Managing Seasickness on Totem

One of my first dates with Jamie was an offshore race in New England. It started in the evening off Long Island Sound, did a big triangle into the Atlantic overnight, up into Narragansett Bay and then finished off the coast of Connecticut in the morning. Throwing up when things got lumpy off the back side of Block Island in the middle of the night did not seem like an auspicious start of my new relationship with the cute captain. Possibly it helped that I remembered to lean overboard on the leeward side and behind everyone when I hurled, no one had “share” ?

Feeling groovy!
Quick recovery from a queasy morning: California coast, fall 2008

Despite my lackluster performance on that memorable race (we won the race! I won the captain!), we’re lucky that seasickness is a rare occurrence on Totem today. Sure, we get seasick, but not that often, and experience has helped us manage it better. Still, this is a serious issue and was in my top 10 pre-cruising worries. Jamie and I had a pretty good idea about ourselves, but what about the kids? If one of them was really prone, that could be a cruise killer. Although we logged thousands of miles in our home waters before we left to go cruising, this was the Salish Sea, which has a very different feel compared to ocean swells. It didn’t prove anything to me that we were all comfortable aboard there.

Here’s what we’ve learned about how to avoid getting seasick, and what to do when it happens.

Triggers for seasickness

Bouncy sea state. More typically, it’s a rocky sea state can throw off me or the kids. In my case, I’m certain it is compounded by stress. If I’m worried about the conditions and our security, I am that much more likely to get nauseous.

No horizon. The first time the kids were sick was a pancake-flat day as we left Monterey, California. We were motoring in the fog: although there wasn’t a breath of wind, the boat was just slicing straight through still water, and we were all hanging out in the cockpit with a gentle apparent breeze. … we had two little pukers on board in the first hour. Thankfully, they recovered quickly- probably aided by the fog burning off and a horizon coming into view.

Passages. It can take time to settle into passages with ocean swells. Depending on conditions, it may be only a day, but sometimes it takes several days. On our Pacific crossing, which in 2010 was a La Nina year of “reinforced trades” (e.g., lots of wind!), swells were typically from at least two directions. This made harder to adjust. By contrast, having swells from only a single direction as we approached PNG from Australia was easier to manage- although they were considerably bigger, we felt better.

Smells. Oh, the smell of diesel fumes on a windless day… yep, that will do it. It’s the likely culprit of our kids’ introduction to seasickness in Monterey.

What we do

How we treat seasickness depends on the scenario. If we’re starting a multi-day passage, and know we’ll be rolling around a little, I pre-medicate. Although I prefer to avoid meds when possible, I’ve long since learned that with seasickness, it’s better to take something early than to try and tough it out. We learned in the medical training that we took (and re-took) before we moved aboard that it takes a while for the drugs to get into your system. If you wait until you’re just starting to feel queasy before you medicate, it might be too late to stave seasickness off. If I’ve pre-medicated, and conditions are reasonable, I generally have my sea legs after the first day out and don’t need to take any more.

Different treatments work for different people. It might be worth trying a few meds to find out what alleviates your symptoms with a minimum of side effects before you stock up a medical kit. Meclozine (aka Bonine or Ativert) is our drug of choice for seasickness, but we have a host of others just in case… although I sincerely hope the suppositories are never medically required. They are a last ditch option, since they can deliver the drugs if someone is too seasick to keep down oral medication (no, I’d really prefer not to attempt an IV delivery if conditions are rough!).

Although I do think pre-dosing has an important place in managing seasickness, I’d rather not deal with the side effects if I don’t have to. There are a number of other things we do to keep seasickness at bay. Seasickness can occur later on a passage with a change in conditions, so these are things we’ll often do throughout.

  • Snacks. Avoid having an empty stomach. I like having dry cracker or not-too-sweet cookie (gingersnaps are my favorite) to crunch on. 
  • Fluids. We work very hard at staying hydrated, both because it helps keep nausea at bay as well as hedges against the risk of dehydration if one of us does get sick. 
  • Keep rested. Taking care of ourselves is really important. If you don’t give your body what it needs- food, water, rest, whatever- you’ll be more prone. Besides, sleep deprivation can lead to bad decisions.
  • Aromatherapy. When I feel icky, a clean citrus smell can help. A few drops of an essential oil (my favorite is grapefruit; lemon and orange remind me of the cleansers I made) on a diffuser or even just a bit of tissue can make a difference.
  • Ginger, ginger, ginger.  I try the pills: they might work, or they might just make me think they work, and that’s enough. The kids love to nibble on candied ginger, and I love ginger tea, especially on chilly night watches.
  • Vitamin C. Pushing vitamin C is also supposed to help: I added vitamin C to our drinking water during the Pacific passage.

Seasickness and the kids 

The first thing that usually happens when the kids feel off is that they tuck themselves into a bunk and fall asleep. This is a normal and very convenient way of dealing with seasickness, especially for someone who doesn’t have to be responsible for the boat! We try to get them into a place where they will have more comfort from the motion of the boat (main cabin settee, or our aft master cabin) and let them rest.

If conditions aren’t expected to change for a while, or we’re at the beginning of a passage and this is a transition period of adjustment, they also take Meclozine. It’s available as a dissolving, chewable tablet which really helped when they were small- no swallowing, and easy to cut in half to get the right dose.

Getting a sense for when to pre-medicate helps, too. If we know it’s going to be bouncy, the children may have prophylactic doses. They have only been uncomfortable enough to need meds a handful of times in five years, although somewhat ironically, in an article on the Women and Cruising forum (www.womenandcruising.com/sailing-family-totem.htm), two of the three of them called out being seasick as one of the things they liked the least about cruising. Being sick is not fun!

It’s mental, too

Seasickness , in my opinion, can be as much mental as it is physical. I don’t mean to demean the very real physical symptoms by saying “it’s all in your head” (although technically…). When I’m scared, worried, or otherwise stressed, I’m far more likely to feel nauseous. You could say that fear or stress are other triggers.

My two most vivid memories of being seasick as a cruiser were both times of high stress when we had steep, close waves- once up around Isla Tiburon in the Sea of Cortez, once on the way to Tahiti from Moorea. At Isla Tiburon, we had to deal with a side roll that threw our home into a bit of chaos. In Tahiti, our impeller had self-destructed and our engine was overheating in another choppy sea state that we had to plow through. Super stressful. In both cases, my recovery was pretty much instantaneous as soon as we were out of the uncomfortable conditions (e.g., safety fears abated)- which happened like flipping a switch, when we entered the reef in Tahiti and when we were able to put the waves on our quarter at Tiburon.

It helps to get your mind occupied. If I can make myself busy- and get my mind off feeling icky- I almost always feel better. Sitting in the cockpit, taking the wheel and hand-steer instead of letting the autopilot do the work, talking or playing games- whatever distracts can help.

Experience helps

Seasickness is one of those things where you learn after a while what you can/can’t do, what your triggers are, and what your body needs. We started by medicating more frequently, and have backed off as we are better able to evaluate what we need. While I’d normally approach from the other direction (medication last!), in this case it’s reversed because being safe isn’t just miserable, it’s not safe.

Be prepared, then try not to worry about it too much. Unless you turn out to be in an unlucky and very small minority that really and truly struggles with motion sickness (and if you are, you probably know it already), it’s one of those things like provisioning, boatschooling, and potty training babies that feels daunting at times, but all seems to work out in the end.

9 Responses to Managing Seasickness on Totem

  1. Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    I’m one of those persons who “never gets seasick”. Of course then I met Mr. Gulf Stream.

    The only thing I have found that will stop active seasickness in its tracks is Sturgeron. Not just for me but everyone else who has tried it on my passages. Of course Big Brother doesn’t allow Americans to buy it, so we have to bring it in from the rest of the world in unmarked packages—-.

  2. Skipperette May 22, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    I recently read an article in which the author stated that putting an ear plug in the left ear made the seasickness go away! Since I usually get it the first night I lose the horizon, I am going to try it next time we do a crossing! I will try to find the source of this idea and send it later.

    • Behan Gifford May 23, 2013 at 9:39 am #

      How interesting… I’m curious, too! thanks Sherry.

  3. Anonymous May 23, 2013 at 6:34 am #

    Hello,
    I think you may have not included the why to take meds. the night before. You get the benefits without all the side effects. Most new folks won’t appreciate that. We take Bonnine the night before we anticipate a rougher passage, even after 12 years out, becuase with just 2 of us we can’t afford to loose 50% of the crew. Anyone can and will get sick no mattter how much sea time. From time to time. John s.v. Oz

    • Behan Gifford May 23, 2013 at 9:37 am #

      John- that is a really, really good point. It is, of course, exactly why we take them early. I’m going to edit the content to include that information!

    • Anonymous May 23, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

      Thanks Behan great info, we love reading about your expeirences as we anxiously prepare for our family adventure, keep up the good work.

      Regards Brett& Jullie from Tas

  4. Jen and Glenn May 24, 2013 at 7:33 am #

    Thanks Behan,

    I just come accross a new seasickness pill in Australia, from bovacompounding. I have tried them on land there appears to be no side effects. I just hope they will stop the sickness at sea. Every other medications I’ve tried make me drowsy and I just want to lie down. I’ll let everyone know how they go in the coming weeks.

    Glenn & Jen

    • Behan Gifford May 24, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

      How interesting! Do you know what the active ingredient is? I’m looking forward to the results of your experimentation… hope they are effective!

  5. judith May 25, 2013 at 8:13 am #

    I often wonder if seasickness is hereditary. My father, brother, sister and I have never been seasick, although none of us were on the water for extended times like you cruisers (we’d day sail or be fishing.) But my daughter… that’s another story, she sailed/worked on tall ships and private yachts for over 10 years all over the world and has never been seasick, and for that matter neither has my son and he’s sailed a lot also. But my mother…. she could just think about getting on a boat and and she’d start turning green. Our daughter had heard many tricks to combat seasickness, from ear plugs to eye patches, she said she’d either be asleep or on the deck working with the wind in her face and her eye on the horizon or on the sails.

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