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About Motion Sickness

About Motion Sickness
By Craig Jungers
Copyright 2007

In my long life I've been a Petty Officer in the Navy, a commercial salmon
fishing boat captain, a Merchant Marine Officer, a cruising sailboater, a
kayaker (both white water and sea) and an airplane pilot (both power and
glider). All of these involved motion; often violent motion and often in
darkness and poor visibility.

And I have been seasick. .

My wife, Susan, who has accompanied me on many of these adventures, has no
tendency whatsoever to motion sickness nor does our son, Daniel, who was
born while we were cruising our sailboat and whose reaction to violent
motion was only frustration because it was making it difficult for him to
put his blocks together. Our daughter, Kristy, however was terribly prone to
motion sickness from the start and we once aborted a trip (sailing upwind
along the west coast of Baja California) because we were afraid she would
not survive if we continued. (We airmailed her home and from then on sent
her ahead of any possibly violent passages.)

Anyone who has suffered from motion sickness can tell you that it's no fun
and people who have not suffered from it simply can't understand it. That
it's not "all in your mind" has been proven by NASA who can get dogs and
cats motion sick without ever convincing them beforehand that they will be.
But the actual causes of motion sickness still remain theoretical and open
to debate. As do the actual cures.

When my wife and I started cruising on our 32-foot cutter "Kibitka" she had
an iron stomach and I had one that was somewhat less robust. I can remember
how I felt when we were rounding Cape Flattery (NW extremity of Washington
State) on one of our first big trips out into the N. Pacific. A halyard had
become entangled on the starboard spreader and I had to go up the mast  in
12-foot swells to clear it. I managed to get the job done but spent the next
hour or so laying in the gunwales with my head cradled on a lifejacket.
Susan popped out of the companionway with a camera, took one look at my
expression, and went back below without snapping a picture. It was
apparently too gruesome to record for posterity. This was by no means the
only time I had been seasick within sight of the Cape Flattery lighthouse.

On another of our trips along the coast we shared the anchorage of Neah Bay,
just east of Cape Flattery, with a beautiful wooden Tahiti Ketch (these were
plans-built wooden 32-foot double-enders offered by a popular magazine in
the 1930s) out of Victoria, BC. While we waited for the weather to settle we
dinghied over to chat with the skipper and his wife and see if they were
headed for the same ports we were.

As it turned out, they were done cruising and headed back to Victoria after
only 48 hours at sea. The skipper spent the entire time incapacitated
by seasickness. Despite having aboard what he described as a complete
inventory of
every motion sickness remedy known to man in 1980; from pills to
suppositories. He told me that nothing had worked and so, afraid of dying
from dehydration, they returned to Neah Bay and were giving up their dream
of sailing to the Marquesas and Tahiti. And rather than just sail coastwise
down the USA ducking into harbors here and there (which is what we did),
they would stop cruising if they couldn't just sail directly to the
Marquesas.

They had sold their business and their home. They had given away or put into
storage their personal mementos. They had spent thousands of dollars
outfitting their classic cruising yacht. But they had never thought to try
sailing on the ocean first to see if they liked it.

If you read some of the cruising literature carefully you can tell that
seasickness struck even the most adventurous sailors. Miles Smeeton and his
wife Beryl - who pitchpoled twice off the coast of Chile in their yacht Tzu
Hang and were dismasted the second time - wrote of the discomfort they felt
at the beginnings of a passage. Eric and Susan Hiscock - who sailed around
the world 3-1/2 times in a succession of boats named "Wanderer" - also wrote
cryptically of the "stress" of the first few days at sea. Lord Nelson wrote
to his wife of being seasick and Charles Darwin described in his journal of
motion sickness that was only helped by laying in his hammock on the Beagle.

From my own experiences and from talking with others it seems that
everyone's bout with motion sickness is different. Some people (and I am
one) react most to the up-and-down movement of going into the waves (beating
upwind - we didn't call the forward stateroom the "zero gravity training
area" for nothing). Others are affected more by the rolling action. It seems
to affect almost everyone worse if the vessel is going slow or stopped in a
seaway and the least if the boat is going downwind as opposed to across the
waves or into them.

For some people motion sickness is triggered by smells or tastes or being
near someone who has just... um.... succumbed.

I've met many water-people who were desperately searching for some effective
treatment. Scopalomine patches worked ok for most but caused bizarre side
effects in some people. The patches required a prescription and were
difficult to obtain in out-of-the-way ports. Wrist bands with beads that
applied pressure to acupuncture points were sold by the boxful. At least two
yachties tried hypnosis. Everyone agreed that dramamine didn't do much more
than put them to sleep; which works fine if you're a passenger but not so
great if you have to paddle.

Kayakers are no more immune to the effects - some might say "ravages" - of
motion sickness than sailboaters or fishermen are. The smaller and lighter
the boat the more affected it is by wave action and you don't get much
smaller and lighter than a kayak. Worse yet, if you get hit by motion
sickness in a kayak you can't just go below and lay down. Many good paddling
vacations have been ruined by one of the paddlers succumbing to motion
sickness and becoming so incapacitated that they had to be towed at least
part of the trip. On the other hand some physical activity and a job to do
can help deter motion sickness. It seems that it's worse if you just sit
there with nothing to do.

The Discovery channel television show "Mythbusters" features two talented
hands-on engineers, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who weekly try to punch
holes in various urban myths. Adam is prone to motion sickness and this
prompted them to see if there was an effective treatment. They mounted a
dentist's chair on a revolving platform and devised a test which required
them to move their heads in specific ways while being rotated; and
blindefolded. It wasn't as elaborate as NASA's whirlagig chair, but it did
the job by getting almost anyone who sat in it motion sick within minutes.

The most interesting thing about this presentation was that there were two
things that stopped Adam from getting motion sick. One was a patch. The
other was ginger. Adam (and others) was able to survive the spinning chair
and even move his head from side to side (while blindfolded) after he had
taken ginger.

Ginger is available at most health food stores in capsule, root and pill
form as well as at many Asian markets as pickled ginger. Some experts
recommend that you take it 12 hours before but I think Adam simply took it a
few hours before he tested it. It's difficult to tell on a tv show. But what
was amazing what this guy, who would start getting sick within seconds,
could simply spin right around with ginger in his system.

Mint is also said to help and that a combination of mint and ginger might be
a great combination. Mythbusters didn't test this.

Other tips offered by experts include staying on deck (it is to laugh for a
kayaker), avoiding the upper decks (try not to go up the mast in a seaway),
avoiding greasy and/or acidic food, avoiding coffee and carbonated beverages
and avoiding alcohol the night before.

For some of us time reduces the problem. After spending a total of ten years
(or more) on the water during my lifetime I never get motion sick any more.
A trip across the bar of the Mississippi River aboard a 90-foot crewboat
during a Tropical Storm rendered all but two of the 40 drill-ship crew
seasick; me and the driller (who stayed in the pilothouse).  But our
daughter never has managed to get her "sea legs" and still can't read a book
in the car after spending from age 2 to age 7 on a 32-foot sailboat.

So what do you do if you are paddling and you or a member of your party gets
seasick? I think that it's important to consider this possibility and
prepare ahead of time. Discuss the potential problem with your fellow
paddlers before you set off on your trip. Get to bed early the night before
after a good - but not elaborate - meal. Make sure everyone has plenty of
water. Find out who has been affected by motion sickness before and give
them some ginger the night before or at least as early as
practicable.Planescape routes to safe refuges along the proposed
course.

Night paddles are more likely to cause seasickness in kayakers. This is
especially true if the paddlers are not used to being out at night and if
the passage is rough. One of the alleged causes of motion sickness is the
disparity between the observed motion and the perceived motion. At night, on
a rough sea, you can't see much but you can sure feel it. But not being able
to see where the motion is coming from can cause nausea and dizziness in
some people.

Once you are on the water it's unlikely that anyone affected by motion
sickness will tell anyone else about it. You might have to discern their
problem by noticing that they have stopped talking or only respond to direct
questions, their paddle pace has slowed or they are sitting more slumped in
the cockpit. At this time ask them directly if they are feeling sick and if
they are you can either abort the trip to a nearby shelter, turn back, or
continue on with the knowledge that the situation could become worse.

At this point perhaps a simple change of course would help. Remember that
different people react to different stimuli for motion sickness. If you're
paddling upwind and into the seas and it's safe to alter course so that the
paddler feels a different motion, that might eliminate the problem. In many
cases simply turning around and paddling with the seas will cure motion
sickness. Of course, now you're not going where you wanted to go which can
present other issues.

Rafting up with the paddler long enough to get some water and maybe a ginger
snap cookie into him (or her) might also alleviate the condition. Several
kayaks rafted together also change the motion characteristics and will at
the least reduce the need for a sick paddler to brace and give him a chance
to rest. Be aware that the dangers of rafting in a seaway include boats
banging into other boats and even paddlers with a great deal of force. You
might end up with more than one incapacitated paddler.

If, despite all your precautions, someone gets sick enough to vomit or
become completely incapacitated then you are facing a rescue situation.
Often simply getting the person out of the motion will result in a rapid
recovery so if there is a lee or a protected cove nearby get into it. If you
can land safely do so because nothing cures motion sickness faster than
laying quietly on land. Landing a kayak with an incapacitated paddler in it
can be problematic, however. They may recover enough to paddle through the
surf but don't count on it. If you can transfer them to an empty hole in
another double or triple kayak then this would be preferable. If you cannot,
then get some of the party ashore and tow or even swim the sick paddler's
kayak onto the beach while the shore party is ready to catch and secure both
of you.

As a side note, having a triple-hole kayak in your party can be an excellent
safety factor because it allows a injured or sick paddler a place to rest
for a bit.

If you are paddling and start to get seasick tell someone as soon as you
recognize what's happening to you. Symptoms almost always include a severe
loss of energy and a "queasy" feeling. Some people get dizzy. Almost
everyone gets quiet and stops chatting. Recognizing the problem and telling
someone early allows a response in enough time to correct whatever is making
you sick; or at least time to come up with a solution that fixes you without
endangering the rest of the party.

For those of us who suspect that they are susceptable to motion sickness try
paddling in various sea conditions under controlled circumstances before you
head off on the crossing from Prince George to Haida Gwai. Short paddles in
swells with some experienced paddlers around make perfect sense. Many people
who get sick in cars or planes or even fishing charters don't get sick in a
kayak because they're doing something so don't give up on being able to
paddle the Sea of Cortez just because you got sick on the ferry to Victoria.
Just try it out somewhere cheaper first.

Not being affected by seasickness doesn't mean you won't suffer from the
effects of someone else in your party being seasick. And if you think you
can't ever get seasick then just remember that the NASA engineers claim they
can get anyone sick. Some just take more than others.

Craig Jungers
Royal City, WA