How to prevent and treat seasickness

Seasickness can be the blight of boating, but there are pointers to be had. Here’s how to fight it and, even better, prevent it altogether.


Hundreds of new boaties will take to the water this summer, and it’s a safe bet many will be affected by seasickness. Hey -most of us have fed the fish at some point. But there are things that at least limit (if not eradicate) the problem.

The general consensus is that seasickness arises from a conflict between the inner ear’s "balance mechanism" and visual references. "When we’re on a constantly moving platform – like a boat on an undulating sea," says a trainer at Coastguard Boating Education, "the fluid in the inner ear interacts with microscopic fibres in the balance chamber and that creates disorientation and discomfort. The problem is exacerbated when the balance ‘message’ to our brains conflicts with the visual message sent to the brain."

Psychology is also a factor with seasickness. Research shows that stress and fear – as may be expected from a person out on a boat for the first time, or experiencing their first heavy weather – are significant contributors to seasickness. Seasickness is much more common among novices than experienced boaties.

Preventing seasickness

Despite what old sea dogs tell you about drinking "Lord Nelson’s well-known mixture of egg yolks, rum and linseed oil," there is no bullet-proof antidote to seasickness. But there are many different treatments, and sufferers respond to each of them with greater or lesser degrees of success.

Obvious solutions include the range of drugs available from any pharmacy. There are two basic strategies in the drugs – some treat the ‘balance’ problem by deadening the ear’s sensitivity to movement, while others treat the nausea. Discuss the options with the pharmacist – and tell them if you are on any other medication. A disadvantage of many of the drugs is that they cause drowsiness and thirst.

Other treatments include wrist bands worn over a pressure point. Ginger is a commonly-used antidote, and many people successfully cope with seasickness by nibbling on ginger biscuits or drinking ginger ale.

Keeping busy is another successful strategy. It’s no coincidence that skippers aren’t usually seasick. They’re involved with sailing or operating the boat, and have lots on their mind. There’s nothing worse for seasickness than sitting quietly in a corner. Giving a new sailor a job to do – steering is ideal – it will help to keep the barf demons at bay.


Dehydration as a cause of seasickness

Dehydration can quickly aggravate seasickness, and sufferers should be encouraged to keep drinking water.

"Dehydration is not only dangerous in itself," says Murray, "but it also contributes to seasickness, so if left unchecked, the situation can deteriorate quickly."

Women, in particular, can be quickly affected by dehydration. Some women have reservations about using the head on a pitching/yawing boat, and as a result tend to curtail their fluid intake. This is not a good strategy if they are seasick. Skippers need to be sensitive to someone’s needs in this sort of situation, and perhaps turn the boat off the wind for a few minutes to allow someone to use the toilet in a calmer sea.

Extreme cold or heat can also aggravate seasickness, as the body’s natural resistance is weakened. Make sure that the seasick person is dressed appropriately, and if necessary, offer to fetch additional items of clothing from below. Do not force the sufferer to fetch it.

If you know you are likely to be seasick, it’s important to develop a strategy to help cope with it. That will mean taking any medication well in advance, and eating sensibly. Drink plenty of water.

Most people get over sea sickness after a few days, though few coastal boaties are at sea for that long. Still, if you are at sea overnight, try to find a berth as close to the boat’s centre point as possible, where the vessel’s motion is least pronounced.

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