Dealing with sickness at sea

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 23, 2002

Nobody likes to be seasick! Unfortunately, it is one of the most common occurrences when recreational boaters get underway. Regardless of the type of vessel, power or sail, large or small, wide or narrow, seasickness is a fact of life. Even experienced professional mariners get seasick.

I used to predict, almost without fail, that the first time a new crew member reported onboard the Patrol Boat I commanded in Maine that the individual would get sick.

Over the next two weeks I’ll look at different aspects of seasickness. What causes it? How can you combat it?

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Chuck Oman, writing in Cruising World, provided a very interesting fact to start our discussion. &uot;Nine out of 10 people say that they have experienced come form of motion sickness at some point in their lives. In fact, virtually everyone who has normal inner ear balance function can be made motion sick if an appropriately strong and unfamiliar stimulus is used.&uot;

Continued Oman, whose article appeared in the December 1991 edition, &uot;Susceptibility is the highest in childhood, and declines somewhat with age and experience in motion environments.&uot;

In 14 years of sea duty I have been violently sick twice, and neither time was a fun experience. The first time occurred on my very first underway while Executive Officer on the USCGC Vashon in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. Being a typically busy XO, I was up early the morning of the voyage. I had two cups of coffee and a granola bar for break. First bad move – getting an acid beverage into my system.

If you have ever seen the opening scenes from the Harrison Ford movie &uot;Clear and Present Danger,&uot; you know how a Coast Guard patrol boat rides; it’s one up and down motion followed by another.

Well, the coffee, granola, wind and seas got to me an hour after leaving port. I think I was as green as leaf of spinach! I learned an important lesson which I’ll share with you this week and next.

Why do we get seasick? Again, looking to Oman’s article, the reason seems fairly straightforward. &uot;The basic hypothesis,&uot; writes Oman, &uot;is that over a life time of living ashore, the &uot;balanced brain&uot; has learned to predict exactly what sensory signals it should receive from moment to moment each time an active body movement is made, particularly from the vestibular organs in the inner ear.&uot;

He went on to say that &uot;when conflict signals increase and are sustained, signals in the ‘balanced brain’ spill over to the ’emetic brain’ and symptoms may appear.&uot;

Fortunately, the ability of the brain to recover and essentially rebalance itself is fairly quick. The brain itself has a wonderful capacity to compensate. I guess this is why ancient mariners talked about the transition for shore to sea as &uot;getting your sea legs.&uot;

What are the symptoms of seasickness? I’d have to say in all the years I’ve been to sea the symptoms are pretty obvious. Here are the biggest ones (I do want it noted that I am not a doctor.

These symptoms are from personal observation):

A tense or &uot;upset&uot; stomach

Feeling cold, or &uot;wet&uot; and cold

Lack of concentration

A strong feeling or urge to vomit

Turning pale

Another thing we should consider is diesel fumes. Between a queasy stomach and a rolling sea, the items that may put you &uot;over the top&uot; are diesel fumes. The smell is truly nauseous to begin with – add the other symptoms and you have a recipe for an unpleasant experience.

Next week we will look at what you can do when seasickness arrives. Until then, Boat Safe and Boat Smart!

By LCDR Joe DiRenzo III is a resident of Suffolk and a regular columnist for the Suffolk News-Herald.