Whenever he encountered a seasick sailor, Admiral Nelson, the 19th century British hero at Trafalgar, suggested his own fool-proof remedy: "You'll feel better if you sit under a tree." Nelson, who made a few trips to the rail himself, was obviously a funny guy but not everybody shares his sense of humor about seasickness. The same motion--up, down, up, down--that reminds some people of Joseph Conrad reminds others of what they had for lunch. In the almost 200 years since Nelson met his Waterloo, modern medicine hasn't been able to improve on his tree remedy, but they're working on it.
For anyone contemplating a bumpy voyage, there are various pills and patches that have been concocted--Dramamine, Marezine, Bonine, Scapolamine (ear patches), etc. These anti-motion drugs all affect the inner ear, which is where seasickness originates before it drops--thud--into the stomach. While some people swear by one or the other of these remedies, there is no one drug that has proven to be ideal for everybody. None of the pills work immediately and all must be taken well before symptoms occur. There is also something called Phenergan, a suppository that is said to be effective when someone is already seasick.
If you are going to try one, you might want to start with Marezine, since it is the least likely to cause drowsiness. Scapolamine is probably the most effective and its effects also last the longest, about 72 hours. It can have some strange side effects, however, and requires a doctor's prescription. Marezine, Dramamine, and Bonine are antihistamines, which means they can be bought over the counter. Phenergan can also be purchased over the counter.
Many people think of pills or patches as a last resort to fighting motion sickness. One alternative is ginger root powder, which is a seasick remedy that was first brought to our attention by an enthusiastic BoatU.S. member in Washington State. Ginger root powder settles the stomach and has gotten some good press, including a recommendation in Lancet, a well-regarded English medical journal. Ginger root powder capsules are available in health food stores.
Acupressure, which puts pressure between the flexor tendons on the wrists, is a remedy that seems to be gaining a widespread and enthusiastic following. Exactly what the wrists have to do with the brain and stomach isn't clear. (Maybe the "let's get sick" message from the brain to the stomach is relayed via the flexor tendons.) However it works, when it does work, acupressure wristbands can be simple and effective. Unlike other remedies, wristbands can be effective even when someone has already begun to feel nauseous. More recently, a high-tech wristband has been developed that uses electronic signals to stimulate the acupressure point. Both types of bands are available at BoatU.S. and West Marine. (A more sophisticated version that's used to prevent nausea from chemotherapy or during pregnancy as well as from motion sickness is also available by prescription.)
Other solutions to seasickness include eating saltine crackers and drinking Coca Cola. If nothing else, these are usually handy and can work as a placebo when nothing else is available.
Some foods should be avoided. Anything greasy or rich, for example, that makes your stomach feel uneasy on land will probably make it feel even worse on a rolling and pitching boat. Doctors strongly recommend that alcohol not be consumed by anyone who is prone to seasickness, as it affects the functioning of the inner ear. Caffeine should also be avoided.
Whatever approach you take, when you're feeling even slightly queasy, the fresh air and steadier view on deck is preferable to being down below in a damp, stuffy cabin. Watching the horizon and oncoming waves helps you anticipate motion and steadies the inner ear. Taking the helm is an ideal job, so long as it doesn't require staring at the compass. Working up close--watching a compass, reading, plotting a course, etc.--is almost guaranteed to quickly make you feel worse, maybe much worse.
If all else fails and you do get sick, use a bucket. Don't lean over the rail when you're already feeling unsteady. When you're finished, lie down on your back in the middle of the boat (where the motion is easiest) and close your eyes. Try to relax. Sooner or later the boat will reach shore and you'll be able to sit under a tree.
Reprinted from the quarterly Seaworthy magazine. Subscriptions are $10 per year. For information, go to BoatUS.com/Seaworthy or call 703-823-9550, ext. 3276.
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