The Seasickness Struggle

Passage: Columbia River Bar to Newport, Oregon

Lord Horatio Nelson, famed British admiral, wrote, “I am ill every time it blows hard and nothing but my enthusiastic love for the profession keeps me one hour at sea.”  Lord Nelson served in the British Navy from 1771 to 1805, when he was killed by gunfire in battle.  During his service, he lost an eye and a leg, but he continued to lead the navy to many victories.  In other words, he was tough, but he was still haunted by seasickness.

I often mention my struggle with seasickness.  This is my experience and how I have learned to cope over the past four months.

We decided to make our first time in the ocean our first overnight passage.  We planned a course from the mouth of the Columbia River to Newport, Oregon.  I was ready to function in the boat as I had for the last three years—cooking, reading, writing, and generally carrying-on while I was not at the helm.  I have only been seasick twice in my life, and although I have had regular visits from carsickness, I did not expect to encounter the familiar gut-pulling, brain-draining feeling at sea, especially because I would have so much else on which to focus.  I kept my focus on activities around the boat until multi-directional ocean swells set in.  Sailors know the multi-directional aspect as a confused sea, and that confusion swiftly rocked my brain into seasickness.  My perhaps overzealous intentions were replaced with one intention: sleep instead of puke.  And while I did not sleep, I was able to stop myself from feeding the fish.  But Rob was left to captain the boat solo.  He was tied—literally, with a safety tether—to the helm for 27 hours. 

Beyond the confused seas, the trivial wind hitting us on the nose made it impossible to sail, so the sails stayed down and the engine droned on, adding to my seasick state.  On the next passage, we learned that putting the mainsail up even with no wind helps steady the boat when it rocks over the ocean swell.  But for this passage, we rocked and rolled with significant swells coming from three different directions.  The autopilot was poor at maintaining a steady course with the confusing swells, so Rob hand-steered.  With me only able to  steady myself as I lay on the cockpit bench, Rob was forced to sustain himself on trail mix, Powerbars, and my leftover energy gels (one-ounce packets of pudding or gel with high amounts of protein that runners squirt into their mouths to maintain energy over long distances).  He had to pee over the side, while tethered tightly to the helm, because we know that most man-overboards happen when sailors relieve themselves over the cap rails.  And he had to stay awake and alert, predicting the direction of each swell in an effort to steer Mapache to take each hit on her stern, reducing the motion of the boat.  My view from the cockpit bench all night was the top of the mast swiftly sweeping across the backdrop of the stars. 

27 hours later, we cruised into Yaquina Bay, welcomed by flocks of pelicans and fishing boats.  We anchored outside of the channel and took the dinghy to shore for some real food, prepared by somebody else.  Our appearances were close to zombies, barely able to communicate our orders and using all of our strength to keep our eyes open.  But we were happy to have had made it to our first planned port.

Later, beyond the discovery of a steady sail, I found that music helps quell, or at least distract from, the seasickness.  We started playing music from our waterproof Bluetooth speaker, taking my mind out of its foggy bubble to focus on the sounds of The Avett Brothers, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Chesney, Pennywise, Lucero, Tom Petty, Iron Maiden, Wu-Tang Clan, and everything in between.  Instead of lying supine, I could sit up and sing and dance (if you want to call my moves that).  Music really is a form of medicine.  

Still, my seasickness persisted throughout our trip down the U.S. coast.  I spent many days at sea lying on that cockpit bench.  Rob benefited from some Snow-White style entertainment of bird friends regularly alighting on top of me (this might explain the number of times birds have pooped on me).  I tried staring at the horizon, Dramamine, ginger-flavored everything (from supplements to tea to gum), vitamin C, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, staying hydrated, pressure-point wristbands, and even some ridiculous glasses that Nigel Calder (author of the diesel-engine-repair “bible” and experienced world sailor) swears by and that I now think are more of a practical joke (see photo below).  While all of this helps, the only thing that cured my seasickness was prescription Scopolamine patches.  However, a full patch, which lasts for four days, caused increased heart rate, shortness of breath, appetite loss, water to taste metallic and repulsive, exhaustion, and double vision.  I finally learned from a friend that the patches could be cut for less potent doses.  I started wearing one-quarter of a patch at a time, and it did the trick.  I finally felt normal at sea!  

I’m certain that part of my seasickness is borne from anxiety about the boat breaking down and about the possibility of seasickness—a self-fulfilling worry.  Some other remedies I have yet to try are antihistamine and vitamin B6.  Many seasick-prone sailors attest that the real cure is time at sea and that I will eventually be rid of the struggle.  I hope I wake up one day and realize I have stopped worrying about seasickness and no longer resort to medication.  But maybe I will just have to endure, like Lord Nelson, for the love of this adventure.

A side-note on music: This website’s name has a musical origin.  It is a lyric from a song that Rob and I found ourselves singing a lot while working on Mapache.  The band, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers (RCPM — part of which was originally The Refreshments) is a band I grew up listening to.  The Refreshments was one of the first concerts I attended as a kid, and RCPM came to be a symbol of a place I regularly visited growing up: “Arizona’s beach”—Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.  The band still performs there at least twice per year, raising money for that community.  The Leaky Little Boat lyrics, although somewhat fitting in a literal sense, are meant by the band as metaphoric, which aligns with the ups and downs of Mapache’s journey.   

Alleged seasickness-remedy glasses

Entering Yaquina Bay, Newport, Oregon

4 thoughts on “The Seasickness Struggle

  1. I have a lot of Blue Water time under my belt, and I agree wit a friend of mine who observed that “anyone who says they don’t get sea-sick either has a defective inner ear, or is lying.” I used to get really ill when using my sextant for noon shots…the bouncing world through the telescope is a treat for the inner-ear; doing the site-reduction (math) below is also an added treat. In the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean, I never had too much of a problem with Mal de Mar but when I started sailing in the PNW, look out fish!–it is brutal on one’s vestibular system. The Columbia river bar has my number, and I get sick every time I cross–even on calm days. I wish I has some secret to share to ward of the feeling, but I don’t.
    Thanks for letting me vicariously join you on your adventure. I will reread your missive from the warmth of my boat, tied smartly to the dock!

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