Coast Guard News: Oh, my aching stomach!

Mal de Mer




As an avid student of the sea, I’m always amazed when I read that even some of the around-the-world sailors get “mal de mer” — seasickness. While they get over it in a few days, which everyone will if they are out long enough, I wonder how they can put to sea knowing with certainty that they will be sick as dogs for a few days?

What Is/What Causes Seasickness?

Seasickness starts in your inner ear. It is caused by the rocking of the boat at sea and, from my own observations, I believe that each boat has a motion unique to itself and each sailor. I have seen some on multiple configurations of boats, multiple sizes, and various sea-states who get seasick without any predictability versus these mixes.

Of course, there is the person who gets seasick at the dock as they get out of the car. While they are genuinely sick, they are not sick from the motion. They are sick from emotion. They are convinced they will get sick. And they fear that.

I know of one sailor who only gets sick in the English Channel. Of course, the first time he was there was during the Normandy Invasion. He crossed it sitting with plenty of other soldiers spewing their lunch all over each other. To the sailor who gets chronic seasickness, it’s like being in a cold, wet, rolling jail cell. Plus, the chance of drowning is never too far away, at least in their minds.

How Can I Stop It?

First, don’t get seasick. This means keeping your eye on the horizon as best you can. Watching the boat rock around is like reading in a car. It is going to cause problems because your mind and inner ear can’t process those rapid motions all at once. If you start to get the least bit queasy, stand up or lie down — but get out of that chair. Having your innards pressing on your stomach, which is reacting to the signals from your ear, is a recipe for projectile emissions.

Second, if someone around you starts to turn green, get away, and fast. If it’s your wife, throw her a bucket and your best wishes. You will rapidly follow the leader if you don’t. Resist the temptation to have them, or you, avail yourself of the “puke deck,” i.e., evacuating overboard. Your internal balance system is shot. One bad jibe by the boat and you will be following your food into the drink. But be aware of this. If you have gotten seasick, and you haven’t started preventative measures the night before you set sail, pray that you can fall asleep.

How Do I Prevent It?

There are plenty of over-the-counter remedies that come in pill or patch form: Dramamine, Marezine, Bonine, Scapolamine, etc. If you are going to try one, you might want to start with Marezine, since it’s 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. Phenergan, a suppository, can also be purchased over the counter.

A natural aid is ginger. You can stock up at the Japanese restaurant or buy the tablets. Many people swear by it, and I’ve seen it work with my kids. But start taking it the night before. One of the more esoteric types of remedy is the wrist bands. They are supposed to work on your acupuncture point that is about an inch-and-a-half above your inner wrist. Hey, if it works for you, use it. I am not a doctor, but I am a sailor and a keen observer of the obvious.

One day, a few years back, when transiting through the Montauk rips with a number of friends and family aboard, everyone (‘cept me of course) got seasick, including my wife, Jo, and my young daughter, Mariel. My wife got the bucket and a “Here, use this.” Mariel got a bucket, a warm towel, and me holding her hand. My wife said, “Sure. It figures!” between gasps. I said, “Of course it does. She’s only 9!” T’was a cold night for me.

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