Feeling Queasy? How to beat seasickness for good

Some days at sea can feel like being trapped inside a washing machine. When there’s wind against tide or a sideswiping swell, when a storm kicks up the sea and your hungry, sleep-deprived crew have been downstairs too long, it can be only a matter of time before someone turns pale, starts to sweat and races for the rails. As sea conditions worsen and incapacitated crew take to their beds, you might find yourself flying solo on the helm. 

Even the most stoic amongst us is not immune. In the 2023 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, navigator Alice Parker (from second overall race winner URM Group) struggled with seasickness, saying “I had a good few moments with a bucket between my legs”. After a challenging thunderstorm struck on day one, two-time US Olympian Graham Biehl and 11-time Sydney-to-Hobart veteran Nigel Nattrass aboard Tumbleweed, a Jeanneau Sunfast 3300, retired from the race citing seasickness and fatigue. 

The word nausea comes from the Greek word for ship and for centuries, sailors have been dealing with this unfortunate rigour of boating life. Seasickness can strike at any time: when the sea lacks a rhythm or when things get suddenly wild, or when you are head-first in the engine bay, cooking a meal or attending to kids. A rough-and-rolly sea state can be the undoing of just about anybody, and the real kicker about seasickness is that just when you want to curl up on the couch, the sea calls you to attention and back out on deck. 

For short-handed crews, knowing how to nip seasickness in the bud can be critically important, especially on overnight sails and offshore passages. When one person goes down, it can put a tremendous amount of responsibility on the last sailor standing to stay awake and handle all that the sea throws their way. 

What causes seasickness?

Seasickness develops when your eyes, your body and your ear’s vestibular apparatus (located in the inner ear) all detect different things about the motion of the ocean. Your body might know that the world is moving, and your inner ear detects it too, but when you are inside a boat or staring at a screen, your eyes see a stable, stationary scene and report this to your brain. 

It’s this disconnect between the senses that brings on seasickness. To restore your sense of equilibrium, you need to step outside, let your eyes detect and transmit a clearer picture of the tumbling, tossing sea so that your brain knows that all the senses are on the same page.

How do you ease the hurt?

After two decades of living aboard I’ve learnt what I can and can’t manage in rough seas, and how to deal with the symptoms before queasiness takes hold. Whether you suffer constantly or are only rarely afflicted, seasickness is a miserable state to be working in, especially when others are depending on you. There are boaties who claim to have complete resilience to the illness, but I suspect those people keep a firm grip on the helm where their eyes stay in unison with all the other senses sending signals. 

According to NASA investigations into space motion sickness – a condition that resembles seasickness too – anyone with normally functioning inner ears will eventually become seasick in the worst conditions, and the only difference between us all is how long that takes. After two decades on boats I’ve learnt an enormous amount about how to keep seasickness in check, so here are 20 tips to help smooth the sailing. 

1. Set out in the right conditions

The weather can always surprise you, but you’ll do you and your crew a huge favour if you plan your trip well. Choose the best route and destination to suit the seasonal conditions in your area. Before setting out, assess wind direction and speed, swell size, and tidal influences, and consider how quickly or likely the forecast might change. Always have a plan B – an alternative route or emergency anchorage – in case the day ahead doesn’t match the weather forecast. Just because your boat can sail to windward in 25 knots, doesn’t mean you should.  

2. Start out rested 

It’s been well recognised that sleep deprivation magnifies the likelihood of seasickness. When you are tired, your body finds it difficult to deal with the boat’s destabilising motion and has trouble equalising your vestibular system (basically your inner ear). This can lead to seasickness, so get some sleep and stay as rested as you can while at sea. 

3. Skip the booze and stay hydrated 

There are lots of reasons why alcohol and the sea just can’t be friends, but dehydration is one of them. When you drink alcohol you dehydrate, and that only amplifies the effects of seasickness. Sip a little water as often as you can, replacing your electrolytes with rehydration drinks and icy poles if nausea and vomiting take hold. 

4. Take the Helm

On one rugged night sail across Indonesia’s current-plagued Seram Sea, our props snagged plastic bags and demanded mid-sea, midnight swims. Steep cross currents kicked up tremendous swell and tossed us so hard that my daughter fell out of bed. After a miserable, 3am engine overhaul to remove plastic sucked up the intake, my normally bulletproof partner emerged from the engine bay looking decidedly grey. Taking the helm was the only way to reset his senses and thwart the onset of a serious bout of vomiting. 

The helm seat is my favourite place to be in a blow, because with my hands on the boat (even if I’m clinging for dear life), I move in unison with it, rather than resisting and reacting. Being pitched and tossed inside the boat brings on seasickness fast, but helming has a habit of restoring your balance, and focuses your attention on what’s directly in front of you. 

5. Eat simply and snack often

I have a friend who swears that potato crisps starve off nausea, and there is some truth in her trust in dry, salty snacks. Everyone on my boat eats a hearty, healthy meal before we set off, and I try to keep these meals coming until conditions threaten to deteriorate. Standing by for when the weather gets rough is an easily accessible crate filled with water bottles, fresh fruit, ginger cookies, corn chips, pretzels, nuts, dried fruit and high-protein muesli bars. 

In rough seas we’ll snack on sandwiches and crackers with cheese, instant soups and mugs of sweet, milky tea, and we don’t return to a solid diet until both the sea and our tummies have settled down again. On big passages we prepare easy-to-digest meals in advance that can be heated up quickly so no one stays downstairs for long. 

6. Find the fresh air & the horizon

Fresh air and a cool breeze together form an excellent antidote to nausea. As soon as my child begins to pale, I wedge her into a beanbag in the breeze, facing forward. By sitting outside, your peripheral vision sees a world in constant motion and when this marries with what your body and your inner ears are telling your brain, your sense of equilibrium can be restored.

7. Soothe with music

Distracting yourself – and any ailing kids – with a song or music, a made-up story or – my favourite – a list of the things you’ll do when you reach solid ground, all help to take minds off queasy bellies. Listening to podcasts or audiobooks can work too. 

8. Stay off the screens

Reading books, playing games on your iPad, or even writing in a diary – anything that focuses your eyes closely on a stationary spot for too long while at sea can quickly bring on seasickness. This happens because while you are staring at a screen, your eyes can’t tell your brain that the world is actually topsy-turvy, and your body’s resulting sensory disconnect brings on nausea. 

9. Find remedies that work  

If you are regularly afflicted, work out what medications and remedies work for you, long before it really matters. Be prepared to try various options on short boating trips close to home, and keep persisting until you find what works for you.

When my toddler became sick on one particularly hectic afternoon sail, I decided to first try out her seasickness syrup on myself. Instead of inducing sleep I felt remarkably out-of-touch and ill, so I ditched that bottle and tried a popular sailors’ aromatherapy remedy instead. Just the smell of it made me violently nauseous, so we both switched to sea bands and raw ginger remedies that were a pretty perfect fit. The takeaway here is to work out what works for you, and if in doubt, opt for natural remedies that have far less risk of side effects.

10. Pharmaceutical pills and potions

Over-the-counter fixes often contain hyoscine hydrobromide (also known as scopolamine) as found in Kwells and TravaCalm chewable tablets. These products work by blocking your body’s need to vomit, thwarting nerve signals sent from your inner ear to your brain. 

Take these several hours before you need them to work, and while they don’t make your drowsy, be prepared for other possible symptoms including dry mouth, blurred vision and dizziness. While popular elsewhere in the world, scopolamine patches are not available in Australia due to the risk of hallucinatory effects when administered. 

Antihistamines that treat allergies can alleviate nausea symptoms too: Phernergan and Allersoothe (containing promethazine hydrochloride) and Dramamine (dimenhydrinate). Only non-drowsy formulas will appeal to most sailors, but whatever choices you make, be sure to test them at home well ahead of time.

11. Nibble on all-natural ginger

After trying lots of other pills and potions, returning to ginger has been a breath of fresh air. I nibble chunks of crystallised ginger at the helm, brew ginger tea and ginger cordial, and freeze it into tummy-settling icy poles to have on hand for especially rigorous conditions. My daughter bakes delicious ginger and coconut cakes before every long stint at sea, and we nibble ginger cookies and sip ginger ale to prevent tummies turning troublesome. 

Long recognised for its stomach-settling properties, ginger – the rhizome of the Zingiber officinale plant – works differently to the usual anti-nausea drugs and acupressure bands, which interrupt or shut down messages to your brain. Ginger’s powerful volatile oils – gingerols and shogaols – work directly on the digestive tract instead. 

An off-cited 2002 clinical trial (Lien, Sun, Chen, et al., 2003, American Journal of Physiology) found that taking 1000mg of ginger before experiencing adverse motion conditions not only reduced the severity of nausea but also delayed its onset and shortened recovery times too. 

US researchers have found ginger to be more effective than Dramamine, but while ginger stabilises blood pressure (which lessens nausea too), it is a natural blood thinner and, in very high doses, may cause heartburn. If you can’t manage the fieriness of raw or crystallised ginger, stock up on natural ginger tablets from your pharmacy to take before and throughout your journey.  

I’m such a big ginger fan that I devoted a section to why it works in my book, grab a copy here – The Hunter and The Gatherer. 

12. Brew some ginger tea

Ginger works best as a preventative so make a mug or a thermos of ginger tea to sip as you sail. For one person, I grate 1-2 tsp of fresh root ginger into a cup of hot water, add a squeeze of lemon and a spoonful of honey. Leave for a few minutes then sip slowly, breathe deeply and try to relax.

13. Wear a sea band

Harking from the ancient practice of Chinese acupuncture, acupressure wristbands work by stimulating your P6 (Neiguan) acupressure point. To find it yourself, pace the index, middle, and ring fingers of your right hand on the inside of your left wrist, starting just under the crease. Your P6 point lies just beneath your index finger, in between your tendons, and you can manually stimulate it by applying firm pressure on even just one wrist for a few minutes or until symptoms pass. 

Sea-bands are basically soft, elasticised wristbands with a smooth, small button that you position over your P6 point. Natural and effective when worn properly and on both wrists, they have no side effects, are safe for children and can relive headaches too. You can start wearing them before your trip, or slip them on once symptoms appear. More sophisticated bands, such as the Reliefband, work by sending a mild electrical pulse to regulate nausea signals sent from your brain to your stomach. 

14. Stay out of the galley

Prepare your meals in advance long before you set sail or the sea state worsens, so that you don’t have to stand in a rocking galley with your head down over pots and bowls. I make meals in advance that can be quickly reheated on the go – frittatas, lasagne, pies, stews and chilli bean – and a bake a few loaves of bread for sandwiches or to dunk into mugs of instant soup. If sipping on ginger or regular tea settles your stomach, fill a couple of thermoses with your favourite brew and have plenty of ginger cookies on hand to nibble alongside. 

15. Suck on something 

Many cruisers swear that sucking hard candy, especially those containing ginger or peppermint oil, helps to ease seasickness. It might be that sucking stimulates the stomach’s digestive juices, but I suspect that this sugary perk also helps distract queasy sailors and provides a sweet reward when the sailing turns a bit grim. 

16. Instant aromatherapy

The menthol aroma of peppermint helps to starve off nausea and also helps to keep you awake by stimulating the hippocampus, that part of your brain that controls mental clarity, focus and alertness. Drink a mug of peppermint tea, rub a few drops of peppermint oil on the back of your neck (steering well clear of your eyes), or suck on extra strong mints: all may help you feel more awake and starve off seasickness and sleepiness too. If peppermint is not your potion, fill a fine mist sprayer with freshwater and a few drops each of lavender and lemon oil. To apply, close your eyes tightly, spray it lightly over your face and breathe deeply. 

17. Sit where there’s least motion

There’s an oft-quoted line that says ‘less agitation, less regurgitation’ and what this means is that you should sit or rest in the part of your boat that is moving the least. This might be in the centre of the boat or at the helm seat, or in a beanbag propped up in the breezy cockpit, but wherever you plonk yourself, face forward in the direction the boat is moving. 

18. Sweet smells

Nausea can be rapidly triggered by bad smells – engine fumes, other people vomiting, strong essential oils or perfumes – and even things like coffee and curries can set you off. You’ll find sweeter air if you move outside.  

19. Know your limits

I’m rarely queasy these days because I know my limits, and for me, rough conditions mean that fussy meals, reading and all but the most necessary tasks inside are off limits. I don’t try to be a martyr and whip up home-cooked meals for the crew, because if going downstairs is going to make me feel ill, I’m a much less effective person to have on deck. 

20. Adjust course to ease the ride

Short of avoiding rough weather, the best way to keep seasickness in check is by changing the way the boat sails to ease the ride and make your crew more comfortable. Depending on the conditions, slowing the boat by reducing sail may do the trick – shorten your headsail and put a reef in the main – or pull off the wind a few degrees to find a gentler motion on the ocean. Change your speed, change your heading, change your destination – do anything that is possible to make the boat ride more gently and keep your crew capable.

 

Try this tummy-calming ice

It’s quick to make, super refreshing and restores everyone from skippers to kids. 

Honey Melon & Ginger Ice 

Feeds 4, gluten-free & vegan

1 honeydew melon 

2 tbsp ginger cordial 250ml (8.5oz) sugar-free lemonade or soda water 

Cut the rind and seeds from the melon and slice it into chunks. Blitz with ginger cordial until smooth, then stir in the lemonade or soda water. Pour into a shallow metal tin, cover with foil and freeze for 3 hours or until frozen around the edges. Break up with a fork, spoon into bowls or cups and serve.