Sick of Sailing

Hamlets father is poisoned to death with the juice of the yew, dropped into his ear while he is sleeping. It’s the same poison that today’s sailors put behind their ears in little plasters, which deliver the deathly agent to the body through the skin. In the appropriate dosage it is a medicine.


There are several means to fight seasickness, from ginger, the right diet, some do’s & don’ts up to the use of strong medicines. We’ll come to that at the end. The best strategy is to combine the right things and avoid the bad. It starts with understanding what seasickness is.


They say that Admiral Nelson (1758 – 1805) became seasick every time he returned to sea after a longer stay on land. But before it came to serious action he used to have his sea legs back. Time and adaption still are the best – and some doctors say: the only – treatment against a revolting stomach.


The most efficient medicines against seasickness have a big disadvantage. They do not only reduce the susceptibility to seasickness but also your overall agility. That’s why Navy crew usually don’t get medicines. After all they shall be alert while sitting in front of their dimmed screens in windowless combat stations.


If you take strong medicaments against seasickness, you should consider that you are not able to act as fast as normally, and you are not as sure in your movements as you would be without those medicaments. They make you slow and your movements less coordinated.


Travel sickness, sea sickness, air sickness, space sickness – these are different names for one evil: kinetosis. The word contains the Greek root „kine…“, which stands for „motion“. Kinetosis is motion vertigo (in contrary to other forms of vertigo, such as experienced from height, poisoning, or low blood pressure). The English term “nausea” contains the Latin root “nauta” (sailor). The disease is as old as the marine business.


But getting seasick has little to do with the sea. The movement forces that affect our body in a yet unlearnt way are its source. The movements of a big ship are not worse than those on a garden swing, just slower and wider. The movements in a car or an aircraft are not worse than those in a roller coaster, but they are less easy to anticipate.


You can get motion-sick in any kind of vehicle. Few are immune: car drivers behind the wheel and little babies who haven’t yet developed their motion anticipation patterns. They are used to being moved around in unexpected ways. Older children get easier seasick than adults, because they already have their full senses for motion stimuli, but cannot cope with unlearned motion patterns.


If the stress load is high enough, even the toughest guys will be affected (“even Russian cosmonauts”, I learned at the ESA space training centre in Cologne). Experienced Navy pilots have been seen vomiting into liferafts during survival tests at sea. Astronauts are mistreated during their trainings by being turned around blindfolded on a spinning chair. Everything goes well on this chair until you move your head a few degrees out of its vertical axis… Fish can get seasick when their aquarium is moved. Birds get seasick in aircrafts or moving cages. Pigs don’t get seasick.


How nausea may affect you is quite different from case to case. You may feel a little bit queasy, you may feel sick to death (although you definitely are not). Several levels of sickness can be observed, from cold sweat on the forehead to vomiting and being completely incapable of any action. I once saw a helmswoman who was literally green in the face (because she had gall in her blood, I learned), but she still did a perfect job. Fear bio-chemically rises the sensitivity to get seasick.


Usually the body gets acquainted to the movement within one or two days. After that the "disease" is over. Few need longer, very few never get used to living on a craft in motion. For many individuals it’s normal to become seasick at the beginning of each voyage, but they adapt faster from time to time. The best treatment is to take a break to recover, but that’s not possible while ocean racing.


Scientists found out that people suffer from kinetosis because the histamine level in their blood and some tissues becomes too high. Histamine is produced by the body, but also exists in many foods. Histamine plays an important role in allergic reactions and in nervous metabolism. It affects directly the vomiting center of the brain.


The secret of not feeling seasick is to avoid letting histamine levels rise too high. There are three ways to achieve this:


Medicaments, so called Antihistamines

Low histamine diet (as recommended to many allergic patients)

Training and behavior to lower the histamine level


Besides antihistamines the strong medicament Scopolamine (one trademark is “Scopoderm”) helps against the worst aspects of seasickness. It is an alkaloid you find in the yew, in henbane and in the Deadly Nightshade. To avoid getting seasick it is continuously given to the blood vessels in small doses via a plaster attached behind your ears. When you find it too strong, just take the plasters off. Valium can help too because it abates irritating stimuli.


Homeopathic medicaments are said to have stabilising effects. Ginger has the same effect and helps the body to reduce its histamine level. Vitamine C binds histamine and should be taken as a drink or in food before weather gets rough.


The best strategy is to combine one medicament with appropriate behavior.


How can we support this adaption process?


Our body has three balance regulation systems. The main system is in the ears, it detects acceleration and its counterpart, deceleration. But foot soles, muscles, joints, our buttocks and inner organs also report to our brain. But they don’t “know” what happens, their nerves can only send the message that they feel pressure or tension when the car follows a curve or a wave tosses our yacht skywards, before it falls into the trough of a wave. Unfortunately our nerves cannot distinguish between “real” perpendicular forces and an inclination of our seat. They cannot distinguish between being pressed into a seat by acceleration or by gravitation. It’s our eyes – the third balance system - that add the information we need to understand what really goes on and how we have to interpret the perceptions of our nerves. Make the test in a race car simulator in Disneyland. Your senses can easily be fooled. The motions you believe to experience because you “see it” are quite different from the motions your body actually goes through.


If you get seasick, it is because the motions you experience do not match the patterns of your experience. That causes stress which raises your histamine level. Your eyes can help to sort it out. That’s why it helps to be on deck and see the horizon. Your eyesight brings order to the chaos. Steering helps a lot. We have learned that car drivers don’t get motion sick, because they create the motion of the craft and therefore can foresee it. If you are at the helm of the boat you certainly do not produce the motion of the yacht, but you have some influence on it. And you know what will happen in the next seconds. Seeing the horizon and the upcoming waves makes it easier for your balance system to stabilize you in space. Even if it’s on Earth.


Space doctors and their navy colleagues are convinced that everybody can get motion sick, if his nervous system is stressed hard and long enough. When you are cold, hungry, thirsty, tired and wet you are more likely to become seasick. Fear is another important factor that contributes to getting seasick. Some think, it's the all deciding factor. Good communication may take fear of the crew.


It is not a solution to stay at home.


"Switzerland expects that every (wo)man will do her/his duty!" Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, KB (29.09.1758 – 21.10.1805) regarded seasickness as a minor problem

How to fight Seasickness

Avoid high-histamine food (e.g tomatoes, spinach) before you set-off. Develop a menu based upon this principle for the first three days at sea.


Avoid alcohol


Take Vitamine C (up to 3 gramms per day). Vitamin C supports the breakdown of histamine


Put on dry warm clothes. Drink tea. Ease yourself in every way. Use the toilet before it gets too rough


Don’t eat too much. Your meal should be easy to digest (low fat, no meat or fish)


Stay on deck, if there is shelter.


Stay active, if possible. Take the helm, keep lookout, assist the navigator. Leave cleaning the bilges to others.


Don not combine homeopathic medicaments with conventional medicaments


Vitamine C plus low-histamine diet plus Scopolamine are a strong combination. Put the plaster on 6 hours before the start. If necessary – that is: when you feel you’re getting sick – add an anti-histamine (low dose)


Pills are good for prevention but not if you already started feeling sick. In this case they may only reach your stomach but not your gut where it must arrive to transfer into your blood. If you are afraid of vomiting take a suppository. It helps nearly as fast as an injection, because it delivers the remedy to a mucous membrane and thus directly into your blood vessels.


bucket / Eimer

If you filled the bucket, empty it immediately. If you keep it beside your bunk it will cause trouble. And you may loose friends.


If you can sleep, do so. While you sleep, your histamine levels will decrease.


Never forget: It will be over soon.