wonders for my motion sickness.

Sam Chapin said...

I wondered over here from Proper Course and will add a little. a hundred years ago when I was at the u or Rochester Medical School they had a Navy finacied sea sick experitemal station. It was actually a 20 foot one person elevator that they could run at any speed. They told me they have never found anyone they couldn't get sick. ie- the suggestion is, if it is rough enough long enough everyone will bite. But at about age 70 I went from easly sea sick to never since (but limited roughness). ie tendency for balance and inner ear function to fall off and sensitivity to motion reduced. Just get older and it will get better when everything else gets worse.

SailFarLiveFree said...

I was once told the best way to avoid getting seasick is sit near a big tree in an open grassy field. I imagine that would work!

sgtyson said...

I have a sea sickness story with a happy ending.
We were day sailing with some friends out of Monroe Street when we noticed Joanna turn a peculiar shade of green that I'd never seen before. We hurried back to shore as quickly as we could in a sailboat and finished our sandwiches and beer on the grass at Monroe Street Harbor (the "getting busted for drinking on Park District property" is another part of the story I won't go into here).
Turns out the seasickness was the first hint Joanna rec'd that she might be pregnant, something they'd wanted for about 8 years. Joanna and Michael tell us that they think of us when they look at 18 year old Liam.

Lisa Hanneman said...

Remember when I got seasick when we were snorkeling in Key West? Holy crap, that was awful. It was the only time, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit it freaked me out enough to always be worried before jumping back on a boat. Blech!

p.s. I'm guessing you don't actually remember this.

Noodle said...

Get focused. That's the deal. Steer. rehearse your knots. Look at something steady. The horizon will do. Another boat works great; Clouds are good too. They work even when the victim is laying down. Also, avoid hunger, getting cold, getting wet.

db said...

Good tips for pregnancy sickness too :) Hope you are feeling well!

Anonymous said...

Gravol is the equivalent to Dramamine. However, you can get non-drowsy and gravol made with ginger now in Canada. Works like a charm when taking the helm doesn't work. Also, I've been told putting an earplug in just one ear works, as well, but I haven't had a chance to test this one

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