Avoiding Seasickness

Nearly everyone's been there. Even your most seasoned pelagic veterans can recall the days on which they all-too-quickly transitioned from the excitement of embarking on a pelagic journey to that dreadful feeling of nausea and vomiting - the worst part being that you're usually several hours from returning to land when it begins. Suddenly, death by voluntary drowning doesn't seem like such a bad option.

I've had my moments, though just a few. Luckily it has been quite some time, but every now and then I might start to feel a bit off and have to fix things before they get out of hand. Yes, it is possible to reverse seasickness, at least in its earliest, mildest form.

But first let's talk about prevention. Since most people are (or were) prone to seasickness in some form, and because everyone is different, you may receive five different tips on prevention from five different people. I'll share my own, in order of descending importance.

1) BE WELL-RESTED. For me, sleep deprivation is the clear-cut #1 risk factor for falling ill on the high seas. For whatever reason (I bet there's a study out there somewhere explaining this), it significantly lowers my threshold for sickness, as I tend to feel nausea much more easily if my body and mind are exhausted. While it is not always possible to get a good night's sleep before a trip, especially if you depart before sunrise, try to be as rested as you can before that short night.

2) EAT SMART, BEFORE AND DURING. Before a pelagic trip, starting 12-24 hours before departure, I pay close attention to my diet. I try to eat mild and healthy foods, because eating healthy makes my body feel at its best regardless of whether I'll be on rough seas or sitting around watching TV. To me this means fresh foods high in nutritional value, low in saturated fats and cholesterol, nothing with too much salt, and nothing over-basted in strong marinades or coated in butter. That means no fried calamari for dinner the night before and no sausage sandwich at the dock in the AM.

Once on board, and immediately before, my focus shifts more to how much is in my stomach, rather than exactly what I put there (though this is still important). For me, this is nearly as important as being well-rested. My goal is to eat steadily in small amounts. In other words, never let your stomach completely empty, but do not over-eat either. This usually means that I'll eat a half sandwich at a time, with snacks in between.

As far as what I eat on board, that all depends. If seas are calm and I'm feeling great, I will absolutely grab an overpriced cheeseburger from the galley and love it, but only because I know I can handle it while I'm feeling good. If I'm not feeling 100%, I will stick to the healthy-style eating. But not all healthy foods are created equally. I suggest easily-digestible foods. Have a banana (if bananas are allowed on your vessel!) instead of an apple. Try some crackers instead of a hot dog. There are some classic foods that many people swear by, such as saltines or ginger snaps. You might want to give those a try. No matter what you try, remember not to under or over-eat.

3) STAY OUT OF THE CABIN. Get outside. Fresh, cool air won't hurt you, but stagnant, warm cabin air can make your stomach turn on a dime. This one has gotten me before. If you are forced inside by weather, try to get a spot right next to the door so you can feel some fresh air anyway.

4) KEEP DRY AND WARM. Always bring rain gear, and not just for rain. Sea spray will often get you when you're not expecting it. This can be refreshing and actually help avoid illness on a hot, sunny day, but continual wetness is usually a recipe for misery. You'd be surprised at how cold you can get, even on a warm day, if you're always soaking wet. Feeling cold, and the act of shivering, can take a toll on your body's energy level, which in turn can lower the threshold for sickness. So bundle up on cold days.

5) STAY OFF THE BOW & STERN. Not all deck spaces are created equally. The bow is the bumpiest place you can be, and on a rough day you'll feel that up-and-down rollercoaster sensation far more often than if you pick a more stable location. That being said, the stern has its pitfalls too, most of those being odoriferous. The fumes from the engine's exhaust can be nasty if the wind is out of the wrong direction. This also happens to be the place where most chumming is done, so if you dislike the smell of rotting fish, stay away! Also, when other passengers get sick, this is where they go to...well...get sick. And it can be contagious.

On small boats, if you avoid the bow and stern, that doesn't leave much room to move. But since most long pelagic trips are on decent-sized vessels, you should have some area to roam in between.

6) TAKE BONINE. Or whichever anti-nausea medication you prefer. I have only tried Bonine and Dramamine, but there are many others out there, including a scopolamine patch or even Benadryl. My strategy has always been to take the minimum dose (i.e. one tab versus two) because these can make you drowsy, and anything that makes you feel a bit off, including drowsiness, should be avoided. Take as directed, which usually means that you'll be taking something before you board the vessel. Once you're already sick, I doubt these meds can help you - they've never helped me at that point.

7) NO ALCOHOL THE NIGHT BEFORE. OK, I tend to break this one more often than the others, especially as my confidence in my ability to avoid illness grows yearly. But I don't drink often as it is, so it makes good sense for me to steer clear of anything that might make me feel a bit funny if consumed in any significant quantity.

There may come a time, despite these efforts, when you begin to feel queasy anyway. If you have never "beaten" seasickness before, this may feel like an inevitable downward spiral. But it doesn't have to be. YOU CAN OVERCOME THAT FEELING. But in my experience you have to do it before you pass the point of no return, which for me is puking. First, I begin to strictly adhere to the seven points I've listed above, if I wasn't already - time to buckle down. For instance, if I feel ill and I realize that I haven't eaten anything in hours, just the act of putting something in my stomach can help reverse the trend. The rest is mental. I just tell myself that I'm going to beat it. And the last few times I've tried this, it has worked. If you've never been able to do this, you're probably reading this and thinking that I've lost my mind. Once I overcame seasickness for the first time, I felt incredibly empowered and confident. Now, each time I fight off that first stage of queasiness, I become more and more confident. And the more you believe you can beat it, the more likely you are to beat it.

So that's all I've got. Like I said, there are countless other remedies and strategies that work for other people. A Google search will likely yield a dizzying (ha, ha, ha...) number of results, some of which may even contradict what I say here. I've purposely left out some things that I have not found helpful, but I don't want to discourage anyone from trying something they think might work because I really do think there is a significant mental aspect to this. If you believe in it, it's more likely to work.

That's not to say that everyone can avoid seasickness every time. In fact, I'm sure there are folks who cannot avoid it, ever! But the world is not made entirely of people who either always or never get seasick; most of us fall somewhere in between. As I've found from my own experiences, you can play a major role in your likelihood of becoming ill at sea.

I'd be interested to hear what has, and has not, worked for others in the Comments section.

 - Nick


  1. Keep your eyes looking out there, not at/in the boat. Even when the boat is pitching and rolling, the horizon gives a fixed point of reference. This fits perfectly with keeping your eyes out for the birds!

    Candied ginger can be hard to find. Trader Joe's has it at a good price, two kinds - crystallized and uncrystallized.

    My goal is to eat steadily in small amounts
    As I recall that used to be your habit on land as well. 8-)

    I'm wondering how much elevation over the water makes a difference. It exaggerates the boat's motion, but being up top can give you the least enclosed feeling.

    My sister, a committed party boat fisherman for many years and very subject to sea sickness, swears by wrist bands with some sort of pressure point.

  2. Nick this is an excellent post and if it's ok, I am going to put a link to it on our website...! Many times I think being hungry pushes many people over the line, typically that is when I feel a little off center myself, but at the same time, they are afraid to eat! So I think keeping something in your stomach is at the top of the list!

    I am prone to migraines and that also can contribute to feeling a little ill. I have found that the sun and scanning through binoculars can sometimes make a headache so much worse; there is nothing wrong with just using your eyes to look for anything different! Usually there will be someone nearby who can check out a sighting.

    One thing that I keep on hand for anyone who feels a little low is gum. Usually spearmint or cinnamon in the blister packs...the taste can help settle the stomach a bit, it gives you something else to think about, and it is also good for clearing your mouth afterwards...if necessary!

    Sorry the trips this weekend were cancelled! We are hoping to make it tomorrow from Hatteras!

    Kate Sutherland

  3. Excellent suggestions.

    Number one for me is to stay outside in the fresh air; keep eyes on the horizon.

    The first and only time I haven gotten really sick was because I got hot in rain gear and as soon as I got hot, I got sick. It was on a racing sailboat and they don't go back if you get sick either. So dress coolly or in layers and start stripping sooner rather than later.

    I agree with limiting binocular use. Additionally, I would also limit reading. Look at field guides, smart phones, etc. sparingly.

    Take Bonine the night before a boat trip.

    I tried the wrist bands with pressure points on my second ocean voyage which was 36 hours from Key West to St. Augustine, FL. I didn't get sick, but I felt close to the edge so I am not convinced they helped me.

    I sometimes have trouble getting my "land legs" back when I have been on a boat all day. I can be fine on the boat and then feel like I am pitching around when I am on the ground. It has never made me really sick, but you might want to continue being prudent about what you eat and do until you have had a good night's sleep.


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