Seasickness, and how to fight it
Sailors usually describe it this way: “at first you are afraid you are going to die; not long after you'll be afraid you are not going to die.” Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, cold sweats, a throbbing headache, anxiety. Sometimes we don’t even need high seas to start feeling woozy while sailing. It might be enough to go down below to the cabin, start cooking or reading a book while sailing, or have a good party with the crew at the bonfire a night before the passage. But sometimes it just happens, without any particular reason. Yep, we are talking about feeding the fish. Her majesty the seasickness.
What is a seasick and why does it happen?
Seasickness or motion sickness isn’t completely understood by scientists. Basically, it is caused by a confusion in the body, and a tiny organ called inner ear is mostly responsible for it: while one part of your balance-sensing system (the inner ear, eyes and sensory nerves) sense that your body is moving, but the other parts don’t. That’s when you can start feeling motion sickness.
It can be caused not only by a rocky sea, but also driving, air travel, playing 3D video games, riding a roller coaster at the amusement park, taking the elevator, or even a health issue.
Seasickness is common, even for people who live or work on boats full-time. So remember: there’s nothing to be ashamed of, it happens even to the most experienced captains and their sea dogs (and even cats!) – in most cases it’s just a matter of when.
In fact, around 80% of the population suffer from motion sickness at some time in their lives. Similar percentages of population eventually get acclimated to the sea rhythm and are naturally cured. For the remaining part of unlucky ones, there are ways to prevent and fight seasickness, or at least minimize the problem until you get used to the motion of the boat. Some of those techniques might be effective for you, some of them might be not, and unfortunately, for some there’s no helpful remedy at all. Therefore having seasickness is a curse for those who love the sea, and anyone who fights seasickness for the love of the sea should be respected.
But if you are just about to start sailing – don't worry too much and don’t let the fear of seasickness stop you from doing what you love, most probably you will finally find your sea-legs. Check out those tested tips we’ve gathered from our friends and fellow sailors – chances are they will help you too!
First things first: ways to minimize the possibility to get seasick
First thing you can do – don’t start thinking you will get seasick. Keep yourself busy on the boat – trim sails, hand steer at the helm, chat with your teammates, listen to your favorite music, watch the horizon. First time I felt symptoms of seasickness was when I thought I could feel seasick – my sickness was caused by fear of getting sick. Those who are constantly seasick may be angry for this tip, but if you are a novice for sea travel – it’s worth trying. And if you have few different seasickness remedies in your pocket – it will help to keep your mind at peace.
Secondly, try to minimize the possibility of getting ill in the first place – don’t abuse caffeine, sugar, alcohol, or heavy food not only on, but also before stepping on the boat. A pub crawl with the last stop at a greasy burger house a night before sailing is probably a bad idea – if it can make you sick on land, imagine what can happen at the sea!
However, it is very important to keep yourself hydrated all the time, and don’t forget to eat something little – a light meal before stepping aboard is definitely a good idea. Don't starve on the boat, keep on snacking from time to time. For most sailors dry and salty foods work best, crackers are just fine if the sea is too high to cook. One of my sailing friends found out that boiled potato makes a miracle to her – I witnessed how it saved her life after two horrible days. On the other hand, know your stomach: maybe acid foods like oranges irritate it? Does it cope well with paprika, mushrooms, or milk?
Keep yourself hydrated, but don't abuse alcohol - photo by @tamedwinds
Another common seasickness trigger is a smell – diesel is quite a common one, but it’s very personal. For example, I can’t stand the smell of boiled Brussels sprouts while sailing, and many people can’t stand greasy cooking smells.
Also, being too warm or having too tight clothes around your neck may cause you problems. Thermals in particular can be a big problem, so unless you are sailing in the Arctic, consider a simple oversized Tamed Winds hoodie. On the other hand, being too cold increases your chances to get seasick, too! Try to maintain a comfortable body temperature.
Simple oversized hoodie by Tamed Winds - photo by @tamedwinds
Being down in the cabin is another very common cause, as it confuses your body: eyes don't see the motion of the boat, but the body can definitely sense it. Therefore try to stay on a deck as much as possible, but if you really really need to go down below, see if you can open a hatch or turn a fan on, and breathe deeply. I’ve heard one lady playing a video of the sea horizon on her phone in order to save herself from being ill when she’s below, so she can trick her eyes and adjust what her body sees and senses.
Watching the video of the horizon might help when down below the deck - photo by @tamedwinds
It doesn’t work for me, but many people say it helps them to lay down on a deck when first symptoms appear. For some it’s even the final attempt when nothing else helps. Because the middle of the boat is where the tilting is felt the least, that might be your spot to lay flat. And flat means no pillow.
Another laying-related trick is laying in a nice hammock strung fore-to-aft. It will let you lay almost motionless while the ship rolls beneath you - you still feel the up and down heave of the ship, but it will reduce the rolls. Yet, it’s far from being the safest way to fight seasickness in case the sea gets rough!
However, if you are able to fall asleep – it can be a good way to go through the seasickness and adapt to the boat motion less painfully. So don’t be shy and take a nap at any place comfortable for you, it doesn’t have to be your own bunk bed.
And by the way, leave books, phones and computers aside for a while. Reading both paper and screen, or gaming is a good way to get seasick. If you must read - be sure to read small portions at a time with frequent breaks to look up towards the horizon. If you must use a computer, try a program that reads the text out-loud to avoid fixing your eyes on the screen. If you can choose, it’s better to use a Kindle (preferably waterproof), which isn’t as bright and doesn’t “flicker” like a phone or tablet, or listen to an audio book.
Before you go, there are some items you can consider acquiring
Motion sickness wristbands, otherwise called pressure bracelets. Even if they may look pretty fake at the first glance, many people swear on them, even complete skeptics. Sea Band brand is among the most popular ones. The principle of how these wristbands work is simple: they exert gentle pressure on specific points on each wrist. There are few advantages of Sea Bands: first of all, they have no side effects, therefore if wristbands don’t seem to work for you, they can be safely combined with any other remedy. Also, these things are washable, and the possibility of making them wet without damaging or reducing the effectiveness is very important while on the water. So since you get more, much more chances to get seasick when going down below to the cabin, there’s no need to remove your wristbands while in the shower. And last but not least - it is a rather inexpensive option keeping in mind that they can last a long time, at least as long as the elastic wristband lasts.
Other option is the Relief Band, a device which can be good for people who don’t find the Sea-Bands hit the spot. It also simulates the secret spot on your wrist, however, it happens with a help of low-level electrical current. It is a pricey device compared to Sea Band, but based on tests it works for 85% of users. Good news for sailors: the manufacturer states it helps hangover! However, it may irritate the skin of your wrist, especially if you have an allergy on low quality metals such as fake jewelry.
In case a sailing trip has already started and there’s no time for shopping, try to use what you have on hand: plug one air. It’s a very weird method but we’ve heard many people using it. It is related to tricking your inner ear which is responsible for seasickness. Which ear to plug? It’s your non-dominant ear. It means if you're right-handed, you wear one in your left ear, and vice versa. It gets more complicated for people who have a dominant right hand but a dominant left eye… But let's not get deeper into it! And in case it doesn’t help, you can always plug another ear so you don’t hear the captain yell at you for making a mess on their boat. Bonus tip: if your ear canal is small just like mine, and your ears are sensitive, I highly recommend earplugs from 3M: these are on a smaller side, very soft and gentle to your ear. And since they come in bright neon colour, it’s easier to find it in case you drop it!
Another popular remedy is ginger. Ginger is a natural antihistamine, so keeping a fresh ginger root on a boat can be very useful. Make some ginger tea: boil a few slices of ginger root in a pot for 3-5 minutes, and add some honey if you like it sweeter. Same recipe will help your sore throat, as well as keep you hydrated.
Keep a fresh ginger root on the boat - photo by @tamedwinds
No fresh ginger? Other forms of ginger are available on the market, such as candies, drops, or chewing gum. Sea Band, which I’ve mentioned already, produse safe, natural ginger gum with no side effects. It tastes rather weird, but if it helps – I’m sure you will not mind. Otherwise, grab a ginger beer! Can’t stand ginger taste? There are tablets, too!
Ear patches are another natural treatment for motion sickness. Usually you need to stick one or two behind your ear 10-30 minutes before stepping on the boat, depending on the brand. There are several brands with different herbal composition to try out, for example those ear patches from MQ, which are waterproof and the effect lasts up to 72 hours. Compared to traditional tablets, herbal patches are a safe method to fight seasickness without side effects like drowsiness. Another advantage compared to tablets – no need to swallow, which seems to be a difficult procedure for many of us when seasick.
Pharmaceutical solutions, such as over-the-counter drugs Dramamine and Bonine, are the two most common seasickness remedies mostly recommended by pharmacists, and can be purchased at most drug stores. However, they contain antihistamines which, along with other side effects, can cause drowsiness. So, if your human resources on your boat are limited and you must stay focused, make sure to look for the non-drowsy formulas such as this or this. Also, many people say it works only if taken before going to the sea.
Scopolamine patches are a strong prescription drug which may help when nothing else does. They are worn behind the ear and look like small band-aids, and are amongst most popular prescription drugs for seasickness. The great thing about the patch is that it continues working even after you start to throw-up. But, be warned, prolonged use of the patch can lead to serious side effects, even hallucinations!
Even if some of the remedies above will only have a placebo effect on you, as long as it helps – it’s great. But please, don’t forget to read all directions and warnings on the package before using. Always consult a physician before taking any new health products, and keep out of reach of children!
If you do get seasick
What if all magic tricks, wristbands and pills don't work and you are already sick? One old captain we’ve met on the Mediterranean coast, who spent all his life at sea and on whom one of us vomited during a regatta, shared his personal tip: when you get sick, keep your stomach full with food, lots of it. It’s quite personal, we’ve heard people doing the same trick with one beer, a sip of Coke, peanut butter, and even an apple. But if there was a luxury of fat meat soup – that seemed to be the best option for our captain. And that is why: when we are sick, our instincts tell us to keep our mouths shut because everything looks and smells disgusting. But the thing is that if you start vomiting while your stomach is empty, you will make yourself feeling even worse. Green or yellow vomit may indicate that you're bringing up a fluid called bile – a fluid created by the liver and stored in your gallbladder. And that’s what you want to avoid at any means. Keeping your stomach full will not prevent you from seasickness, but it will prevent your body from releasing bile. You will throw up once or twice and you will be fine (make sure you keep your stomach full in between). Vomiting the bile will make you feel much worse, and for a much longer period. Tested on our team!
So if you start feeling really bad, hang your head overboard, use your fingers and make yourself get sick. Don’t try to deal with it, it will go away much faster after feeding the contents of your stomach to the fish. Just be sure to have that content right before you make yourself sick!
If your teammate gets seasick
Clip them to the safety line if they are on deck. Remember, they feel so bad that they are ready to die right now. If they are down in the cabin – try to give them access to fresh air and loosen clothes around their necks. Ask them if they need anything once in a while: one fellow told us he froze his hands because he wasn’t wearing gloves. The gloves were in his pocket, but he was so bad he couldn’t put them on himself. Bring water or some food – vomiting bile will make them out-of-business for much longer. Finally, hold hair while they evacuate the contents of their stomach. However, if you are not 100% well yourself and there’s someone else to watch over your friend – stay away: watching other people get sick is another sure way to get seasick yourself.
Don't forget to clip your unfortunate seasick mate - photo by @tamedwinds
And remember – there is no ultimate tip nor 100% reliable remedy, and not every time the same solution will work on you. You will need to try out a few to find what works best. Some techniques described above are scientifically tested, others are sailors' tales, and few of them have been verified by the Tamed Winds team.
Oh, wait, there is one ultimate tip! The Irish comedian Terence Alan "Spike" Milligan once said: “A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.”
Keep this cheat sheet handy in order to help yourself solve the eye-ear-brain problem - photo by @tamedwinds
Fair winds and following seas!
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