It is thought that about 90% of people have suffered from motion sickness at some point in their lives. Although it is not life threatening, many sufferers might well wish that it were, if only to bring an end to their severe discomfort.

Sea sickness, or Mal de Mer, (the more pleasant sounding French term), happens when the brain receives conflicting signals from the body, eyes and inner ear. The balance system of the inner ear becomes disturbed and as the nerve fibres try to compensate for the strange motion of the vessel, our sensory perception gets out of synch, resulting in confusion and queasiness.

One of the most frustrating things about seasickness is that you know that the sure way to bring instant relief is to get off the boat. Unfortunately that is not usually an option. It is also annoying that the trip you have been looking forward to so much is ruined for you, while the majority of your companions are perfectly comfortable and happy. While it is usual that the brain generally learns to compensate for the swaying and pitching of the boat, it may take quite a time before you get your “sea legs”. If you have a problem with motion sickness in cars and aeroplanes, you may be more prone to seasickness. On the other hand, if you get nauseous in a small boat, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll get seasick on a cruise ship.

What to avoid

There are some activities which can act as triggers, guaranteed to cause uncomfortable symptoms.

  • Going below deck, especially if the sea is choppy or rough.
  • Looking through binoculars for more than a short glance.
  • Doing detailed work or staring at one point, like reading a book or looking at the compass.
  • Eating rich, fatty or spicy food before a voyage.
  • Hitting the alcohol too hard the night before.

The first signs

Sleepiness and yawning can often be the first sign of approaching seasickness. This is certainly my own experience. Also you may notice an excess of saliva in your mouth. After this comes the nausea, but it is often mild at this stage. Up to this point I have found that maintaining a positive state of mind and taking some immediate precautions can sometimes prevent the condition getting any worse and may even cause it to disappear. If you are one of the unlucky ones however, the symptoms may worsen to extreme nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, pallor and cold perspiration.

What to do

  • Stay busy and keep your mind occupied.
  • Stay in the fresh air.
  • Take deep breaths and drink plenty of water.
  • Keep your eyes on the horizon.
  • If you are sailing the boat yourself, take the helm. This is the position where the motion of the boat will be at its minimum and your concentration on where you are going will help.
  • Keep warm and dry. If you cannot face going down below to collect warm clothes and waterproofs, ask someone else to get them.

There are many remedies that may help sufferers. Though the one which must rank as being the least helpful is “Sit under a tree in the shade”. Fine if you happen to have a tree on your boat! Much more useful is to take medication in the form of tablets, which are readily available at chemists. There are too many types to list and it may be a case of trial and error before you find the one which suits you. They work by sedating the balancing organs but drowsiness can be a side effect. Also, they have to be taken hours before you travel, not during the onset of symptoms, so unless you are a regular sufferer, you may not realise that you need a tablet until it is too late. Herbal remedies such as ginger are reported to be beneficial and some people claim that they are helped by pressure bands and transdermal patches worn behind the ear.

In my experience you find the treatment that suits you best. I like to nibble a ginger biscuit when the first symptoms appear, whereas one of the skippers I’ve sailed with would not touch ginger at any price. I also find that a small piece of bread or toast will settle the stomach, even though I may not feel like eating. Others swear by eating salty snacks, though not too many. Taking the helm is an almost foolproof way of allaying the symptoms, but this does not work if half the crew are feeling nauseous. If the worst comes to the worst I usually give up and take to my sleeping bag in the saloon, hoping that there are enough able bodies on deck to get to our destination safely.

Some strange remedies you may not want to take.

(Please note I am not recommending these, nor have I tried them).

  • Drink a bottle of Daddies sauce, and then suck a lemon.
  • There are some things called Queasy Drops and Queasy Pops. The sugar in them is supposed to provide a much needed energy boost.
  • Take a spoonful of honey.
  • Eat peppermint and ginger together.
  • Coke or Pepsi are supposed to reduce the chances of seasickness as the phosphoric acid they contain is an ingredient of Emetrol – a drug to control vomiting.
  • Eat boiled chicken. (What? When you’re feeling sick?)
  • Immerse your feet in ice water!!! Maybe this is so painful that you won’t notice the seasickness. Which writer said that you can only feel one source of pain at a time?
  • Insert an earplug into your left ear (if you are right handed). Presumably the opposite applies as well.

Don’t feel a wimp

Seasickness has been happening for longer than you might think. There is documentary evidence recorded on Babylonian tablets from the Bronze Age. The illness was also recognised in ancient India and China, where ginger was chewed as a remedy. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates mentioned it in his writings, Julius Caesar’s legate Aulus Hirtius wrote about horses suffering from the affliction and the philosopher Seneca wrote about the violent vomiting he experienced at sea.

Just remember that many of the finest sailors suffered from seasickness. Nelson, who was apparently never afraid of anything, was frequently incapable of leaving his berth due to seasickness and Sir John Franklin was never able to take charge of his ship until he had passed the Bay of Biscay. About half the astronauts take motion sickness medication when in space.


Don’t let the fear of seasickness put you off travelling on the water. Do some research, take advice from experienced sailors, be sensible in your preparations and keep a positive outlook. And if the worst comes to the worst, remember that once your feet touch terra firma, you will feel a whole lot better.

Author – Dee White

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