Feeling seasick: throw up and carry on

I get seasick. Not just a little nauseous, but aggressively, stomach-emptyingly, endlessly sick. I can be seasick in a puddle. Over several thousand sea miles I can grade key trips by their vomit quotient.

Top of the list remains Sines to Sines in Portugal when we beat for hours in a force 8 gale. Navicula was full of diesel from a broken fuel bulb. A close second was Le Grazie to Portoferraio in Elba, in the catamaran Murihiku; two hulls make for a different kind of motion.

Then there’s two trips in Roaring Girl. The forty miles from Ipswich to Lowestoft on the English east coast made everyone in board, including two cats, ill. Two years later we sailed overnight from Alvor on the Algarve to Tangier. (Don’t be put off – Tangier is a great stop.)

The first on my own boat was in 1998. Three of us sailed from Hamford Water to Tollesbury on Hushwing, a trip which taught me not to drink wine before a fast downwind sail.

The last on this list (the second chronologically) taught me an invaluable lesson. It is possible to function when seasick. I could hand over the steering to Polly, but I had to navigate. So I lay flat on my back, holding the chart above my head, doing feverish mental arithmetic for tide, speed and depth. Every now and then I put the chart aside and threw up in my hat. It was the only receptacle I could find. Eternity passed. (About three hours in ordinary time.)  The North Eagle Cardinal Buoy turned up just where and when it should, followed by the green Eagle buoy, after which we entered the river and life got a bit more attractive.

Just as fear is not a reason, and pain is not a boundary, seasickness need not spell the end of sailing. It does, for most of us wear off eventually, but those 48 or 72 or 96 hours at the beginning need to be managed. Most important of all is the mindset that the misery will end and in the meantime. keep functioning, even if at a lower level.

I am dreading those moments when I begin to heat up, yawn or swallow a lot, lassitude creeps through my bones and sitting under trees looks really attractive. I have been rehearsing my techniques for dealing with it, given it is nearly three years before I spent more than a few hours at sea. I have six tested methods, but I’m always open to more ideas.

1 – If you are skipper or watch leader, make sure your crew are ok and know their roles. Put the team into their strongest functions. The learning can wait till everyone is up to strength.

2 – If you can, lie flat. Ideally (especially in higher latitudes) lie down below, and certainly keep warm. (That pre-nausea hot flush wears off and it will make you even sicker putting your clothes back on again.) if there are enough crew, sleep. Sleep is the best way to adapt to the boat and get over seasickness.

3 – Find a pot to throw up in (and possibly a bucket for the other end).

4 – Chew ginger. I loath the taste of it and don’t swallow, but I regularly chew crystallised ginger and it really clears the head. I have also had quite good results using Cocculus, which is the homeopathic remedy for motion sickness and calms the stomach. I’m hoping I can buy crystallised ginger in Santiago. (In a really bad situation I have also found the anti-nausea tablets prescribed as Buccastem 3mg in the UK to be useful but you do have to persuade the doctor to give you a chitty, they are strong drugs and they have no preventative power.)

5 – drink warm water. It will shock your stomach less than cold and stay down better than anything with flavour. Add sugar if you want. Your biggest enemy is dehydration. I can’t emphasise this one enough: drink warm water.

6 – if everyone is sick and miserable, unless you are in a survival storm, find a way to calm things down. Heave to. Drop the anchor. Drift a while. Let yourselves have a rest. I’m not betting on this happening on Europa with so many people aboard and so many miles to cover, but I’m only a peon on the trip so of course it’s not my decision. (And that’s something of a relief.)

Of course, prevention is even better than cure. Sailing from Valletta to Gibraltar I tried Paihia Bombs for the first time. (There are loads of online references from long distance sailors, fishing people and even kayakers.) I was introduced to these by the Murihiku crew who were swearing by them during the trip to Portoferraio. And they’re great. The bombs come in two separate tablets which contain anti-histamine and scopolamine, along with caffeine, so they don’t make you drowsy and they manage the nausea.

Some anti-depressants are a bit the same; you know you’re still miserable but it doesn’t hurt. Using these tablets, I knew that somewhere I was seasick  but I didn’t feel nauseous and I was fine.

You get these legal wonder pills from Paihia Pharmacy in New Zealand. They don’t have a website, but ring them on 00 64 (0) 9 402 7034. Credit card, address and you get them, together with a letter about the contents for any worried customs officers to read. My newest purchase, which will come with me to Chile, arrived this week.

Simpler to acquire are Stugeron (not available in the US I think) which may make you drowsy. Then there are lots of standard travel sickness pills which will make you sleep. That only works if it is ok for you to sleep for several hours. Finally there are bands which work by a small nobble  on an acupressure point on your wrist: I know people who swear by them but I have not found them effective. Maybe I’m starting from too unbalanced a place and need stronger magic to counter the effect of swell.

There are other reasons to quit sailing (boredom, terror, cost) but being seasick doesn’t need to be one of them. It will pass and you will be rewarded. Fair winds.

(An earlier version of this article appeared on my other occasional blog.)

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  1. Three stages of seasickness:
    You are so sick you think you will die
    You are so sick you know you will die
    You are so sick you are scared you won’t die.

    Your article purposes a fourth stage -survival and recovery.


    • Hi Roger – you’re absolutely right and I know those stages up close and personal. But the fourth stage happens too so I get v interested in ways to mitigate the appalling misery of the first three. Can’t tell you how much I hate that stage!

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