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Seasickness: Prepare for It, Treat It

The Bermuda Race’s medical chair (a race skipper) describes the causes, prevention, and treatment of this all-too-common and potentially dangerous condition.

The medical reports submitted by crews after recent Newport Bermuda Races usually include more than 50 cases of seasickness. I suspect that this number significantly underestimates the actual incidence of this illness. Seasickness may present in a full range of stages, ranging from slight queasiness to severe nausea and vomiting, so it is likely that mild cases were not formally logged and that some of the cases occurred without any thought toward preventative measures.

As a community, we pride ourselves in taking safety seriously. Race participants and organizers spend considerable time preparing for events that are unlikely to happen but that (should they occur) could be catastrophic. Potential problems include such scenarios as dismasting, blown sails, failed through-hulls, sinking, losing one’s rudder, and man overboard situations.

While preparation for the Newport Bermuda Race usually is detailed and labor intensive, there is one problem that sailors do not seem to take as seriously as they should

Make no mistake about it, seasickness can be life-threatening. In the 2012 race, seasickness precipitated evacuation of a crewmember from a competing boat, and another vessel on the return trip was also abandoned with seasickness playing a major role in the event. Seasickness can create a danger not only for the victim but for the rest of the crew, too.

Causes of Motion Sickness

Nobody is completely immune to motion sickness. This sickness occurs when our visual cues are mismatched with what our brain perceives. This is precipitated when we are unable to anticipate or line up visual cues with a particular, or perceived, motion. An excellent example is when sailors have to spend time in the bilge, say, while repairing an engine. Our brain senses a motion (the vessel’s movement) but the associated visual cues are absent. Add the smell of diesel fuel and the rest is readily predictable.

Motion sickness can also affect an individual in the absence of motion, as may occur while viewing an action packed video game. Additional factors that contribute to seasickness include lack of sleep, anxiety, poor hydration, foods difficult to digest, certain smells, and learned behavior. When one crewmember becomes seasick, the likelihood of others on board developing the illness increases. Continued seasickness may lead to severe dehydration, an inability to function, and, if untreated, possible death.

Symptoms and Prevention

Victims might also feel a sense of impending doom.

Symptoms of motion sickness include apathy, inability to focus, cold sweats, anorexia, excess salivation, yawning, belching, headache, pale complexion, and finally, nausea and severe vomiting. Victims might also feel a sense of impending doom.

Although thresholds vary from person to person, given the right circumstances, everyone is susceptible. It is also very difficult to predict who will and will not become ill. The illness may be recurrent during a voyage, although most people will adapt to conditions after 36 to 72 hours at sea.

Seasickness Prevention

Be honest about your personal threshold to get sick

Be well rested prior to going offshore

Trial seasickness remedies before going offshore checking for side effects

Start your choice of medication the night before sailing

No alcohol the night before sailing

Eat easily digestible foods the night before sailing and for the first 24 hours

Try to remain topside as much as possible when not getting rest for the first 24 hours

Adhere to a strict watch schedule and get plenty of sleep when off watch

Stay well hydrated

When You Feel Sick

Go topside and hook your safety harness tether to the boat

Let your watch captain know you feel sick and inform them of any other personal illness

If you are not taking any seasick medications, start immediately

Try to focus on the horizon and if possible and appropriate take the helm

Do not try to read or attempt close visual work

Try hydrating slowly with an electrolyte solution such as Gatorade or Pedialyte

Saltines, ginger ale and Coca Cola may help settle your stomach

Stay attached to the vessel in the event that you need to vomit

If you need to vomit try to do so on the leeward side

Crewmates help secure the affected individual

If You Become Seasick and Vomit

Try using a rectal suppository such as Phenergan or Prochlorperazine

If not available try a small sip of an electrolyte solution with a pill (Stugeron, Dramamine etc.)

Try chewing the seasick pill and let the pieces melt in your mouth and under your tongue. This may help absorption into your system if pills are vomited up

Apply a Scopolamine Patch if suppositories/pills are not available or if you vomit the pills up however take care so as not to overmedicate with pills and a patch

Try to lay down and if possible attempt to sleep in a secure place

Do not try to take fluids or eat anything until you feel better and have given the medications a chance to work.(Usually within 30-60 minutes)

When feeling better repeat some of the items in # 2

Be reassured that most people improve within 24-48 hours

Seasickness that Resists Treatment (Refractory Vomiting)

Assess the victim’s condition

If the pulse is weak, or if the victim feels as if he or she will pass out upon sitting or standing, or if there is a change in mental status – then consider evacuation and contact the U.S. Coast Guard or other emergency service

While awaiting advice, keep the victim lying down in a secure place with head slightly elevated and turned to the side in the event that they vomit

Do not force oral fluids

Keep the victim warm

Reassure the victim that you are getting help

Before Heading Out

Knowing your limitations and propensity for seasickness is critical. Because seasickness is far more common than the more dramatic disasters we prepare for, you and your crew should plan ahead on how to deal with it. The boat should have a well thought-out management plan that includes careful planning by the entire crew.

I know many well-respected sailors who routinely take preventative medications for the first 24 to 48 hours of a voyage. Try any preventative medications before going offshore to choose the medicine with the most tolerable side effects. Start the treatment before heading out, continue for at least the first few days, and be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of early seasickness even if medication is already being used.


Anti-seasickness drugs include scopolamine patches as well as medications like Dramamine, Bonine, and Stugeron (cinnarizine). Scopolamine patches may cause dry mouth, headaches, blurred vision, urinary retention, and hallucinations. Dramamine and Bonine can be extremely sedating. Stugeron, a very effective agent (available only in or from Bermuda, Canada, and the UK) also has potential side effects such as drowsiness and tremors.

My personal favorites are scopolamine patches and Stugeron, but they may not be your favorites, too. Before choosing a medication, try several of them out on land prior to the voyage to see how they affect you as an individual. In addition, check with your physician to see if there are any contraindications to any of the drugs depending upon your personal medical history.

I strongly suggest that each crew member and the boat’s medical officer familiarize themselves with the potential side effects of medications, and have that information available onboard in order to recognize a problem, should it occur.

Alternative remedies that have been advocated include the use of ginger, wristbands, acupuncture, and magnets. I believe these interventions are of limited efficacy. So one should not rely on them as the sole source of treatment.

A final thought

For those crews who stubbornly choose to ignore the possibility of seasickness until their time comes, they might take to heart my favorite quote as they look for the silver lining in the storm cloud of this humbling experience: “This is one of the compensations of the seasick. The extraordinary humiliation which accompanies their sufferings is very good for their moral characters.” (James Owen Hannay, 1926)