I threw up recently - the first time for over ten years that its happened, though I always feel a little queasy during a first day at sea. On this occasion we had set out from Key West heading toward Galveston and had a pleasant night sailing in light airs. But then soon after 9.00am, the Pacific front, that we had been expecting, arrived and the seas quickly built. As usual, when I begin to feel a little sick in my stomach I eat something and on this occasion it was a couple of apples. Then I had to go below to do some chartwork and as I came up, so did the apples, making a chunky apple sauce all over the cockpit sole. But I didn't have to wash it away as the seas soon did this for me. It really wasn't much, but I was shocked that it had happened!
Nearly everyone gets seasick to some extent. Whether it is just a little malaise that is an early sign or the retching moaning kind that makes the victim first think they are dying, then want to die and finally, when it's worst, they realize that they are not going to die from it and have to put up with it until the vessel reaches port or the conditions ease.
However you or your crew are affected by sea sickness, it helps to be able to do something about it, preferably to prevent it occurring or, if it does, to minimize the effects.
Symptoms associated with seasickness are pretty standard and most people are affected in a similar way. The onset usually begins with a feeling of tiredness and lethargy (not plotting a position on the chart when necessary, or failing to adjust the sails to a change in course or wind direction). I always experience a tense stomach, burping and wind. Those on lookout may miss obvious things such as crab pots, floating debris and even big freighters. Carelessness is almost always a good early indication. If not undertaking a particular task they may become quiet, still and cold; crew members may begin lying down in the cockpit. Soon after these symptoms occur they may begin turning white or green and start vomiting.
Look out for the following signs in yourself and other crew members:
- Feeling cold / goose bumps
- Staying quiet / not talking
- Lying down
- Lack of concentration (Making simple mistakes / carelessness such as forgetting to cleat a line, snap on a safety harness, etc).
- Turning white / green
- Visiting the head
- Hanging over the side
Just as I have learned how to deal with the early effects of seasickness and so avoid its serious effects, so can you. But it cannot be done during just one short offshore passage. You will need to experiment and if necessary try out the different seasickness remedies available, to find out which suits you best. Firstly, try and reduce those factors which commonly exacerbate the malady.
When I was a charter skipper in the Caribbean, I soon learned that if I could reassure my passengers of my competence early on I would have less seasickness to deal with on the trip. Many were sailing for the first time and tense at setting out offshore. They were frightened of falling overboard, of the boat heeling or of getting sick themselves. Merely telling them of my experience as we motored out the harbor, and explaining how the boat would heel or the seas increase as we rounded the headland showed them I knew what I was doing and they could relax. And with more relaxed passengers I had less seasickness to cope with, and so the passage became easier for me.
I firmly believe that anxiety is the most aggravating factor in causing the onset of seasickness. Setting out as skipper with little experience, it is understandable that you will be anxious and this very condition will exacerbate a tendency for seasickness. It can be minimized by prudent preparation.
For those who seem immune to the onset of seasickness, going below will often provoke a queasiness and a quick return topsides. Unless you are sure you will not be affected, try and stay out in the cockpit during your first couple of days, unless when you go below you lie down immediately. Seasickness is connected with the balance mechanism in your inner ear and by lying down you avoid the need to use this. If you are seriously affected when going below, try and get your foul-weather gear off while still in the cockpit (so long as it's safe to do so) and make sure to lie down as soon as practical
If you have ever gone out on a day fishing charter you will probably have experienced diesel or exhaust fumes for at least part of the trip. The smell is nauseous by itself and it only serves to exacerbate any tendency to seasickness
The motion of the boat
Sometimes you will find that you feel fine until the motion of the boat changes and then a lurching or rolling motion just becomes too much. If this is the case and the navigation allows for it, you can choose your point of sail to minimize this at least for the first day at sea.
I recall, during an early English Channel crossing, feeling a little queasy and listless until I had to put a reef in the mainsail. It took some effort to motivate myself, but the surprising thing at the time was that I completely forgot about my seasickness until after it was all done and I was once again back in the cockpit. Being occupied really helps; being bored really increases the likelihood of seasickness.
If you have minimized the aggravating factors and still find yourself becoming sick even after several coastal or offshore passages, you may want to try medication - but before you do so try the following ideas.
Eating something. Though it is always difficult for me to persuade crew who are feeling a little sick to eat, this works almost every time for me and for those (few) I have been able to persuade. I have found fresh and dried fruit, cookies and sandwiches really help, and because I know this, I always try to ensure they are readily available.
Keeping busy. If I have something to do then it really helps. It's not often these days that I go offshore as crew rather than skipper but when I do I often experience more of a problem with sickness and I'm sure it's because I have less responsibility and less to do. If you are skipper and you notice the early signs of sickness in a member of your crew, try and give them something constructive to do. Putting them on the helm nearly always helps.
But if none of these work then you may want to use some form of medication. Of the varying types, many people find the Scopolomine patches that are worn behind the ear to be the most effective and least drowsiness inducing, though as with all medications, there are side effects. Most common are a dryness in the mouth and a little light headedness.
If you choose to use medications then in my opinion, the best time to start using them is before departure. Not just as you arrive at the boat, but ideally beginning the night before. This gives a chance for your body to get a little used to it and for the side effects to wear off a little.
Hopefully you will learn how to control any tendency to sickness and thus enjoy your sailing even more. As for me, I still enjoy it a lot but I may go light on the Granny Smiths in the future!