Feeling ill at sea begins when there's a major disconnect between what the brain is doing and what the victim is seeing and/or feeling.

Last year a trailer boat owner decided to take his children out for a few hours on Lake Michigan. He thought it would be a good experience for the two youngsters who hadn't spent a lot of time on the boat. His wife went along to assist and for the first hour, it was the perfect afternoon; the sun was warm, the winds were nil and the boat performed beautifully. All of a sudden, he began to feel nauseous and within a few minutes, the owner of the boat was leaning over the side while his wife and children were fine.

Seasickness (also called motion sickness or mal de mer) happens to lots of people on a boat, even professionals. On a recent Volvo Ocean Race (where five 70-foot sailboats were racing around the world), the sail trimmer aboard Team Russia became seasick as the boat braved 50-knot winds and high seas on the approach to Cape Town, South Africa. He wasn't the first. Seasickness is actually common aboard ocean racing sailboats, occurring within the first few days at sea. It's happened in history too. Charles Darwin sailed The Beagle for five years from England to South America and New Zealand in search of new species and was seasick almost the entire time he was at sea. It occurs in the air too. Seventy percent of the astronauts on Space Shuttle missions experience motion sickness.

"Seasickness is a common problem and has been reported in nearly 100 percent of boat passengers in very rough seas," notes Lt. Commander Leslie Wood, senior medical officer for the United States Coast Guard Naval Air Station in Sitka, Alaska. "Small boats tend to be worse than larger boats in rough and confused seas. I find the more violent and less predictable the motion is, the more likely seasickness is going to occur." It should be noted the Coast Guard doesn't provide assistance to boaters experiencing seasickness-only for life-threatening situations. Still, her expertise has been needed when ships and fishing boats need help. "I have consulted in a number of cases for seasickness," she notes adding, "I've talked crews through how to best assist a fellow crew member or passenger with severe seasickness.

"A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree."
-Spike Milligan

Here's What a Boater Onboard Should Do ...

Feeling ill at sea begins when there's a major disconnect between what the brain is doing and what the victim is seeing and/or feeling (although it should be noted that blind people also become seasick). Three factors are involved: Sight, touch, (the medical term is called "proprioceptors" and applies to something as basic as the angle of your foot on the deck during the boat's movement) and the inner ear are all affected by the motion of a boat moving through waves. The brain tries to coordinate balance and spatial orientation using sensors from the inner ear while the victim is experiencing unintentional movement from the waves and a changing perspective of the horizon; all of these send a mismatched signal to the brain and the result is a feeling of nausea.

If It Happens

1. Physical location:

Don't go below. Stay on deck and focus your eyes on the horizon. Some trailer boaters who have experienced nausea suggest looking abeam the boat and avoid looking to the stern. If applicable, stay away from the flybridge as the higher you are, the more movement you'll experience. Place yourself in the center of the boat and away from the bow (another place with a lot of movement when waves are large). Don't read. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Many times motion sickness in a car occurs on winding roads but is less prevalent when sitting in the front seat. The skipper can also try taking the waves at a different angle (avoid having them hit the boat broadsides) so as to reduce the roll. Decreasing speed can help as well.

2. Mental tricks:

A number of seasick boaters have remarked how they started feeling better when they were able to focus on anything other than how horrible they were feeling. For example, if the crew can start telling jokes, it may work wonders. Onboard the Hugo Boss II during the 628-mile Sydney to Hobart sailboat race from Australia, a seasick crewmember focused on a pod of dolphins that were swimming with the boat. Skipper Andy Tourell remarked "Our guy was so distracted by the dolphins that you could actually see the color coming back into his face." If it is possible -and more importantly, if it's safe to do-the seasick crewmember will feel better if they are given the helm because, again, they can focus their attention on the horizon. Some skippers will have the ill passenger stand (again, if this is possible) next to them while on the helm.

Lt. Commander Wood often feels motion sickness in the air, while riding an HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter in heavy winds. "I repetitively tap my foot," she says. "It's distracting enough to ward off symptoms and is a trick I use in the back of the helicopter during turbulent flights at night."

3. Take slow deep breaths.

Like repeated foot tapping, this also can be a distraction.
If the victim is no longer able to function on deck (moderate to severe symptoms), Wood says the next step is to get them below. "Have the person lie down where their head isn't moving and have them close their eyes," she advises. On a trailer boat, this may mean having them lie on the sole-this is the floor in the center of the boat -not on a berth that is usually on either side. Listening to music might be a good distraction at this point.

How to Keep it from Happening

There is no guarantee that seasickness can be avoided. Some folks have said they become ill in a car or in an airplane but have never been nauseous on a boat. It's one of those every-person-is-different things. That said, there are a number of medicines available that have had good results. The key to their success, however, is taking them eight hours before you get on a boat. These aren't going to work once you've become sick.

Over-the-Counter Drugs:

  • Meclizine (a tablet sold as Dramamine or Bonine), Marezine pills or Motion Eaze (an oil placed behind the ear lobe). Quease-Ease is inhaled and is available at
  • Scopolamine patches placed behind the ear have proven effective too. It's also available as tablets with the name Scopace. These require a doctor's prescription. It's used on cruise ships as an injection.
  • Wristbands - A variation of acupuncture, wristbands use "acupressure" on the underside of the wrist (the median nerve) and prevents seasickness  There's also the Explorer Relief Band, a higher-end version made by Abbott Labs with five stimulation pressure levels for the underside of the wrist (pick the level that works best).Wristbands and the Relief Band can be used without the need for taking a drug. They also work when the first symptoms of seasickness occur.
  • Sliced ginger or a few ginger snaps 12 hours before going out on the water have been used by boaters preferring a more "natural" remedy. Peppermint tea, apricot juice and bananas are also commonly used when nausea appears.

Other Things that Might Work:

  • A combination of saltine crackers (salt seems to settle an upset stomach) and cola (the active ingredient is phosphoric acid) has been used with a moderate degree of success.
  • A cruise ship patron says a few tablespoons of Angostura Bitters in half a glass of water works well.
  • Earplugs If you are right-handed, put an earplug in the left ear. A number of victims of mal de mer swear by this technique.
  • Get a lot of rest the night before. Avoid alcohol.
  • Don't go below during heavy weather. You lose the needed spatial orientation and that's the beginning of losing your equilibrium. Before a boat trip, have everything you'll need on deck if it is possible.

We're not giving medical advice here, only telling you what is reported to have worked for others. You may need to try several things before you're happy with how one works.

Signs of Seasicknes:

  • The person will become quiet and withdraw from activity
  • Nausea and dizziness. The face will become pale
  • Vomiting may occur; it's usually better to move them to the side of the boat rather than try to go to the head below
  • Cold sweats 

— Published April/May 2009 issue of Trailering Magazine.


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