Sunday, March 6, 2011


Photo of rolling waves by John Kretschmer
If you've never experienced it, you might not appreciate how debilitating seasickness can be. Unfortunately, I am someone who has a propensity for becoming seasick, having suffered it four times in my life (so far).

The first time was on a small ferry in Lake Superior. Some friends and I were at the tail end of a long backpacking trip on Isle Royale in late summer of 1980. We had run out of food the night before and expected to be able to buy something at the ferry dock, but all they offered was small bottles of Roxy soft drinks. I drank a cream soda and could feel it sloshing around in my empty stomach as the ferry encountered a serious storm and huge swells on its way back to Copper Harbor, Michigan. It was raining too hard to be out on deck, so all the passengers were crowded into the overheated cabin. Despite the NO SMOKING signs, an old man was smoking a Camel straight cigarette near where we were sitting. The combination of nauseating factors hit me suddenly and I knew I was going to throw up. I raced to the head, where I was assaulted by the smell of scented Charmin toilet paper. I dropped to my knees, grabbed the toilet's rim and puked as hard as I ever had. It was nothing but cream soda and stomach acid. I expected to feel better, but waves of nausea kept me dry heaving for the next half-hour, sweat exploding off my face and spittle dripping down my chin. I had never felt that bad in my entire life. If someone had handed me a gun, I probably would have killed myself. The nausea finally passed and I was able to ride out the remaining couple of hours without further incident. To this day, though, the smell of Charmin causes me to gag.

The second and third times I was seasick were minor incidents. The second time, Nan and I were snorkeling in Isla Mujeres during a trip in 1998. The water was choppy and waves kept washing over our snorkels. I was swallowing a lot of sea water, especially as I tried to climb back aboard our heaving boat. I tried to get my balance by standing in the middle of the deck and surfing with the motion, but nausea overcame me and I puked my breakfast and several ounces of sea water over the side. The third time, I was on my first trip with John Kretschmer, sailing from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas in January 2007. The weather had been bad for a few days so we had been sailing up and down the Florida coast while waiting for a break that would allow us to sail across the Gulf Stream. On the third day, we set sail from Dinner Key early in the morning, headed northeast toward the entrance to the Port of Miami. John said we would worry about breakfast after we were safely out to sea, but I was hungry and found some Saltines in a drawer. I ate a few even though they smelled and tasted slightly of diesel fuel. It was extremely choppy in the channel as we headed toward open ocean, and the boat bucked enough to lift us off our seats. I felt what was becoming a familiar feeling of nausea overwhelming me and turned my head to puke the Saltines onto the rail, where the waves eventually washed them overboard. In both of these incidents, I felt much better after throwing up.

Most recently, during the first day of our sailing trip last spring from Bocas del Toro, Panama to Isla Mujeres, no amount of puking would make me feel better. I was hungover from too much wine the night before, and it was unbearably hot and humid at the marina we were starting from, adding to my feelings of dehydration. As we left port, the swells mounted dramatically, causing the boat to pitch and roll in the light winds. I could feel my stomach matching pace, and I found myself swallowing hard and staring at the horizon, wishing the inevitable would pass. Nan noticed my discomfort and commented on how pale I was. She told John that she thought I was going to be sick, and that triggered it. I turned and puked my breakfast onto the rail in two big waves. Nan helped me down into the cabin and I laid down on one of the settees, close to the boat's center of gravity to reduce the motion effects. I napped for a while, but when I woke up and tried to sit upright, I immediately felt sick again and staggered to the head to throw up. Nan wiped my sweaty face with a wet towel and helped me back to the settee. She gave me a Meclizine pill and some water to wash it down with, but I threw it back up immediately. I laid down and napped again until mid-afternoon, when I finally felt well enough to go back up to the cockpit. Nan gave me another Meclizine pill, and I was able to keep it down. I took another one twelve hours later and kept them up for three or four days. After that, I was fine.

What is the moral of these stories? Seasickness is serious business. If it happens to a crewmember during a short-handed sailing passage, it could be disastrous. The best way to handle it is pre-emptively. If one has a history of seasickness, as I most certainly do, it is critical to begin a regimen of anti-nausea medication a few days before setting sail and to continue with it for at least the first few days at sea. The first days aboard are always the most difficult, as the body adjusts to the rhythms of the boat, but it is usually safe to discontinue medication after a few days to avoid the drowsiness and other side effects of the medication. The prescription drug Meclizine, which is commercially known as Antivert or Dramamine Less Drowsy, has worked well for me when I have used it. Now if I would just think ahead and remember to take it before I need it, I might be able to avoid ever being seasick again.


Steven said...

John: I had thinking about this topic a lot lately, so I was really happy to see you posted on it. I am worried about getting seasick when I start my sailing lessons because I almost always get motion sick as a passenger in a car. I am really prone to it. I also get sick watching someone else play "Call of Duty" on the Xbox. I get made fun of for that. So I was thinking before my first lessons I'd either take the Dramamine or try the patch I've read about (Scope?) - although I've heard the patch might cause hallucinations I think. I wouldn't sign up for that.
So my real question is, are their sailors who've gotten seasick at first and then the more time they spent on boats, the more used to it they became, and then they "grew out of it"? Or are all sailors people that naturally don't get seasick? I ask because, I am hoping it is the former, and even if I get prone to seasickness initially, that I will work my way through it and I won't have to give up my dream of sailing because I find I get sick at first. Also, I am a little concerned that maybe I should take anything when I go out on a boat for the first time, because I'll be masking something I need to know: That I DO or DO NOT get seasick. Anyway, thanks for the post - great stuff. - Steve

John Lichty said...

Steve, thank you for your comments. I believe wave conditions and personal health are the biggest factors in seasickness. If you go out on a relatively calm day, after a good night's sleep, and you stay hydrated, you should be fine, especially if you are at the helm. The feedback you receive by steering the boat helps alleviate the symptoms, just as you would never get carsick if you were the driver. If you are heading out into rough conditions or are not feeling one hundred percent, you need to take precautions. I strongly recommend Meclizine (Antivert or Dramamine), which your doctor can prescribe for you. The only symptom I have with it is minor drowsiness. Take one the night before or first thing in the morning and then every twelve hours after that for the first two or three days, and you will give your body time to adjust to the motion. After that, you should be fine. In the same way, if you sail frequently, you will build up resistance naturally and eventually not need any medication, as you predicted, but you should keep it handy just in case. Sailors who are resistant to seasickness are made, not born. --John