Strategies for Seasick Sailors

strategies for seasick sailorsSeasickness Sucks!

There’s no two ways about it.  In fact, I’d strongly recommend not being seasick.  Believe me, I’m an expert.  There are plenty of happy, well fed fish in the Pacific and Atlantic thanks to me.

Over the years, I’ve developed coping strategies based on some research and a lot of trial and error.  The good news is that you can drastically reduce how often you get sick and how badly you feel by following some simple strategies.

Understanding Seasickness

People don’t get sick because they’re weak or scared. People get seasick because their brain gets conflicting signals
from their eyes and inner ears. One says the world is moving and the other says it’s steady. This is why you feel so
much worse if you go down below or stare at your feet.

Get yourself in a position where you are looking out towards the horizon.  Look for logs, ships and logs.  Even better, get behind the wheel or take the tiller.  When was the last time you saw a carsick driver?

There is a Mental Element

There’s no doubt that obsessing over whether you’re going to puke isn’t going to help matters. There is certainly a mental element.  However, those lucky people who don’t get seasick often make too much of this point.  Some will even claim that it’s all in people’s head.

However, in my experience this is not a deciding factor. I’ve gotten sick when I wasn’t expecting it at all and I didn’t get sick the only time I’ve been truly scared at sea.

The Experience is Very Individual

For some it’s long rolling motion downwind that will set them off, and others react to short choppy motion bashing

You may do just fine offshore in long swells but feel ill when inshore in steep “square” waves. Or maybe just the opposite!

This can actually be an important point when you’re choosing a sailboat to buy.  If you are prone to seasickness, see if you can do some rough weather sailing on boats similar to the ones you’re thinking of buying.  For example, most people will feel sicker on a monohull than a catamaran due to the greatly increased rolling motion.  However, a few people actually feel sicker on a catamaran when beating to weather due to the choppier motion.

You Can Adapt

The really great news is that most people will feel fine after a few days at sea (though you may lose your adaptation if
you’re in port for too long between passages). Many people also gradually get better over years of sailing.

When I first started flying gliders, I got sick every single flight.  We would often head back to the airport halfway through a lesson because I just couldn’t take it any more.  My instructor had been teaching for 15 years and had never seen anyone as bad as me. He thought I’d have to give up on becoming a glider pilot.

I can be very stubborn when I want something.  I just kept going back.  I didn’t medicate because I had to fly an aircraft, but I did try other strategies (we’ll get into these).  Mostly, though, I just kept at it.  Over time, I adapted and almost never got sick.

Preparation:  Before You Go

You can take some important steps before you even leave the dock.

  • Check the Forecast: If you have new crew aboard or a known puker, you may want to delay your departure if the winds are really going to be up or choose a more sheltered route.
  • Limit the Pre-Departure Partying: Starting hung over is not going to help!
  • Pack Crackers and Drinks: It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s very important to stay hydrated and fed. When I flew small airplanes, my flight bag always had crackers and a water bottle in it for when I started to feel off. Candied ginger also helps.
    (Make sure that these snacks and drinks are accessible without going down below, and stay away from super spicy or greasy foods.)
  • Hit the Pharmacy: Availability varies by country.  Check with your friendly local pharmacist, but the three most common drugs to try out are:
    • Dramamine/Gravol: I always have chew-able Gravol in my pocket so I don’t need to think twice about taking it and it’s easy to offer to others.
    • Stugeron: Not available in Canada or the US but many people’s favourite. Stock up on your next overseas trip if you’re in North America.
    • Scopolamine Patch: This is the heavy hitter. You put it behind one ear and it is powerful stuff. The astronauts use it. It also gives some people heavy duty side effects, so experiment before you go. It’s magic for me and I pop on a patch the night before any offshore trips.
    • Alternative Remedies: You may want to try Sea-Bands or other non-pharmaceutical options. Studies show them to be little better than placebos, but some people swear by them.  They won’t do any harm at least.
  • Consider Starting Drugs Early: Unfortunately, all of the drugs work better if you start them before you feel queasy.

On the Water – Your Seasickness Action Plan

If you start to feel queasy, then take action right away! Don’t be shy, others are probably feeling the same way. If you wait too long it will be very difficult to have any effect and you’re in for a very rough day.

Start at the top of the actions below and if you don’t feel better, move to the next step down:

  1. Look at the Horizon: Get up on deck and enjoy the view. The most important thing you can do is stare at that horizon! Look for traffic or dolphins, admire the sunset, or ponder distant lands, but don’t look inside the boat.
    Don’t go hide down below! Stay away from fumes and closed spaces. Up on deck with you!
  2. Eat and drink: Nobody ever believes me on this one, but simple, bland food like crackers will help settle the stomach. Candied ginger and sips of water will also help.
  3. Start Your Drugs: If you haven’t started them preemptively, now’s the time.
  4. Steer the Boat: When was the last time you saw the driver of a car get carsick? Don’t be shy, get in there. This almost always works if you get on the wheel or tiller early enough.
  5. Puke: Sooner or later it becomes inevitable. Don’t sweat it. You’ll feel better. Just be safe doing it. Hold on tight at the lee rail (away from the wind so you don’t get blow-back!) or if that isn’t safe, puke in a bucket.
  6. Lie Down: If you’re wiped out and must like down, try to lie close to the center of the boat where there’s less motion and cover your eyes so the brain isn’t getting mixed signals.

Final Thoughts on Not Puking

Lots of sailors struggle with seasickness from time to time.  It isn’t something to be feared, just something to be managed.

If you have a loved one who gets seasick, please be patient with them as they either learn to manage seasickness or slowly build up a tolerance to sailing in rougher sees.  Otherwise, you might just need to learn to sail solo!

I’ve summarized the above checklists into a free downloadable Puke Prevention Plan that you can take on the boat or share with your friends and family before they come out with you.  Just enter your email in the form below to download it:

Sign up for updates and get your Free Puke Prevention Plan to keep your crew smiling!

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2 thoughts on “Strategies for Seasick Sailors

  1. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I have never puked after eating PB & J. In the navy the cooks are the first to get sea sick in rough weather and regular meals are replaced by … PB & J. When I started flying I always stuck a PB & J in the pocket of my flight suit. For me flying (as crew not pilot) is way worse than boats of any size.

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