Being Seasick Is… Yuck!

Have you ever been seasick? I mean, really really seasick? It happened to me once, and I can assure you I do not need a second round of that. Here is some background and advice on seasickness, how to avoid it and how to deal with it.

Hubert being seasickIt was the second night of our 230 nm nonstop sailing trip from Flensburg to Gothenburg on a 44ft yacht. My watch ended at 22:00h, next one to start at 04:00h. When I went to bed the wind had stabilised at something like 20 knots. The forecast for the next 24 hours showed slightly increasing wind speeds first, then dropping down to 12-15 knots.

Very bumpy and shaky it was when I woke up at 03:40h, and I was wondering a lot why a fellow sailor needed to sort the dishes by size. Then by colour. Then by size again. And that in the middle of the night. A lot later it became clear that this was the distraction he needed from feeling extremely unwell.

The banana I had for breakfast did not want to stay where it was supposed to stay, neither did a lot of tea and water. I had a more than terrible day, winds increasing to an astonishing 45 knots – and that on the Baltic Sea.

Luckily, we had clear waters and no-one near us, and a fraction of foresail kept us speeding ahead and towards Gothenburg. The ups and downs on those five meter waves were not meant to make my day. We reached Gothenburg around lunchtime the next day, and I still felt absolutely miserable.

This was my first time – and luckily so far the last time as well – of being seasick. I am very certainly not the only one worrying about seasickness when thinking of future sailing trips. That’s why I have put together some information on the background of seasickness, preventive measures and what to do when a person on board is seasick.

Seasick – how come?

Seasickness is (apart from being an absolute pain in the neck) mainly caused by the disagreement between visually perceived movement and the vestibular system’s sense of movement. In other very simple words, your brain gets different stories from your inner ear and your eyes. A very common situation is a person spending time down below, where the supposedly stable environment cannot be aligned with the boat’s movement. The general difficulty of getting the signals from eyes and inner ear aligned can get intensified by a fixed or limited view, e.g. when reading a book or in very foggy conditions.

First signals of seasickness are usually lots of yawning, feeling tired and weak, and the start of a major headache. This quickly moves on to dizziness, fatigue, followed by nausea and – finally – vomiting. At first it might feel like a big relief and the end of seasickness, however, vomiting usually does not cure the cause of seasickness and it will simply continue, including repeatedly being sick. This can get to a point where a person feels that the only way to get better is to die – no kidding. It is the skipper’s and fellow sailors’ main task to look after seasick folks and ensure they get better and don’t do anything silly like jumping overboard.

How to avoid seasickness

Well, the bad news first: There is not THE proven method for avoiding seasickness. Unless, of course, you count “don’t go onto, into or near water at all” as some official advice…

There are numerous pills and gadgets on the market, all suggesting that they can help prevent getting seasick. It might work. However, I have never tried any of the suggestions made by the pharmaceutical, homeopathic or gadget industry.

For me, a very basic approach has worked perfectly ever since my trip to Gothenburg. I need to support my body and brain to get it all sorted out correctly when sailing. Meaning, get enough sleep and eat the right food before going sailing.

Quite a few reports show that a diet with no or a low level of histamine seems to decrease the likelihood of getting seasick dramatically. Starting a couple of days before your sailing trip, try to not consume food with too much histamine. It can be found mainly (but not only) in

  • pickled and canned food
  • tuna, seafood, canned fish
  • smoked meat, salami, ham
  • alcohol
  • and – what a shocker – chocolate.

So, this is probably the most boring news for charter crews. Booze, chocolate and not enough sleep increase the likelihood of getting seasick. Sorry, folks.

The way the body tolerates histamine is, of course, different for every human. You need to find out what works best for you, which food causes problems and which one helps. Check with your doc which parts of your diet might hold a lot of histamine, and try to find histamine-free substitutes for those.

What to do when seasick?

Despite all preparations and preventive measures seasickness can strike you nonetheless. I have put together some scientifically not at all proven suggestions on what to do once you’ve got seasick:

  • stay outside, if possible
  • keep yourself busy: be it steering, clearing the deck, singing for the crew, counting birds, occupy yourself with tasks and try not to think about seasickness
  • get some decent rest: if enough other sailors are around, lie down and try to sleep; either outside, safely attached, or down below ideally where the yacht’s movements are smoothest (usually middle of the yacht)
  • and, despite it possibly showing up again after a short while: drink lots of water to avoid dehydration, eat some basic, dry food
  • for the skipper and crew: take care of and look after seasick fellow sailors, make sure they drink water and get some rest, and by all means don’t let them jump off the boat.

An important final note: Seasickness is not something to be made fun of. Don’t take the mickey out of seasick sailors, don’t photograph them, don’t laugh at them. For them it might very well feel like the end of the world. First of all help them to get over it, and then have a great sailing trip afterwards.

This article is based on my own experience, combined with some internet research results and talking to sailing friends. I am sure you will have your own experiences, ideas, tips and hints on what to do to prevent or get rid of seasickness. Feel free to comment or let me know – it’s always great to hear from you.

Have a great day sailing and I do hope you won’t need to worry about seasickness!

25 Replies to “Being Seasick Is… Yuck!”

  1. Yes I agree with Stugeron. There are things here in New Zealand that are called Paihia Bombs that people also swear by, but I haven’t tried them. I find snacking on crunch salty things helps too – popcorn, crackers, nuts, pretzels etc. Might give your tummy something else to think about.

    1. “Paihia Bombs” sounds definitely interesting, I guess they are not really on the approved-medicine-list in Germany 😉
      Salty snacks should certainly work much better than the sugar and chocolate stuff, glad that you as one of the ultra-experienced sailors seem to think that as well…
      Thanks for your lines, Viki!

      1. Pardon, my mistake, but I may have thought of the wrong ingredient. Nevertheless, Pepsi Cola is supposed to work as well.

  2. Watching the horizon or just staying busy. This reminds of a cautionary tale. I took a celestial navigation course with a client out in the Caribbean in the 80’s. He had a sea sickness problem especially because we were doing all our calculations below. Anyway, he donned a scopolamine patch and the seasickness was much better but he could not do the math. Scopolamine has that effect on some people. This gentleman was a very successful attorney, but he was literally drawing a blank.

      1. They need to come up with a Red Bull ginger coke for sailors. If it didn’t work you probably would at least be pre-vomited.

        1. I don’t even want to think about what this might taste like… still, you might have an idea for a new product here (and however good you might market it, I won’t become a customer…)

  3. I swear by Bonine as a preventative measure. I tell my customers when I’m taking one hoping they get the hint….but tough guys always learn the hard way!

  4. I used to suffer from motion sickness as a child especially in cars but also at sea on cross channel ferries however, when sailing in small boats, I carry a jar of crystallised ginger which seems to do the trick but I have found the very best way to overcome this debilitating problem is to take the helm of the boat. It forces one to concentrate and soon the feeling is forgotten. I will say, even on my own boat, sailing solo going below whilst the autohelm is on to do some chart work can in fairly short seas also be problematic so good planning before a passage including drinks, food and with written notes re courses to steer etc topsides do reduce the need to go below where often most discomfort is experienced.

    1. I don’t like going down below either, but somehow you have to on longer trips… still, also from you the ginger-advice, this is something I’ll certainly keep in mind.

  5. I work on boats in the charter industry and the tips and tricks we give to our customers are the following:
    – don’t go down below
    – drink gingerbeer (something with real ginger in it) or take a ginger tablet
    – wear a seasickness wrist band
    – look at the horizon
    – drive the boat
    – if all else fails, go downwind and shoot for distance!!

  6. I had a weird experience two months ago. Very rough conditions for about 6 hours and I was fine. But when we got into calm waters nearing our destination I promptly felt nausea. Not terrible, but still…

      1. probably obvious, but we should mention that the more time you spend on the water the less trouble you will have with sea sickness.

        1. I would agree in general, with the occasional exception, of course… a German multi-circumnavigator, Astrid Erdmann, has never managed to get rid of seasickness despite her having sailed way passed the 100k-nm-mark.

          1. Sumner “Huey” Long was also notorious for getting seasick his entire sailing career. In the final analysis he loved sailing more than he disliked nausea.

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