To Barf or not to Barf, that is the question

11/1/2011

Liz Tosoni

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer silently
The derision of those who suffer not
Or to lose lunch bravely into a sea of troubles
And by purging end them? To die, to hurl,
No more- and thereby end
The bellyache and the thousand natural revulsions
That seagoing flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To puke; ay, there goes the grub.”

(those words are from the back cover of the hilarious yet practical and informative “HEAVE HO, My Little Green Book of SEASICKNESS” by Charles Mazel, International Marine, Camden Maine)

I felt compelled to quote the above as it so aptly and humorously brings to mind the universal sense of despair and wish to end it all, that one can feel when one experiences that age old malady commonly known as ‘mal de mer’ or seasickness.

Tom and I are no strangers to that ancient, bilious affliction. For years we lived with the knowledge that we are types that get seasick, that as much as we despised it, if we wanted to go to sea, we had to put up with it. We learned how our bodies behaved in big heaving seas and once they (the seas) arrived, it was a matter of “here we go again” and learned how to cope with it. We accepted the fact that the first two days of every long voyage would be uncomfortable if not miserable.

We tried everything recommended to combat it from wrist bands to scopolamine patches but nothing seemed to work for either of us, so we basically put up with it for years on end.

My greatest fear when we set out on our very first offshore passage, from Vancouver to San Francisco, was that I would be seasick the entire voyage (700 miles). I was terrified that I would not be able to overcome the illness that always overtook me, until we arrived in port. I had heard of people who are ill and incapacitated for entire passages and I didn’t know if I would be one of them. A great lesson was learned on that very first voyage however. I came to realize that I do get over the wretched feelings, the nausea, the apathy, the soporific lassitude. My body does adjust to the motion, I do feel normal again, after a given amount of time. This was a great relief. Tom discovered the same thing about himself on that voyage.

So, we accepted the self-inflicted illness (if you don’t go to sea you don’t get it) as we wanted to see the world aboard our sailboat, plain and simple.

According to Timothy C. Hain, MD , “motion sickness is the nausea, disorientation and fatigue that can be induced by head motion. The first sign is usually pallor. Yawning, restlessness and a cold sweat forming on the upper lip or forehead often follow. As symptoms build, an upset stomach, fatigue or drowsiness may occur. The final stages are characterized by nausea and vomiting.” And then there are all the lovely auxiliary symptoms that can also occur: dry lips, headache, drowsiness, dizziness, salivation, belching and even flatulence.

The fact of the matter is, most people do get seasick. Almost no one never gets seasick. It’s a perfectly natural reaction to unusual motion.

From Wikipedia I learned that the most common thinking about the cause of motion sickness is that it functions as a defense mechanism against neurotoxins. “The area postrema in the brain is responsible for inducing vomiting when poisons are detected, and for resolving conflicts between vision and balance. When feeling motion but not seeing it, the inner ear transmits to the brain that it senses motion, but the eyes tell the brain that everything is still. As a result of the discordance, the brain will come to the conclusion that one of them is hallucinating and further conclude that the hallucination is due to poison ingestion. The brain responds by inducing vomiting, to clear the supposed toxin.” This explanation does make a lot of sense, but knowing it intellectually somehow doesn’t help you to get rid of it.

The ancients spoke of it. The Greek word for ship is “naus” so, I guess they thought nausea and ships went together when they were making up their language. A Chinese proverb goes “if you can get there by land, do not go by water”. Samuel Johnson stated “A man who goes to sea for pleasure would go to hell for a pastime”. W.I B. Crealock, the famous sailboat designer and long distance sailor said that “Providence, while granting me an intense love of the sea, unfortunately failed to provide me with an interior suitable for its employment, and I was usually among the first to make my little offering to the deep”.

Here’s a list of some seasick notables: Horace, the Roman poet, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, President Woodrow Wilson, General Douglas MacArthur, Julius Caesar. Doesn’t it make you feel better to know that such notables suffered the same as the average person?

Somewhere, I heard that there are but three stages of seasickness:

1. You’re afraid you’re going to get sick.

2. You’re afraid you’re going to die.

3. You’re afraid you’re not going to die. Funny and extreme, yes, but there are those who believe it and for centuries, there have been numberless remedies and “solutions” to the problem, though the infallible cure is yet to be found.

Here are just a few examples:

So that you will not become sick on a ship, grind fleabane and wormwood together in olive oil and vinegar, and rub on the nostrils frequently. Pseudo-Apuleius Platonicus, Herbarius, 2nd Century AD

Drink absinthe on sea voyages to prevent nausea. Pliny the Elder, Circa 60 AD

If any palliative be given, it should be large doses of ammonia with opium. Stevens, The Lancet, 1838

The sea will not cause nausea in anyone who has drunk a mixture of wine beforehand. Medical monks of Salerno, Regimen Sanitas Salernitanum, 12th Century AD

Bicarbonate of soda in cold water, and 3 drops of peppermint. Capt. Victor Seidelhuber, No More Seasickness, 1935

Believe it or not, eating pickled onions before a voyage was recommended by a Dr. Thurstan in 1887. He believed that the resulting gas would squeeze one’s innards together.

Stugeron is another popular one. I know people who wouldn’t go to sea without it. This medicine scares me though, frankly, as it leads to drowsiness and impaired concentration.

Anti-seasickness inventions have been numerous too- the Thalaszone belt for example, with padded steel plates front and back that could be tightened with a screw so that the viscera would be held in place, preventing friction against the diaphragm and of course, the retching. Or electrodes that could be worn in your glasses or a headband or even, glued to your skull area. Or the Spinal Ice Bag which required “from two to three pounds of ice for every two hours the passage lasts.” There were oxygen masks, self-levelling berths and oscillating chairs. Then there was the “The Queasy Chair” which was an adapto-recliner for the frequent cruiser- you could cure yourself of seasickness from the comfort of your own home! Just sit in this amazing chair every day for a week before the voyage. The motions of the sea and weather conditions would be replicated and by the time you went to sea you would have your sea legs.

Ginger is the most common herbal remedy. Ginger, the underground stem, of the plant Zingiber officinale has been used as a medicine in Asian, Indian, and Arabic herbal traditions since ancient times. In China, ginger has been used to aid digestion and treat stomach upset, diarrhea, and nausea for more than 2,000 years. Ginger has also been used to help treat arthritis, colic, and heart conditions. In addition to these medicinal uses, ginger continues to be valued around the world as an important cooking spice and is believed to help treat the common cold, flu-like symptoms, headaches, and even painful menstrual periods. Native to Asia where its use as a culinary spice spans at least 4,400 years, ginger grows in fertile, moist, tropical soil.

These days, anyone who goes to sea knows all the modern, most popular anti-seasickness remedies. Dramamine and Bonine are the most common over the counter drug remedies. Gravol is the favourite Canadian antidote. Scopolamine patches, worn behind the ear like tiny circular band-aids, are the most common prescription drugs for seasickness.

Wrist bands provide a type of acupressure that somehow manages to trick the brain not to get confused about the motion. Some swear by them.

So now it’s time for me to reveal my solution. Earlier, I said that for years Tom and I lived with the knowledge of our seasickness. Now, it seems that we are no longer in the same category. For one, it is believed that age is a factor. As you get older, your susceptibility to be seasick lessens. The older you are, the less prone you become. So, I have to admit that our advancing age must be playing a part. Aging does have some advantages.

However, I also think that I have discovered a rather fail proof remedy which has proved successful on at least two occasions: before a departure on a passage, spend at least one night in a rolly anchorage to allow you to adjust to the motion. Also, take 2 (1 gram) ginger capsules 3 times daily, for at least one day before departure. Continue to take the ginger at sea, as long as necessary.

Seasickness can be a horrible affliction, but there are ways to lessen its severity or prevent it altogether. You can find your way. Don't let your fear of seasickness prevent you from sailing off into the sunset!

Old saying: The only cure for seasickness is to sit on the shady side of an old brick church in the country. How boring.