Seasickness: Fighting The Green Monster

By Brian Mistrot

Few situations can make boating less enjoyable than being seasick or having one of your crew down for the count. Here's what to do.

Sailboat in rolling seas illustrationPhoto:

A great friend of mine who'd sailed across oceans several times once said, "Everyone gets seasick. We just have different thresholds." When someone says they've never been seasick, I always finish their sentence with "... yet!"

Seasickness is caused when the fluid in your inner ear tells your brain one thing (we are moving!) while your eyes tell your brain you are stationary (especially true if you are down below in the boat). The conflict creates nausea. When someone is seasick, the first order of business is to ensure their safety and that of the boat. Many times, the ailing person wants to go below and hang over the head, which is not the best idea because being down below can contribute to seasickness. Instead, get them up in the fresh air of the cockpit, wearing a life jacket (and life harness if you're offshore). The benefit of this is that you can keep an eye on the sick crew and still be aware of what's happening around you. Never let the victim heave over the side of the boat! If he or she were to fall overboard, that would turn a bad situation into a life-threatening one.

If possible, get the person to stand at the helm and steer. The action of being up and staring at the horizon, and having your brain and your eyes experience the same movement, helps alleviate the seasickness.

Signs Of Seasickness

Look for these giveaway signs, so you can help prepare or even prevent someone from becoming sick:

  • Lack of hunger or thirst
  • Going quiet or becoming lethargic (easy to spot with children)
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Repeated swallowing
  • Mouth watering

Seasickness Prevention

Don't be fooled. Even though most people suddenly feel better after being sick, many will become sick again within the hour if they don't take precautions. Over the years that we've lived aboard our boat with our children, we've come to better understand what causes seasickness and developed a wide range of options to fight it. Some options are simple and don't require any type of medication; others require a prescription from your physician and come with side effects. The key is to find the right combination for you and remember simple things you can do while on the water.

Nonmedication Options

  • Avoid going below. Especially avoid the forepeak, which has the most pitching motion.
  • Do not read.
  • Stand at the helm and steer.
  • Keep plenty of air blowing in your face as you stare at the horizon.
  • Keep easy-to-eat snacks (like pretzels or ginger snaps) at close reach, and avoid alcohol and greasy food.
  • Where possible, take breaks to swim.
  • Avoid engine fumes, which means sitting outside.
  • Drink lots of cool water. Once someone is sick, sports drinks can help restore electrolytes.
  • Make sure your passengers relax. Anxiety can lead to seasickness.
  • Avoid being around others who are sick.
  • Put a plug in your ear, generally your dominant ear.
  • Watch weather and sea state. Avoid a course with too much rolling or a stern breeze that puts diesel fumes into the cockpit. Beam seas (waves that come from the side) are worst.

Nonprescription Options

Peppermint. One of our favorites, especially for kids. Peppermint naturally calms the stomach. We keep candy canes on board. An extra benefit is that the action of sucking on the candy seems to take the victim's mind off the motion.

Ginger. Often considered one of the best ways to avoid being sick or to calm a stomach, ginger can be purchased in large-milligram quantities at many nutrition/drug stores. Or make ginger cookies. The carbonation of ginger ale can help, but we haven't found it to contain enough ginger to be effective.

Bonine/Dramamine. These may make you sleepy.

Wristbands for motion sickness. Some people swear by them. They're worth a try.

Prescription Medications

It's very important to try medications on land first to see how your body will react. While this won't tell you whether the drug will stop motion sickness, at least you'll know whether you are allergic to it, what side effects to expect, and how the drug will affect your ability to operate the vessel. The only thing worse than getting seasick is getting seasick and suddenly finding out you're allergic to the drug you just swallowed. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any of these drugs.

Ondansetron (Zofran). May make you sleepy or dizzy. Purchase it in orally disintegrating form, as a solid tablet might just be thrown back up.

Promethazine (Phenergan). We've carried this in tablets and suppositories and could get it in a child dosage. (Other meds are not tested/recommended for children.) May make you sleepy. Suppositories need refrigeration.

Scopolamine (Transderm Scop, often called "the patch"). This product worked well for our family, with several cautions: It will likely make you drowsy and dizzy. It must be applied several hours before leaving, and its effects will linger long after it's removed. It's difficult to read or understand small print (such as a chart) after taking this drug. Be sure to know its effects on you before depending on it or using it at sea.

Don't let seasickness ruin your day. Prepare ahead, and you'll make boating both safer and more fun. In fact, you may find after a long day on the water that you don't feel any motion sickness until you step back on dry land. We call this land-sickness, and there is only one simple fix for that: Spend as much time as you can on the water! 

Brian and Christine Mistrot have been cruising Florida, Puget Sound, and the Gulf Coast since their children, ages 16 and 12, were born.

— Published: October/November 2017

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