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Seasickness: How We Manage Through It

sunrise in a cloud-streaked sky over flat calm water, looking out from the bow of a sailboat with the headsail in view

I get seasick, and it’s been a tremendous worry for me as we move to full-time life on a boat. Who in their right mind gets seasick and willingly moves onto a ship? In fact, the response “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I get seasick” is the most common response when I tell people what we’re doing.

In reality, it’s a non-issue 90% of the time because we aren’t on rough, open water every day and do our best to find calm waters to anchor in. For instance, the ICW was no problem for me because we generally motored on quiet waters, especially if we got our tide and current timings right (if you get it wrong, you can get seasick on the ICW).

However, the story changes as we go out to open water. Anytime we have deep, open water, the wind can build waves. The longer the fetch (the distance the wind travels over water), the bigger the waves, especially in wind above 10 knots (12mph). Essentially, big waves cause the motion in the boat, making me seasick. Out on the ocean, multiple sources of waves (close wind, far wind, etc.) create different kinds of motion, including big swells, rolling waves, and wind chop waves. All of this combined movement makes for a brain/body disconnect that makes me feel sick to my stomach. And this is where I’ve focused on developing a toolbox of remedies that work for me.

View from inside an enclosed cockpit of the sailboat with big waves crashing on the bow of the sailboat
A rough day on the Chesapeake as we traveled southbound and underestimated the seastate of 25knot winds gusting 30knots.

Four Truths of Seasickness

If you’ve read anything in our passage recaps, you’ll see that I talk about seasickness regularly because I want to normalize a few things I’ve heard in my research. I have been told by many seasoned cruisers a few truths:

  1. Everyone gets seasick at some point. People who never get seasick are unicorns.
  2. For most people, seasickness subsides after 2-3 days (i.e., on longer passages).
  3. For many people, the more they sail/travel by boat, the more they acclimate to the motion, resulting in less frequent seasickness. Our bodies adapt/adjust.
  4. There are many remedies, and each person must determine the best combination.

As I’ve researched this topic, I’ve heard countless stories of seasickness from seasoned cruisers. It may pass on longer passages (after 2-3 days), but I have yet to validate that. Some people do not get over it after a few days. At some point, we’ll find out if I’m one of them.

However, I have been proving the third and fourth points. My anecdotal evidence shows I’m acclimatizing to a broader range of open-water conditions. But I still get seasick under any conditions with a moderate roll, especially if we’re going slow (aka sailing at 5 knots). While I’m no expert, I would love to share what I’ve tried, what works for me, and what others have shared.

view from inside the enclosed cockpit of a sailboat looking through three large windows with the mast ahead and sailing instruments just below the windows. the boat is heeled over, and the turquoise waters ahead are calm
Sailing from Meeks Patch to Current Cut anchorage had us heeling a bit, but the sea state was calm

Tools in my Toolbox

A few things come up frequently in the seasickness discussion, and I want to list them and add my own. Here are the fundamental approaches to seasickness:

  1. Medications – Disclaimer: I’m neither a doctor nor medically trained. Consult your physician on all medicines.
    • Scopolamine: A prescription patch used for post-surgery nausea as well as other applications in fighting queasiness. Beware because this has side effects, including hallucinations. Try it onshore in a controlled and safe environment before using it on the boat.
    • Sturgeron (Cinnarizine): This antihistamine is unavailable in the USA. I got it over-the-counter from an online Canadian pharmacy (shipped from India, where it’s manufactured). It is also available in Mexico. Sturgeron has side effects that you should research to make your best decision.
    • Meclizine: I’ve used it several times with mixed results. Though it is better than nothing, it does not seem strong enough for my brand of seasickness (especially on big water). Sturgeron has replaced Meclizine as the pill remedy for motion sickness. If I run out of Sturgeron and Scopolamine, I always have Meclizine with the rest of my toolbox. Charlie has also used it successfully and is not seasick-sensitive like I am.
  2. Non-medications:
    • ReliefBand: It’s an impressive little device that stimulates your vagus nerve to short-circuit nausea. I used it in our ASA101 class in 2020, and it gave me confidence that I could sail without puking. It works well in mild seas but isn’t strong enough (on its own) for big seas.
    • Water: If I’m not hydrated, I will puke, even in a bit of motion.
    • Food: If I’m not snacking the entire time, I will feel yucky (I may not puke). For some people, not eating is what makes them feel better. YMMV.
    • Temperature: If I get overheated, I will puke. Charlie also gets seasick if overheated.
    • Rest: A good night’s sleep is essential before a passage. A hangover will make any boat ride miserable. Fighting seasickness takes extra effort, so I take additional naps on passages to recover energy, puking or not.
    • Have a Job: Helming the boat gives my body a frame of reference (the horizon) and has helped me avoid the worst seasickness (puking endlessly). Having something to focus on distracts me from feeling bad about feeling bad. Not all jobs are created equal, mainly depending on what phase of seasickness I’m in (before full nausea takes hold or after?).
    • Face Up, Forward, and Stay Above Deck: Put the device down. Figure out a way to position yourself forward. Many cockpits, including ours, don’t have forward-facing seats. To get us facing forward, we arrange our Sporta seats and pillows to create forward-facing seating. We also avoid going below in rough seas. That means there are pre-made meals that minimize galley time, and everything else we need is in the cockpit (snack box, water, etc.).
    • Anxiety Management: My friend and mentor, Behan Gifford from Sailing Totem, always points out that anxiety is a trigger for her seasickness, and she’s not alone in that. To deal with anxiety, I have a regular meditation practice that is a huge help in working through my fears. Some people may benefit from anti-anxiety medication, but I opt for non-pharma since I’m already taking medication for the nausea.
    • Weather Routing: We always look at the sea state and determine what we will tolerate. We sometimes get it right, but we can generally avoid 12-foot waves.
view of a sailboat cockpit looking aft at a man standing at the helm. there's a forward-facing seat to starboard of the helmsman and a snack box and bottles of water on the cockpit table.
View of our typical cockpit setup while underway with the forward facing seat, bottles of water, and the snack box all right at hand.

How Do I Use These Tools?

For longer passages (anything with one or more overnight periods), I use the Scopalamine patch and my ReliefBand. This combination works so well that I don’t experience nausea or upset tummy. I might still get tired, but I generally feel “normal.” Scopolamine does have side effects, including hallucinations, so I treated it seriously and communicated any side effects to Charlie. The worst side effect I’ve experienced is dry mouth.

For single-day passages (around 6-12 hours), I opt for Sturgeron and the ReliefBand. Depending on the sea state and how I feel about my approach (food, temperature, and hydration), I can ditch the ReliefBand. I always have the ReliefBand handy because it works quickly and is a simple security blanket. Sturgeron works best when I take it at least 1-2 hours before departure. Other motion sickness medications (Meclizine and Dramamine) recommend that you take them the night before, which is where I started with Sturgeron to make sure the first time.

These days, I may not take anything for shorter trips (1-6 hours) if I’m feeling good and we’re not going out on the ocean. In the Bahamas, I haven’t been seasick as often as I thought I would be. My seasickness is triggered primarily by the big swells and steeper waves we get out on big open water. Being on the boat and moving full-time has adjusted my body to expect a certain amount of motion all the time.

Seabands aren’t mentioned because I have yet to try them. They seem to fall in the “not strong enough for me” category, which doesn’t mean they won’t work for you or me. They are another tool in the seasickness toolbox that I recommend exploring.

looking out from the cockpit of a sailboat at a flat, turquoise blue water under a clear blue sky
Traveling south to Thompson Bay, Long Island, we had flat calm water which required motoring.

How to Know What Will Work

The only way to know what will work is to get the tools together and try them in actual conditions. That doesn’t mean going on a five-day passage without having tried anything.

Here’s what I did to figure out my preferred toolset:

  1. Take the medication on a day when we’re on anchor/at a dock/on land and don’t need to do anything significant in case the side effects are nasty. This way, I can determine side effects. A medication that makes me shit my pants isn’t going to be a good option.
  2. Plan a passage where you’ll try out the new remedy. Discuss with the captain and crew what you’re planning and how you’ll respond if you get seasick. Shorter passages are better. Find a friend with a boat (power boaters are great friends here) where you can go out in rolling conditions and return within the same day. If your remedy fails, you know you’ll return to not moving soon. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a short trip to start experimenting. We sailed overnight from Beaufort, NC, to Charleston as my first big open-water test. On that trip, I relied on Meclizine, the ReliefBand, and learned many things about the food, water, temperature, and anxiety points. I got sick, but not in a debilitating way, which I credit the solid start to my seasickness toolset.
  3. Plan the next passage with the revised remedy. Our next coastal hop was Savannah to Cape Canaveral. By this point, I knew a few things about how my body responds. If I start feeling even a little queasy, I eat a small snack (crackers, fruit, chips, etc.). Comfort foods are great remedies for seasickness, so don’t fear Pop-Tarts or an “unhealthy” treat if your belly can handle it. Comfort is queen.
  4. Communicate with the captain and crew throughout the passage. If I start feeling sick, I let Charlie know so we can adjust the plan if necessary. He can also help me by giving me the helm or making me a sandwich.

Everybody gets seasick, and each body is a little different. You’ll have to figure out what works for you. Don’t listen to anyone who says, “You must do X,” because that person doesn’t know your chemistry or your body’s needs. Some people will never get over seasickness. However, I have met bunches of cruisers who all say the same thing: “Oh, I get seasick” or “Yeah, everybody does.” They then proceed to tell you all about their remedy.

I'm Not Alone

I also wanted to share some additional perspectives from popular sailors including some well-known YouTubers. All three of these boats have been sailing at least five years, and have a breadth of experience. Click on the links below for videos relating their experiences.

woman in a life jacket sitting in a cockpit hovers tentatively over a bowl of food. the label on the photo says "seasickness: top ten tips"

Ryan & Sophie Sailing

Sophie and Ryan frequently talk about seasickness, and it's incredible to know that seasoned sailors like them regularly deal with seasickness.

woman in a life jacket kneels on the side deck of a sailboat with the sail in the background and water splashing up on the side of the boat

SV Delos

Kazza is no stranger to seasickness when the seas are rough, but it's rare for Brian. Delos has at least 2 episodes where even Brian gets sick in rough seas.

man and woman kissing on the aft deck of the sailboat, which is geared out with fishing rods, a liferaft, fenders, and other typical sailing gear. the sailboat is floating in flat calm deep blue water

When Sailing

Greta on SV Fortuna (@whensailing) shares her own experience and methods for dealing with seasickness.

If you want to be out here, you can be! Don't let seasickness stop you from trying it.
A young woman in sunglasses and a sunshirt looks out from her perch in the cockpit of a sailboat with antennaes and solar panels in the background
Pinky Parsons
Owner & First Mate, SV Loka

5 thoughts on “Seasickness: How We Manage Through It”

  1. Great blog post! Really useful info but I won’t need it cuz I’m a unicorn 🦄 LOL
    Seriously glad you guys have learned how to manage it! Happy sails
    Love you

  2. I use seabands when I start feeling a little seasick. They usually are enough for me. My commercial flying background makes me hesitant to take any medication I don’t absolutely need to and the idea of hallucinations as a side effect terrifies me, especially since I mostly cruise solo. But I’m not terribly prone to seasickness, except perhaps in really rolling seas, especially at anchor. And I’m generally a coward who sticks to the smaller waterways as much as possible.

    Thanks for this very thoughtful analysis, though. I would never have associated dehydration — my typical state of being — with nausea.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I get sick looking at the water and have our hased a relief band and use meclanzine as well. I’ve always wanted to test out Sturgeon.

    The patch gives me double vision – which if I’m not required to look at a map or anything if the screens on board, great 😅.

    I have also been meeting with a hypnotist Via zoom. She helps with the fear of “what if” and motion. We’ll see how effective it’s been this summer.

    Thanks again!

    1. Sturgeron is a game changer! Highly recommend getting it. It’s the convenience of meclizine with the effectiveness scopolamine without the side effects. The anxiety of it is huge, which things like meditation and hypnosis are a great resource! So happy that you’re working on it for yourself. There’s hope for us!💜

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