Have you ever noticed that sailing magazines never show pictures of people being seasick? There are always photos of manly men pulling up sails and glamorous women embracing the forestay, but what about one of those fine-looking sailors with their head in a West Marine bucket?
Sailing guru Beth Leonard took a survey of 38 experienced cruisers and found that three-quarters of them got seasick. Yachting World quizzed 223 participants in the Global Challenge race and found that 62 percent were pukers. Even if we don’t like to admit it, most of us have, at some point, turned a shade of green.
In our family, we call it mal de mer because my wife, Adele, is French, and because mal de mer sounds nicer. Our earliest family puke was on our honeymoon when Adele and I sailed our Wayfarer dinghy for 10 days along the Corsican coast. We soon upgraded to a 26-foot keelboat, which we sailed in the shallow, turbulent waters of east England. It was only then that we realized seasickness might be a regular thing, not a freak mishap to blame on Corsica, but something for the checklist.
Years of fruitless research into remedies began. Ginger came first. Then biscuits. On many an afternoon, we sat out in the North Sea being tossed around in our 26-footer, stuffing ourselves with biscuits. From time to time, we chucked them back up into the North Sea, thus contributing to that body of water’s famously murky color.
A remedy we pioneered ourselves is the “preventative rapid air expulsion technique,” or PRAET, better known as “belching.” While being bullied by steep waves, we discovered that burping on purpose, repeatedly, helps nip oncoming queasiness in the bud.
When we sailed our 26-footer down to the Med and back, my own seasickness was magically cured, but Adele’s quest for relief has been patchier. One grace period unexpectedly came while sailing with our newborn children. You’d think that bouncing around in a small, poorly ventilated boat while changing nappies would spell doom. But somehow—perhaps due to some kind of maternal survival instinct—Adele never felt better.
For whatever reason, our girls, Zephyr and Looli, never got seasick as babies. But they’re bigger now and easily succumb. And though our Valiant 40 Moon River has a great deal better motion, we also go farther offshore and sail in rougher weather. In a sense, all we’ve done is move the goalposts.
We’ve tried everything. Antihistamine pills knocked our girls down so badly the cure seemed worse than the disease. Wristbands were ineffective, and MotionEaze, an ointment made from natural ingredients claiming to work when rubbed behind the ears, violated the first principal of sailing: nothing that’s easy works.
This summer’s big trip was from New York to Bermuda, a boisterous close-reach that lasted five days. We hadn’t even reached the Gulf Stream before Adele, Zephyr and Looli all succumbed to a level of seasickness that was greater than Adele and I had seen in more than 10,000 miles of sailing together. Zephyr, in that intense way children have, carefully counted the number of times she puked. Eighteen. Whenever she or her sister vomited, they’d ask: “What color was it?” Everything revolved around mal de mer.
We had to pressure Zephyr to keep sipping water. It was even harder to persuade the girls to go below during squalls, as they would do anything to avoid entering that dreaded puke-stirring dungeon.
Being the only one aboard who wasn’t seasick didn’t make me happier. There was nothing I could do except offer encouragement and rinse buckets. At the lowest point, I began to wonder whether we would have to abandon our dreams of ocean cruising.
But then, day three dawned: The Miraculous Morning of Bacon and Eggs. We were past the Gulf Stream, still hard on the wind, pounding southeast at six to seven knots.
“What would you like to eat, girls?” Adele asked.
“Bacon,” Zephyr said.
“Bacon and eggs,” Looli said.
Adele and I stared at one another. Up went the fridge lid, down came the frying pan. “Bacon and eggs!” Suddenly, everyone was hungry.
I was so proud of my shipmates. They’d faced real demons. They’d endured. They’d seen that a bad stomach, just like bad weather, has a beginning, but also an end. In short, they’d become real sailors.
Conditions did turn bad again, and there may have been big waves. A few may have washed over the foredeck. I don’t remember. None of us do. We were too busy doing what people who’ve overcome seasickness do when they’re offshore in ugly weather: sheltering in the cozy, dry cabin and playing a good game of cards.
1 Remedies are highly individual. Some people should simply sleep; others cannot bear going below. The effectiveness of medications varies. Stugeron, which you cannot buy in the United States, gets a lot of votes, but may knock you flat (see “Pick your Poison” in Feedback, page 12). Experiment ashore.
2 How will you vomit? Leaning over the side can be dangerous. But so can rinsing a bucket on the end of a line. We give our children beach buckets, which are cheap and flexible. Some people recommend biodegradable dog-poop bags.
3 Don’t start a passage with a hangover. In fact, don’t drink alcohol for two days before you cast off.
4 Keep munching, especially when you think you can’t. Try dry crackers, plain fruits and raw vegetables. Chew more carefully and eat more slowly than you would on land.
5 Everyone knows it’s better outside than below. But at some point you need to get inside to catch a break from the sun and wind. The cabin sole has the least motion of all—put some cushions down and get cozy.
6 Watch carefully for dehydration, especially with children. Replace lost fluids.
7 There may be a psychological component to seasickness, in which case it’s best to muddle through. Keep performing your duties and try to distract yourself.
8 Don’t feel guilty! Even famous sailors get seasick. Lord Nelson did. And remember: there is an end!
Photos courtesy of Sebastian Smith