Mal de mer is an affliction that can plague both nautical neophytes and seasoned sailors alike. In very simple terms, it’s caused when the motion you see conflicts with the motion you sense in your inner ear. On a boat that’s moving in unlikely or unfamiliar directions due to wind and waves, it’s easy to see why this sensory chaos happens.
While some people have suffered from motion sickness (in any moving object) for their entire lives, others experience it only occasionally. For some, it takes rough or confused seas to bring it on; others feel ill even on calm days. Still others aren’t sure whether to worry about it or not. Unless you can say with absolute certainty that you don’t get seasick at all, in any conditions, the best strategy is to take precautions that will prevent it from happening in the first place.
There are many suggested methods for prevention. The most statistically reliable are pharmaceutical. There are also a host of natural and alternative remedies some people swear by — as well as some that are pure common sense.
Before You Sail
An overwhelmingly common sentiment is: “I don’t want to take anything if I don’t need it. If I start to feel sick, I’ll take something then.” Don’t make this mistake! No motion-sickness remedy will stop seasickness once it’s begun. Whatever you use, start it a minimum of several hours before you set sail, preferably the night before. Remember: Once you feel queasy, you’re likely in for the whole unpleasant ride.
Over-the-counter pharmaceutical remedies: Seasickness remedies in pill form abound; among the most familiar product names in the United States are Dramamine (dimenhydrinate, sold as Gravol in Canada and a few other countries) and Bonine (meclizine). Both of these can cause drowsiness. Dramamine Less Drowsy (which is, in fact, meclizine) claims to produce less-pronounced sleepiness; there is also a children’s formula, Dramamine for Kids (dimenhydrinate, chewable, 25 mg) for small sailors ages 2 to 12. In many parts of South America, Asia and Europe, Stugeron (cinnarizine) is a top seller that even many career offshore sailors swear by. It’s not available in the United States but can be bought in many global locations (and online from Canada and the U.K.), in some places without a prescription. Beware that depending on the country you’re buying from, Stugeron can be found in 15 mg and 75 mg doses. Avoid the 75 mg dose as it is intended for ailments much more severe than motion sickness! Trademarked product names vary from country to country, but generic drug names are recognized everywhere. If you neglect to buy a remedy before you leave home, ask for what you want by its generic name at a local pharmacy once you get to your destination.
It’s worth noting that anything you buy without a prescription requires careful reading (and heeding) of product warnings and interactions — and possibly a phone consult with your own physician — before you decide to take it.
By prescription only: One preventive medication many people use is the Transderm Scop patch (scopolamine) that’s applied discreetly behind one ear; medication is time-released through the skin. Each patch lasts for three days. If you’re reluctant to take pills, or can’t be bothered to dose up, this is an option. Applied in advance of travel, the patch is very effective in preventing mal de mer, but there are some caveats: You must never cut patches in half, and avoid touching them (even unconsciously) and then touching your eyes or blurred vision may result. As with any medication, there are warnings and possible side effects that should be heeded. In the United States, a prescription is mandatory. Scopolamine patches are available in some other countries under other trademarked names.
Compazine (prochlorperazine), Phenergan (promethazine) and Zofran (ondansetron) are often mentioned by sailors as seasickness remedies, but these powerful drugs are designed to treat a host of other serious disorders; they work to stop nausea and vomiting after it’s started, not to prevent it.
Natural remedies: Acupressure wrist bands have gained widespread popularity since their introduction many years ago, but there’s little evidence to prove their effectiveness. Many people claim that different variations of ginger or peppermint work miracles — candied ginger, ginger snaps, ginger ale, ginger tea; peppermint candy or tea — but again, evidence to support this is conflicting. (At the very least, they freshen the mouth.) Natural-product outlets sell many herbal and homeopathic remedies for motion sickness — there are even aromatherapy products. It doesn’t hurt to give any of these a try — if you find one you think works for you, stick with it.
Common-sense precautions: Avoid eating a heavy breakfast or lunch on the day you’ll be setting sail. Save that greasy burger for another day — eat a light, easy-to-digest meal, and stay away from alcohol or excess caffeine until you’re sure your stomach won’t revolt. Try to avoid sailing when you’re overtired — if possible, get a good night’s sleep before you sail. Do your best to set aside worry and anxiety — either about the sailing itself or whether you’ll get sick. All of these can contribute to seasickness.
For an unlucky few, seasickness strikes in spite of precautions. Others may have chosen to tough it out and take their chances. If you’re one of these sailors, and you’re alert for the early signs of motion sickness, there are ways you can avoid making it worse.
Say no to going below! Once the boat is underway, if you start feeling very drowsy, develop a headache, look pale or are slightly dizzy, beware. This is likely stage-one seasickness. At all costs, avoid the natural impulse to go below and lie down — this will only make it worse! Even if you feel fine, if you’re unsure, stay abovedecks while the boat is moving; go below only if and when absolutely necessary, for as short a time as possible.
Take a turn at the helm. Focus can help restore equilibrium. Steering the boat toward a fixed point on the horizon is best, if possible; staring at a wobbly compass card can sometimes make things worse. If you must steer a compass course, focus mainly on the horizon ahead of the boat; glance down to check your course only as needed.
Sit amidships and keep your eyes on the horizon. On most boats, the motion is generally less extreme if you can safely situate yourself above deck, near the center of the boat’s width and length. If the boat is motoring downwind, try to find a spot to avoid engine fumes. Keep your eyes focused on the fixed horizon, not on the pitching boat or the undulating sea.
Avoid alcohol. A beer will not help settle your stomach. Avoid power-drinking anything, even soft drinks. Take small sips of liquid, preferably water, to stay hydrated, but don’t gulp it down. It’s probably best to avoid carbonated beverages — if you think Coke or ginger ale will help settle your stomach, allow it to go a bit flat before sipping.
Plug in earbuds. This technique has proved itself time and again on charters aboard our Atlantic 70 cutter, Stressbuster, with equal numbers of sailors and nonsailors alike. Don’t recline; sit amidships, gaze at the horizon and plug your ears into some calming music — the stereo effect seems to work to relax the turmoil in the inner ear. This is especially helpful for young children or people who can’t take seasickness medication.
The good news is that, in most cases, initial seasickness disappears after the first day or two of sailing, as you and your body become accustomed to the boat’s motion. If your best efforts at prevention fail and you do get seasick, keep a bucket within easy reach, clip in with a harness and keep this in mind: The cloud of being seasick will miraculously vanish the moment you set foot on dry, stable land.
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Lynda Morris Childress and her husband, Kostas Ghiokas, sail and charter their Atlantic 70 cutter, Stressbuster, in the Greek islands.