When friends and colleagues learn that I am planning a cruise, several of them will
tell me, “I’d love to go on one, but I’m afraid of getting seasick.”
Although today’s ships are large—most exceed 800 feet in length—the occasional wind
storm can still make for some modest motion. Most notably, some water-based shore
excursions and some port visits may require the use of smaller boats, on which the
motion of the sea is more detectable.
Even so, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I occasionally have that same concern.
Yet, as one who loves being at sea, I have learned to combat it, often successfully.
They key is to be prepared. The remedies and preventatives I will describe below
do not work for everyone (as personal experience avows), yet may give the reader
some ideas to test for themselves. I must also provide a disclaimer: I am not a medical
professional. Therefore, please note that any medications and other treatments, including
those available over the counter, should be discussed with your own physicians. Additionally,
I do not endorse any medications or devices mentioned or implied in this article.
That said, let’s go into the causes of seasickness, ways to prevent it, and methods
to treat it.
The Science of Seasickness
Seasickness, or any kind of motion sickness for that matter, is brought upon when
the vestibular system and visual system do not correspond, confusing the brain in
the process. In other words, your inner ear detects motion, but your eyes don’t see
it. According to several of my college textbooks, the feelings associated with seasickness
are the brain’s responses to these mixed signals. These feelings might include nausea,
fatigue, headache or, in more severe cases, vomiting. It has been postulated for
a long time that some underlying conditions, such as migraines, may make one more
susceptible to seasickness, and more recent research points to genetic factors. In
any case, seasickness, while usually not harmful to the body, can potentially interfere
with the enjoyment of a cruise vacation.
Fortunately, there are ways around it.
Let’s start at the beginning. Your location on the ship can often reduce the feelings
associated with mal de mer. Ideally, you would want to be in the most stable part
of the ship—that is—the area that experiences the least motion. Generally, this is
amidships on a mid-to-lower deck. My grandfather, who was a jack-of-all-trades, gave
me a rule of thumb that has yet to be proven wrong in my experience. Picture in your
mind (or even draw it out) a cross-section of your ship, viewed from the side. Draw
a large letter X over so that the center of the X is located in the center of the
diagram. The area of least motion is at this center point. Anywhere along the X should
also be alright, keeping in mind that the further away from the center, the more
likely you are to experience symptoms. Move away from the X at your own risk.
Don’t be concerned if your cabin is located outside of this supposed comfort zone.
Whether or not this is the case, walk around the ship until you find a location where
you feel more settled. I recall one particular cruise in the North Atlantic where
we were experiencing fairly rough seas—a tropical storm had been in the vicinity
hours before. It was a sea day and, rather than hang out in my cabin or on the lido,
I went to the middle part of a middle deck, where I found a rather comfortable chair.
I curled up there with my book, oblivious to the waves in our midst. Eventually,
the ocean calmed, and I was able to move about the ship with no difficulty.
Medication may be an option for some, especially those who have experienced motion
sickness on ships or boats in the past. I don't use medication (and I am not qualified
to recommend it), yet there are several over-the-counter and prescription medications
(including an adhesive patch worn behind the ear) that have been developed to prevent
the symptoms of motion sickness. The secret is to take them before you start feeling
seasick, which would be prior to boarding a small vessel (such as a ship’s tender)
or prior to the ship’s departure from a port of call. Please talk to a physician
or pharmacist to ascertain any contraindications, including beverages to avoid while
the medication is in your system.
So you forgot, or it came on suddenly. My worst episode of seasickness came while
gazing out the window of a forward-facing lounge soon after we left Bermuda for the
east coast of the U.S. The Atlantic was quite active, causing our ship to lift her
bow slightly and then drop, repeatedly. At first, it was fun, akin to being on a
roller coaster. Within a few minutes, the effects started to take their toll. And,
they were long-lasting. Although the worst I suffered was nausea and extreme dizziness,
I was not up to eating dinner that night. That made two big mistakes right there.
Mistake number one was watching the rolling surf while my feet were planted firmly
on the ground (or, more precisely, a ship’s deck). My eyes were taking in plenty
of motion, yet my ears were not sensing it as my body was not moving relative to
itself. This is why we often hear ship’s crew tell us to look at the horizon—it supposedly
makes the eyes and ears match up, reducing the visual-vestibular confusion. As such,
I learned my lesson the first time.
Mistake number two was not eating. Even though I was not in the mood for a large
meal, a carefully selected snack might have helped to counteract the effects. Ginger
is well-known for being an anti-nauseant—I recall that ginger tablets were readily
available on our Queen Elizabeth 2 crossing for that reason. (Note: Ginger ale does
not contain enough ginger, if any, to be effective.) Yet, what works best for me
is an apple. I have since learned that apples contain pectin, a dietary fiber that
can help alleviate the symptoms of seasickness. Fortunately, apples are plentiful
on cruise ships, are free, and—for most people—have no side effects. Other foods
containing relatively large amounts of pectin are oranges, apricots, guavas, and
gelatin. Crackers or dry cereal can also help, as these are easily digestible.
Some people have success with acupressure wristbands. These are available in most
drug stores for about $10-$15. The wristbands are to be worn so that the pressure
point—a small plastic knob protruding from the band—is against the inner wrist. To
properly position it, make two imaginary lines, one leading from the thumb when the
fingers are spread, and one from the middle of the palm. The intersection, somewhere
below the wrist is where the pressure should be applied. (See photo.) In the absence
of the acupressure wristbands, you can apply the pressure with the fingers of your
other hand. More expensive are wristbands that use an electronic pulse to stimulate
the nerves around this acupressure point. I have never tried these.
What Not to Do
Whether gleaned from personal experience or from the literature, the following are
to be avoided when attempting to alleviate seasickness symptoms: alcohol, greasy
foods, fasting, or staring at the ocean (as opposed to the horizon) or reading.
In most people, the symptoms of seasickness will eventually subside as the brain
becomes adjusted to the underlying cause. However, should symptoms persist, or become
severe, do not assume that seasickness is to blame—a visit to the ship’s doctor may
be in order. If more serious conditions are ruled out, the medical staff may be able
to provide an injection of an anti-nausea medication.
Yet, no matter what remedy or preventative works best for you, the sooner the onset
of mal de mer is addressed, the sooner you can enjoy your cruise vacation. Apples,
The topic of this article was suggested by one of our readers. If you would like
to submit a topic for consideration for a future Reader’s Choice article, you may
do so by email or via our fan page on Facebook.