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Overcoming Seasickness by Habituation On Land

Tom Hoskin

May 28th, 2018

During the spring of 2017, I crewed in weekly races in Deep Cove, Collingwood Channel and Round Bowen, but never felt seasick.

In preparation for 2017 VICE, I thought about beating seasickness without drugs by exposing myself to motion on land that triggers motion sickness in me. The idea was that I could build up a resistance. Swinging on a park swing makes me a bit nauseous, so early one morning I gave it a go.  I got a bit queasy, but not very much. Next morning I came prepared with a book and my glasses to simulate reading in the back seat of a car, or on a chart table below deck. After  swinging about a minute with the book right in front of my face, I felt extremely uncomfortable as in, “Call the helicopter NOW!”

I built a swing at home and continued to try to build up my resistance to nausea. It was hard to balance while reading and swinging, but I could manage. Swinging twice a day, I quickly built my tolerance up to twenty minutes each session. I would stop if I became uncomfortable, an option not open to someone out on a boat. One captain explained that, when you go below, seasickness is caused by the conflict between the motion your ears tell your brain is happening and the lack of motion your eyes see. So it helps to close your eyes.

Early on in my trials, I swapped reading with closing my eyes, but it was worse. A literature review confirmed my findings and mentioned that closing your eyes is the worst thing you can do. Another trial involved taping a page from a book inside a lampshade to totally block all peripheral vision, like when you are below deck reading. After about 9 days, I could swing 20 minutes or longer, either reading or with my eyes closed. I hoped to do this for several weeks and that I would be able to maintain my sea legs while sailing in VICE.

Shopping for a lampshade at the thrift shop.

The sailboat I crewed on, Blackdragon, did not complete the VICE (Vancouver Island Sailing Experience) sail. A rough start in the Juan de Fuca Strait gave everyone on board a few twinges of nausea. I felt OK, even when the skipper asked me to check the multiple bilge pumps below.

At the 2017 Vancouver Boat Show, Chris Stanmore-Major, of Spartan Ocean Racing, stated that seasickness is  caused totally by the power of suggestion and that ginger is a cure. You can buy ginger pills at a pharmacy. Ginger may work for some people, but I believe it would be cruel to impose this view and deny medication to someone who is physically seasick.

You can pay to take seasickness habituation sessions. You sit in rotating chairs, in rooms with vertical lines painted on the walls, moving your head and bending from side to side (Puma Method to Prevent Motion Sickness). One article states that the period of oscillation that most often causes seasickness is 0.5 Hz. This translates to a 2 second cycle, similar to most swings when counting back and forth as one cycle. However, the effort to habituate in this manner may not be efficient. My literature review indicates that some seasickness drugs slightly delay habituation. Also, according to Davis Pharmacy in North Vancouver, the Transderm seasickness patch targets a different part of the brain than habituation exercises to block the development of nausea.

In addition to the threat of seasickness, we battled against cold during the July VICE. While sailing against the wind and current in the Juan de Fuca Strait, we bundled up in multiple layers and still got cold! A pilothouse seemed like a very attractive solution to the cold, but of course that would require a larger boat!

If you are interested in learning more about seasickness, a Google search using “Close eyes seasick” and “Swing trials seasick” as key words will return a few interesting articles.

Does This Seasick Pill Work For Me?

So, it may be worth it for you to test yourself on a swing, while reading a book that blocks as much peripheral vision as possible. You could buy some higher power reading glasses from a Dollar Store so you will have the book closer to your face, blocking more peripheral vision. If you get nauseous, you have an opportunity not only to see if you can habituate to motion on land, but also to try various seasick pills on the swing, where you can “abandon ship” without consequence. It is important that the scopolamine patch be tried on land anyway, to see if you get psychotic episodes as a side effect, as some people do. The swing test may help you determine efficacy and side effects. (If you look up Wikipedia on “antihistamine”, it says second generation antihistamines cause less sedation.)

If you do several other drug trials, you may get your “sea-legs”  through habituation, giving a false positive to a pill. Do another trial after the drug has been eliminated from your system to see if you are still sensitive to motion. I have done this myself and it works. We have all heard stories of people finding out the hard way whether or not they succumb to seasickness, sometimes selling their boat after years of dreaming and preparation for their offshore adventures. A seasickness drug trial ahead of cutting the lines may be worth a try.

Cover Image: Taken circa 1869. No known copyright restrictions.

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  1. Eva Gersbach says:

    Hello Tom Hoskins,
    Your article is hilarious! I commend you for your careful research as well as the very funny and “staged photograph”. Where on earth did you find it?! You may already be aware that Lord Nelson suffered from sea sickness his entire life which of course he spent mostly at sea!?
    Not meaning to insult your efforts to habituate, it seems an academic exercise. Of course, you have to love sailing for the impetus for you to learn to manage your sea sickness with medication or with practice or both – or you may have to accept that you are a land lubber!
    I just had to respond to this because I dealt with seasickness for 12 years of extensive sailing along the BC coast and 3 blue water legs totalling 12,000 nautical miles. There is no other habituation to cutting the lines and getting into the waves – gentle or not so gentle – no amount of hanging out on swings with eyes closed or a lampshade on your head will prepare you for what it is like to be on blue water.
    For medication, I would highly recommend Stugeron (available in the US or in Europe but not in Canada!). Highly effective and without drowsiness side effects.
    And, very clearly, there are nasty seas that will illicit sea sickness in tried and tested old salts with confirmed sea legs – but it will be temporary for those who generally are not afflicted with this condition. For others, like myself, it will remain a challenge throughout their sailing days.
    I would not want to miss any of my sailing days despite the bouts of sea sickness – there is nothing that compares to cutting the lines and finding land 21 days later!
    Fair winds, to you, Tom Hoskins.

  2. Ken Chrtistie says:

    All very interesting, quite the variety of methods. and each useful as it gives the person the element of control and of active fighting. Some of them are chemical action, and some retraining the nervous systems. Yep, looks like Habituation – takes dedication, and creativity as to what works for each. (lamp shades too ! )

    The Seasickness destroys your happy sailing, so it is kind of traumatic – psychological & physical , to the body. Some of the present body reaction comes from early life as a trained response, and might be really sticky.

    My other learning, which I teach on SV Blue Rose:
    Since it is hard to flee ( unless daydreaming solidly onto the horizon, listening to the wind and waves because it is a friendly song, or rowing the dinghy to land ) then yes, any of those methods is a better option than the Mammalian tendency to “freeze”, then dump- at the request of the Vegal nerve systems. (See Peter Levine, PhD, or Dr. Stephen Porges, )

    This training is done before the brain & body cascades into the endocrine dump. Besides the training, my standing rule is: eliminate fear, and for sure, at the first sign of “Oh Oh” that person will come to the wheel / tiller, and push the skipper aside, and take control of the boat. If they wait 1-3 minutes it may be too late.

  3. Anders Lonnqvist says:

    Sea sickness is caused by the inner ear mechanisms loosing contact with the horizon. The three rings that gives you balance. If you keep your eyes on the horizon which is level , or imagen where it is, if out of site. Your stomach will be happy. Once you get used to know the horizon at all times, regardless of your body position, there is no more motion sickness.
    Anders, Delivery skipper, with over 72,000 nautical miles on every ocean and most seas, of the World.
    Elan Boat Delivery.