How to avoid seasickness during a sail trip

How to avoid seasickness during a sail trip


Everyone gets seasick. In this article we will tell you what seasickness is and how to avoid it while sailing.

What is seasickness?

If you set your mind to it, you can create such conditions for a physically healthy person when they will get seasick for sure. Therefore, in most cases seasickness is not a disease but a normal response of a healthy body to yacht motions. Children under age two don’t get seasick at all. Kids aged 3-12 suffer from the swell the most among all age groups. In natural conditions women are more liable to be seasick than men, while in laboratory testing their results are not any different from those of men.

Then, there are three more important things to know about seasickness:

1. You get seasick when you see one thing but feel something different.

When we are downstairs in the cabin, we can see immobile walls and furniture, but our vestibular system continues to feel the motion. This discrepancy triggers the seasickness mechanism during sea voyages.

There are also opposite situations when the person’s body remains at rest while the eyes see something dynamic going on, for instance, a 3D film or a computer game in virtual reality goggles. Similar things happen during a strong alcohol or drug intoxication, when the picture does not match the sensations.

There is a hypothesis (M. Treisman. Motion sickness: a revolutionary hypothesis) stating that while sea voyages were rare for our ancestors, the accidentally eaten poison was a common thing, so our body learnt to respond to such conflicts of the systems in an understandable way – as if reacting to a poisoning with neurotoxic mushrooms in which we did not feel the taste of the poison on our palate (things happen), but felt the effect from it (hallucinations). Hence, vomiting and sickness which are protective mechanisms during poisoning, although there is no poisoning going on as such.

2. A couple of days of motion normally suffice to help the body adapt.

Getting used to motions happens all of a sudden, normally towards the end of day two. From that moment on one can feel at home on the boat and enjoy the cruise. Of course, all people are different – some need more time, others less, but very few people can’t adapt at all.

3. If you act appropriately, you can start feeling comfortable as early as in the first days.

You needn’t get seasick first to get used to it. Quite the opposite. This process is similar to walking on a tightrope – if there are no motions at all then there will be no getting used to it either. If there is too much of it and no preventive measures are taken, you can find yourself in an extremely severe condition: vomiting, headaches, total loss of energy. I noticed that, as strange as it is, adaptation in this grave condition happens more slowly than for those who found themselves in the same conditions but manage to persevere without bringing themselves to the extremes. So, as it turns out, there are two options of getting used to the swell – an easy and short one or a painful and long one. I wish everyone to stick with the first one and here are two tips to that end:

  • Identify the early symptoms of deterioration of one’s own condition.
  • Take the right measures to prevent the situation from getting worse. For these preventive measures see text below.

It is important to understand that it is relatively easy to avoid getting seasick, whereas it is much more difficult to extricate yourself out of that condition, especially its more severe form.

Seasickness symptoms in the first days

Photo: Unsplash

But despite all of the above, some feel better at sea, others feel worse. Let's deal with this:

What makes your condition worse during seasick

The original cause of seasickness, namely any situations when many objects connected with the moving yacht get into our sight:

  • Being inside the boat. Obvious but still a cause. The strongest factor contributing to seasickness is closed space.
  • Reading, using a laptop or a smartphone.
  • Any painstaking work.
  • At night it is any sources of light in the cockpit. When the yacht’s details are lit up with a lamp, your eyes are caught by it, while the space beyond them is not.

Factors that normally accompany poisoning:

  • Lack of fresh air.
  • Strong smells (food, cigarettes, diesel fuel, used socks, etc.).
  • Alcohol intoxication.
  • Some medication, in particular, the majority of antibiotics and painkillers, hormonal agents (Stefanie K. Erskine. Motion Sickness).
  • Fear. I have long had a hunch that the more people are afraid of the sea, the more seasick they get. I’ve recently seen fear listed among the risk factors here, although have not found decent research about it.
  • Hunger. Many are so convinced that they are going to throw up that they don’t eat at all before setting sail to be on the safe side. However, this is not the best solution, as hunger aggravates seasickness. So, a little snack is advised, but not the food which is heavy on the stomach nor too much food.
  • Pregnancy. It cannot be changed, so it just needs to be taken into account.

What makes one feel better during seasick

To eliminate or ease the swell, one should:

  • Leave the ship and come ashore (the most efficient method, helps instantaneously).
  • Put up the sails. This reduces the impact of rolling. The thing is a yacht’s length is normally three times as much as its width. Consequently, a wave of a certain size will be rolling the yacht from side to side three times as strong as pitching it back and forth. The raised sails, which slow down the swell, relieve the rolling. Even in calm sea or headwinds it makes sense to put up the main sail to stabilize the vessel.

Eliminate the conflict of eyesight and vestibular system:

  • Look far into the horizon, at the clouds, stars, shore and other vessels.
  • Close your eyes or go to bed altogether. If choosing between closing your eyes and looking at the horizon, as strange as it might seem, the latter is better (Motion Sickness: Its Pathophysiology and Treatment). However, if you already feel drained of energy and wish to retire to your cabin, it is better to lie with your eyes closed than open them inside the yacht.
  • Take away a sprayhood and a bimini top. They block part of the visible space drawing the eyes to the yacht and not to the outside world. The fewer hindrances will be there for the open space, the better. Also, it will allow in more fresh air.
  • Take the place behind the helm. Unfortunately, we don’t have a command over our own eyesight and cannot be looking where our mind tells us to look, i.e. at the horizon, for several hours. After a mere five minutes we start staring at our fingernails, control equipment, the person opposite, etc. But there is one way of making yourself be focused – turn off the autopilot system and assume the control over steering. The person at the helm has to constantly look forward to keep the course, so he or she can’t just stare at his or her shoes as the please. The helmsperson can take only a brief look at the control units and then go back to looking into the distance. Therefore, it is the steering person who gets seasick in the last turn, be it on a yacht or in a car.
  • Sailing in a dinghy boat hauled after the yacht can be both an efficient remedy and a fun activity.
  • Bathing and even swimming for a little while can make you feel better.
  • During a strong rolling motion it is good to be standing in the nose clinging to a folded-up sail. This way no details of the yacht will get into the sight.

Antihistamine and anticholinergic medicines, such as the dimenhydrinate drug Dramamine and Scopolamine (hyoscine hydrochloride) respectively, have proven their efficiency, that is five times reduction of getting seasick (Alan J Benson, M.D. Medication fo Motion Sickness). They are very helpful indeed, but the effect should not be overestimated – your own behaviour on board matters more than taking this medicine. In particular, if we compare reading inside the cabin with being in the fresh air behind the helm, then Dramamine will not be helpful in the first case and might not even be needed in the second one. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take medicines. You should.

Such as on the first day when it is better to take all the possible preventive measures, provided they do not conflict with other. It’s just that taking pills will not rid you of the necessity to be careful. Also, you need to keep in mind that Dramamine makes you drowsy. Scopolamine has a similar effect, albeit not such a strong one. The bottomline is that you shouldn’t take too much medicine if you are on the watch, but if someone is feeling the first signs of seasickness, you can give them a “knock-out” dose (two pills) of Dramamine and send to sleep.

Those who got a forward cabin should move to an after cabin for a while or just lie down in any vacant place in the lounge or in the back of the deck (motion is strongest in the nose part and may even lead to the state of weightlessness). When in a cabin, you should open the windows and let some fresh air in. But you shouldn’t open the eyes, at least for longer than a second.

Nicol / Unsplash

The placebo effect as seasick

As the reason for seasickness is a purely mental one, a placebo works just right against it. If a person honestly believes that a certain folk cure will help them, the miracle does normally happen and they start feeling better. But, strictly speaking, one should not rely on such remedies as:

How to register the worsening of condition during seasick?

While motion sickness may initially manifest itself in a variety of ways, unless measures are taken, it always leads to one and the same condition: nausea, vomiting, total lack of energy. It is crucial to recognize this state early on and take instant measures, as sometimes only few minutes of inappropriate behaviour separate the states of mild dizziness and “puking”. If you detected the condition and took the necessary measures in a timely manner – the relief will be fast and painless.

On the contrary, if you drive yourself into the state of an “amorphous jellyfish” – the relief will take long and be painful. Therefore, when on board, it is essential to pay close attention to your own body, as any unusual sensations may be the first symptoms of seasickness. This means recognize the very moment when urgent measures are needed, when you should stop doing “something that makes you feel worse” right away and start doing “something that makes you feel better” (see above). Here is a list of symptoms, each of which may point to seasickness (all the more so, if they are combined):

  • Sudden fatigue, apathy
  • Paleness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Shivers or cold sweat
  • Drowsiness
  • Upset stomach: gastric fermentation, flatulence, intestinal gas, epigastric burning, belching
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

Generally speaking, any unusual or weird sensations, along with these ones, are a reason to immediately discontinue what you are doing and move on to something more appropriate. Otherwise, your condition will deteriorate further followed by a sudden and rapid arrival of stage two – vomiting and weakness.

Simple rules to follow during your first day at sea to prevent seasick. This is what I tell the first-timers about the rules of being at sea on day one:

  • Today we have a “reverse system of seniority.” Those who have been at sea for a shorter time than the others are considered “chiefs”. They don’t need to do anything themselves, but will have things done for them by those who have been at sea longer. Fetch a jacket or glasses from a cabin, make some tea, wash the dishes, etc. – all this should be done by those more accustomed to the swell, while all the newcomers stay on the deck and abstain from going downstairs. There is nothing wrong with giving others orders to fetch-get-bring-take away-feed, as it is easier to wash someone’s dish than clean the entire deck after them.
  • You should go to the bathroom with your eyes closed. Literally. Meaning “by sense of touch.” Well, you can certainly open them for an instant, just to navigate yourself in the surrounding space and then shut them back again.
  • One hour before setting sail everyone takes one pill of Dramamine. If someone feels uncertain about their condition during sailing, they should add one more pill. If someone feels downright seasick they get an extra one or two pills crushed to powder and are sent to sleep in any vacant after cabin.

Let me reiterate: these rules are only valid on day one. After that each person makes decisions for themselves based on their condition.

Here is one more rule for those who are just about to throw up: do not try to make it to the bathroom. If you have felt seasick on the deck, you will undoubtedly feel much worse in a close room. Can it get any worse? Oh yes, it can. It’s when you don’t have the energy to raise and make few steps back to the deck. There was a situation when one of us spent an entire day in the latrine, unable to get out of there. The only thing we could do was knock on the door asking, “Are you alive?” and getting “Yes” in response. Good thing the yacht had two latrines.

To sum it up, the deck can always be rinsed with a bucket of water, so don’t be afraid to make a mess there. It’s way more difficult to help a person out of the latrine and even more difficult to “fish” those who wished to vomit over a handrail out of the sea. It is really dangerous when the swell is high, especially for the first-timers. Along with nausea, they may have dizziness combined with weakness. In a nutshell, our choice is the following: better use a bucket if there is one. If there is no bucket out there, no worries – you can vomit right on the deck or the aisles alongside. The key thing here is staying in the cockpit.


Photo: Unsplash

Here are the symptoms telling that your body has got used to the motions:

  • Wakefulness, return of energy, physically active state
  • A voracious appetite
  • You start feeling motion on the shore, especially with your eyes closed

You have to get used to the swell again after several months spent on the firm ground. However, it will be easier than the first time around. On one hand, the body “remembers” its previous experience, and on the other hand you develop an ability to listen to your body and take precautions.


Text: team

Cover photo: Nicol / Unsplash

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