“No one tells you about these moments. No one writes about this. This is not about palm trees and clear blue water. This is about misery and just being exposed, torn open. It’s colder than I imagined out here. My butt is pruned from sitting on soggy cushions and I’m wedged between a table and the companionway to keep from getting thrown about in this turbulent sea. Can I get this hood cinched tighter around my face? ,All I can see in the inky darkness is the dull glow of the mast lighthead. I’ve never choked back my own vomit before. This sucks. My stomach hates me. I never pictured this in my daydreams of this sailing adventure, huddling against the cockpit to block the driving rain, wondering where in the dark the next wave will come from, while trying to keep from throwing up. Just two more hours to go to finish this nightwatch….”
Such were my thoughts one night, after a few days of building seasickness. Before departing on this multi year voyage upon the ocean, I had some reservations about how I would handle the motion of a boat being tossed around in rough or rolling seas. For good reason: twice before I had been seasick during outings off the florida coast. The first time we were crossing the Gulf Stream in a powerboat headed for the Bahamas. The second time I was on a fishing boat some mile offshore. However, both times were in my college years and involved copious amounts of booze and revelry the evenings before. In other words, I probably deserved it.
But this is different. We will be out here for a long time. And thanks largely to this blog, much of my world now knows that I have continued to have some problems with seasickness, or mal de mer, as its called in French. But there’s more to the story than you probably envision. The following insights are gained largely from a 33 day field test across the Pacific Ocean, as well as other more recent passages.
First of all, seasickness is a result of the imbalance between what your eyes are seeing and the motion felt by your inner ear. Essentially, the world around you is not supposed to be hurtling about in all directions, so your brain things something is wrong when it senses the major inconsistency of not being on solid, stable ground. The scientific/medical community seems not totally sure about why people vomit in response, but I theorize that your body just plain things something is wrong and throwing up is usually a good way to get rid of the bad stuff (think: too much alcohol, get dizzy, throw up the alcohol). But seasickness more than just puking overboard or heaving into a bucket. Seasickness is quite complicated. It can be as simple as a dull nausea or it can be serious enough to incapacitate a person. Sometimes people get so sick and weak that anti-nausea suppositories are the last resort (Bri is glad I didn’t get that bad), and they may require hospitalization.
But here’s how it happens to me. First of all, to set the record straight, I have actually not vomited once since we left Panama. I’ll admit though that I have been very, very close and there were times that I probably would have been better of just letting go. But I fought it, probably because of some weird sense of stubborn pride.. On the initial crossing to the Galapagos, I did not feel very well for much of the time. A friend of ours described seasickness as “being attacked by an energy vampire” and that’s a good description.
I slept often during that first week because I felt lethargic and had a dull moan in my upper stomach. I had a hard time being anywhere but on deck feeling the breeze and looking at the horizon. I didn’t eat much. I also lost my sense of curiosity and had trouble caring enough to have a conversation. I didn’t feel like reading or writing I had some of my roughest moments as a sentient being during this part of the trip. These were very slow days. So with little else to do on the boat, I spent most of my time in a slow state of meditation. Thus began my introduction to the art of Zen that Bri and I have learned is so useful on this trip (more on that someday). But despite my troubles and evolving adaption, I never missed my turn on nightwatch and I never backed out of any task on deck that was asked of me.
I started using anti-nausea medications at this point and experimented with several to figure out which worked best for me. I’ll describe the different options more fully below, but basically, I responded fairly well to medications. After the Galapagos and those blessed 48 hours on land, things slowly got better for me and I have learned how to cope with the motion of the sea and have found tricks that work for me. I thought that information might be useful to some of you out there. So try this…
There are a number of things which kick-start seasickness for most people. I’ve found that reading and writing in the beginning of a trip is not the best for me. I also try to minimize my time below if possible and am careful about how long I spend getting things in the galley. Many people, myself included, do better with something in their stomach, so a light breakfast before a morning departure is part of good prevention. Obviously, alchohol the night before is a no no. Good sleep and hydration also help. In general, fresh air and a broad horizon are my friends at this point in a trip.
When the first pangs of nausea hit, it feels like a have an upset stomach, and I find that my heartbeat gets slightly elevated and I get a bit rushed in whatever I’m doing. If I can bring myself to slow down and focus, I find that letting my eyes adjust on the horizon and slowly breathing through my nose and out my mouth with deep breaths helps calm me. Sometimes I close my eyes for a moment as well to center myself. I try not to dwell on what I know may come next.
There are some days when I feel mostly fine, and the motion is manageable. But sometimes all it takes is a change in the wind direction or wave height and things get worse. I have found that – for me – the magical cure is laying down, closing my eyes and breathing. I don’t know why laying down is so helpful but I can do it in the midst of almost any chaos or motion and it helps almost instantly. If I have let the sickness progress to far and can feels the first lurches in my stomach, I can actually choke it back, enter a deep meditation/concentration. Its not fun to feel your stomach convulsing or to think about the consequences if I don’t get my body under control, but it has worked. I randomly learned this trick on a dive trip in Belize many years ago and had this 33 day jaunt to refine it. Sometimes, depending on conditions, I can be up and about in 15 minutes or so and be back to relatively normal.
If conditions are rough or I’m just having a bad day, I’ve found a few medications that work. I have over the counter meds like Dramamine but I have not actually used it on the trip. Its a backup, because I have found in the past that it makes me real drowsy (even the non drowsy stuff). Bonine is another similar medication that people seem to prefer. In Panama were able to buy Stugeron directly from the pharmacy. Its not available in the US but it is used pretty widely by world cruisers. Its strong, works relatively fast (about an hour) and lasts for half a day or more. It can make you feel slightly foggy and some people don’t like those effects. I’ve used this just a couple of times to get myself back to normal quickly.
If we’re on a multi day passage, I will follow up Stugeron with “the patch” if needed. This is a small anti nausea patch that sticks behind your ear that slowly releases Scopolamine into the body. Its generally used for surgery and post surgical recovery and also works for all types of motion sickness. The patch last several days, but takes anywhere from 4 to 6 hours to begin working. I used the patch a few times on our Pacific crossing and it worked well. While some people have major side effects like blurry vision, I got away with only minor side effects like a dry mouth that were much more pleasurable than seasickness. It allowed me to function at a normal level for several days. When things were bad, the patch allowed me to function like a human again, instead of sailing zombie. You can get the patch in the U.S. with a prescription or just order online from a Canadian pharmacy.
If all else fails, vomiting often provides a feeling of relief for most people with mild cases of seasickness. Its best, if you have to, to puke in a bucket and then toss it over the side. Puking overboard can be dangerous in rough seas and puking in the toilet or sink is generally frowned upon. It will just get all over the place or clog up pipes in an already complicated marine plumbing system. If you are with someone who is at the point of vomiting, you have to watch them carefully to make sure the symptoms either ease or become stable. Seasickness can rapidly progress to a severe condition because of dehydration, and the last thing you want is a medical emergency while out at sea. Thankfully, I’ve never had this problem nor have been with anyone who has.
Anyone who tells you the seasickness is just for landlubbers and that its all in your head is just plain full of crap. Yes, there are people out here who just don’t get sick no matter how rough things are. But we’ve met hundreds of people out here, some who have been sailing for years and decades, and most of them will admit to getting nauseous at one time or another. Some professional sailors and circumnavigators deal with it on a consistent basis. I can attest to the face that it is no fun, but with some forethought and plan for dealing with it, it doesn’t have to ruin a trip. There are times on a long passage when I’m hating life, but the other 95% of this experience has been well worth the trouble.