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” ?
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 Meclizine. 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. [Update: in 2014-5 cruised in company with a pharmacist circumnavigating with her family. She was adamant that kids’ Dramamine was the only truly safe option for children.]
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.
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.