How To Fix Motion Sickness When Sailing

How To Fix Motion Sickness When Sailing | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

If you have never been motion sick on a boat, you are lucky. I used to get sick as a kid when my dad took me fishing and his cure was to stick my head into a bloody fishing bucket and haul ass to the nearest dock. He was a bit of a hands off kind of father.

The memory of cold sweats, nausea, projectile vomiting, tiredness and fatigue as well as the feeling that this experience would never end made me question the idea of ever going on the water ever again.

But alas 40 years later I am a 100 ton captain and a sailing professional, so I guess it couldn’t have been that bad. However, if you are one of the lucky ones to have orally chummed underway, you know what I am talking about.

Seasickness on a sailboat is in a lot of ways worse than seasickness on a power boat or in the back of a station wagon (two other great places to get motion sick). Because on a sailboat, you're moving slow and there is really no way to speed it up. If you get sick while sailing, any sickness, it's gonna take longer to get you back home regardless.

Unfortunately, my wife has the worst case of motion sickness I have ever seen. She gets seasick sitting on the couch. We were sailing over to Ocracoke one somewhat cloudy day and the seas kicked up 2-4 feet. Within moments she was strapped in, face down on the rail, feeding the fish and begging for mercy.

She stayed that way for 6 hours while we made our way around the shoal towards the Island. Drifting in and out of consciousness, dry heaving on the uproll and groning on the downroll. I felt so bad that I questioned if our marriage would even make it knowing that I bought a boat she would never sail on again.

To her credit, as soon as we rounded the shoal and the seas settled down, she popped up, splashed her face with a little cold water and took the helm sailing us the rest of the way into Silver Lake.

That’s what makes seasickness such a challenge. On some days you're fine, and on others you're talking on a Ralph megaphone. It's an elusive foe who comes at the most inopportune times to visit and stays way longer than you ever want him to, especially on a sailboat.


Table of contents

What Causes Seasickness

If you have read any of my other articles, I am a sailor not a scientist. I have done a fair bit of research on seasickness, however, and have a fair bit of personal experience on the matter as well. The real cause of seasickness is a lack of understanding between your ears and your eyes.

As anybody with vertigo will tell you, when your ears go wacky, your sense of balance goes too. Tiny little hairs in your ears act like a gyroscope telling your mind which way is up. When you're on a boat, the motion of the boat messes up the motion of those ear hairs and tells your mind to tell your eyes to watch for the changes. When your eyes start watching what's going on around you however, they are telling your mind something else. That’s when your mind tells your belly, everybody out of the pool.

These effects become even greater when you are tired, dehydrated, hungover or in some other way not in your best shape, a condition experienced by far too many people while underway.

Other folks like my wife, just have really sensitive ear canals and if the TV goes one way while the couch goes the other, she’s in the bathroom heaving. For those people there are things to help with seasickness that work even for those who just abuse themselves before sailing.

The Cure for Seasickness- catch it before it grabs hold

Once you’re seasick, you are seasick and there isn’t much that can stop it. In the old days and now on long ocean crossings, seasickness can lead to dehydration, unconsciousness and death. For the inland sailors, it usually is just a bad day with a funny story to share when it's all said and done, but it's hell for one person in the telling.

Take the Helm

For short voyages where you can get home relatively quickly, you can try a few things. My first goto to avoid sea sickness in my guests is to keep their mind occupied. A mind can talk you into being seasick and it can talk you out of being seasick.

The first time I see one of my guests flashing green, I stick them on the helm and get their eyes on the horizon. You can also turn on some music, start a sing along, change a sail or send folks overboard swimming. Whatever you do to get their mind out of the boat and their stomach, the better.

Taking the helm is one of my favorites because it gets their eyes up on the horizon and mind out of the boat and kicks the adrenaline up a bit due to nerves about steering the boat. This strategy works really well for mild cases of seasickness but for the more persistent pukers, you might have to bring in some bigger guns.

How To Fix Motion Sickness

If your sailing partner is one of the more sensitive types to seasickness, there are things you can try to help them enjoy sailing.

The worst is when someone says I can’t go sailing because I always get seasick. That’s like saying I am allergic to smoke- we are all sensitive to smoke because it's unhealthy and uncomfortable.

Seasickness can come and go with time, age and health so never give up the ship simply because you got seasick once. And to buy a little insurance try one or more of these tricks to trick your senses.

An earplug in one ear saved the day with my wife. It seems to work because when one ear is plugged and the other is open, your brain knows to disregard the weird messages and instead trusts your eyes without question. If there is no argument between the eyes and ears, there is no reason for the brain to kick everyone out of the pool.

There are also the patches that go behind the ear that apply medicine and bracelets that do a similar function. I am not a giant fan of those because they get expensive and require a longer term commitment than might be necessary. With an ear plug, you can pull it out if you think you are getting better and put it back in if you start feeling worse. With topical patches you kind of have to commit to the long term in the battle to stave off seasickness and I have a fear of commitment.

There are also meds you can take like Dramamine that can help fight off seasickness if you take them before you get sick. Once you're puking though, keeping a pill down can be impossible and most times they ruin the trip because they knock the patient out so they can’t enjoy the sail. They really are just sleeping pills so why did you go sailing in the first place if you planned on taking a sleeping pill?

Those are some short sail treatments that can work, but that’s no way to live. You can't wear a patch for a voyage of a week or more and no one should sleep that long on drugs. The ear plug however works when you need it, and can be put in reserve once you feel better- and trust me, you will eventually feel better

Long Sailing Voyages

On voyages where you will be underway for more than a few days, you really need to watch for persistent sea sickness. Long term sea sickness as I previously said can be quite dangerous. Getting ahead of it and stopping it before it takes hold is key.

A good night's sleep, a multivitamin rich in B12 and plenty of drinking water can remediate most of the effects of day one seasickness. For that matter, you could get a good night's sleep, take a good dose of B12 and drink plenty of water before you go sailing anyday, but recovery is the name of the game on long voyages.

On deliveries up the Eastern seaboard, I have had a sour belly for most of the trip. But drinking water and taking a vitamin and making sure I got enough rack time kept me going even if I couldn’t stomach a full meal while underway. Self-care is a big deal while underway and you have to make sure you're doing good things for yourself if you are going to be any good for your crew and boat.

The Sun is gonna shine again

If you give it time, your body will adjust. Much like riding a bike or steering with a tiller, the more you do it the better you will get. Your body develops muscle memory and your ears and eyes adjust to the pitch and the roll of the vessel.

Time on a boat is hard on the body. Lots of time sailing you will use muscles you didn’t know you had and the constant movement can tire a body out. This constant wear can exacerbate sea sickness on long voyages without proper rest and self care.

It's all too common that on longer voyages as conditions change, sea sickness can return or pop up in others you thought were immune. Taking care by sleeping, hydrating and vitamins can help with returning bouts of sickness and new ones from developing. The key is get enough time not puking so that your body can adjust and learn the new environment and after just a few days everyone on board should be ok and vomit-free.

For those that don’t get better, consulting with the USCG, calling a doctor or maybe evacuating them to safety is the right call. That's the reason why we all should have a first aid course and recognize the symptoms of dehydration and shock while at sea. If one of your crew isn’t looking so good and has been puking for more than a day or two without drinking water, you really ought to get help.

Short of that, we all must chum at some time in our lives on the water. I have even had dogs that suffered from seasickness afloat and again if it lasts more than a day or two, you really should start to worry. But a day lashed to the rail, begging for it all to end and vowing never to do it again is just par for the course in the life of a sailor. So do good, have fun and sail far.

How To Fix Motion Sickness When Sailing
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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