The Sickness of the Seas: Fight it Right
by Lena Padukova
A plate flies across the room. Something crashes in the sink. I lose my balance trying not to fall down the steps. No, it’s not a violent relationship drama, nor is it an earthquake. It’s the situation I chose, which I enjoy and am proud of. It is my everyday life as a cruising sailor.
I was in the non-forgiving waves of the Atlantic on board a 40-foot multihull. We were caught in wind gusts and rocking violently in steep waves.
As the tradewinds strengthened, although nothing near storm-like, the boat moved violently in steepening seas. The catamaran was tall and built for island-hopping, not for serious bluewater battering. As the wind grabbed it, the forces on the rigging and the hulls were vast. We were thrown about on a madman’s carousel; the inferno of noise and the chaos of the jerky movements never ended. The trip was suddenly diametrically different to the blue-skies-and-turquoise-waters Sunday sail that we had dreamed of as we headed toward the West Indies. And some of the crew were seasick.
The captain of the boat, a no-nonsense Norwegian, has never been seasick, so he did not suffer much. His petite Spanish wife, however, was extremely sensitive to the slightest wind, or any wave condition above “mirror-like seas”. Like a small and fragile bird, she would perch herself on a cockpit seat during the passages, smoking cigarette after cigarette, running below on a regular basis, and coming up each time with an ever more pitiful facial expression. She still wanted to come along and spend time with her beloved husband, she liked traveling and adventure, she was intrigued by the white sands, mangroves and coral reefs of the tropics, but she just never got used to the constant movement and got no sea legs no matter how long the passage.
A bad bout of seasickness has two stages, they say. The first: you feel so sick that you fear you will die. The second: you feel so sick that you fear you might not die after all. Seasickness incapacitates the sufferer, so no efficient work can be expected from that member of the crew. The sufferer gets tired and unfocused, and this can be dangerous. One mistake follows another, and the situation might quickly escalate to a crisis. And even if nothing dramatic happens, it's not so nice for anyone to vomit up their guts non-stop instead of enjoying the beautiful voyage toward the Antilles.
But this time it was different for Lady Seasick. Before the passage, I prepared her with instructions: I was surprised to hear that she had never been informed about the obvious cures for seasickness. To start with, I made sure that she got a snack and a little water before sailing, and repeated that procedure regularly during the passage. At the same time, it’s important to remember that sharp food odors should be avoided, so take the spicy chicken curry and the Roquefort cheese off the menu if anyone onboard is prone to seasickness. But anything that is sour, or has lots of ginger in it, is good against the malady, so keep that in mind when planning the day’s meals.
Most people are aware that it helps to relieve seasickness to often look at the horizon and actively participate in the steering. But how many can act accordingly when they are immobilized by such unpleasant sensations? It takes a fellow crewmember to coax them, gently or otherwise, to take the helm.
To hold a general conversation also helps. You can keep the seasick sufferer’s mind off the unpleasant stuff by asking questions and talking merrily about anything at all except the sickness or other sensitive topics.
To chain-smoke — or smoke at all — won’t help the nausea, so my advice is to cut down on that, however impossible that might seem for some people. I also tried giving the lady some seasickness medicine, but owing to the side-effects she sometimes experienced, she refused it. However, she followed the rest of the advice.
The difference was huge. She forgot entirely about seasickness. Even in gale-force winds, she sat down below and wrote in the logbook, plotted out our route on the GPS, baked croissants and sewed a new courtesy flag. She could even read a little, something that normally is the surest recipe for instant seasickness. This effect stayed and she got great sea legs, much longed for after months of ocean passages.
Despite following my own advice, I occasionally have some trouble with seasickness myself. Sometimes, a somewhat rough daysail between the islands can trigger it out of the blue, both for myself and others. One crewmember fell seasick just by sailing the 20-something miles between St. Maarten and Saba in Force 3 to 4, despite having sailed all his life and having experienced much worse conditions without any unwelcome symptoms. Sometimes, you just get unlucky, that’s all.
Other times, the seasickness can be a direct consequence of your choices as a skipper; commencing a passage despite warnings of strong winds and bad swell is one example. Being on deck in harsh weather can be all right; watching the waves break against the coasts of distant islands could be marvelous — but being down below and working in the galley can be tough for many. So consider that before challenging the elements.
Another example of how you can actively control the risk of getting seasick is by choosing the right anchorage. Learn about the normal sea conditions of your selected bay, and make sure you are well-protected from the swells. Sometimes they are listed as “uncomfortable” or “untenable” in guidebooks and chart notes, and one has to respect that if any crew is at all prone to seasickness. The anchorage south of Roseau, Dominica, is one example: on the charts, the place looks quite protected from the swell that is coming from the east, but in fact, the swell rounds the southern coast and reaches Roseau with a stubbornness that is maddening. My monohull rocked so much here that the food would not stay on the plates!
Some anchorages are noted as uncomfortable in particular swell directions, such as northerly swells for places in the lee of the Antilles. If there is no such swell when you arrive, you might drop the hook and get ready for a good night’s sleep, then experience a change in the swell overnight. In Carriacou, the case was such just off Hillsborough, so I could not sleep a wink, unfortunately being just too tired to get up and re-anchor at a different location. I was rather seasick in the morning, and after giving Tyrell Bay a try in order to have some undisturbed sleep and not finding any calm spot, I realized that my best bet for not being violently rocked and rolled during my rest was Grenada.
I was lucky to be able to move to a better anchorage, but as we all know, sometimes it is not possible. Then, one has to be dealing with the symptoms, not the causes, of the condition. Apart from the advice that I have shared above, there are several other things which I found to work quite well.
One is to wear protection against the strong sun, such as sunglasses and a cap. I definitely try not to go down below if at all possible, which helps a lot. To avoid having to work in the galley, make sure somebody else, who is less prone to seasickness, can do the chores. Or prepare the meals beforehand, and keep them in a thermos, or in a Tupperware box. If you do decide to impress your crew by making a complex meal despite rough seas or an uneasy anchorage, remember that you can make many of the preparations up on deck: peeling the potatoes, slicing the veggies or cleaning the fish. The ever-present tradewinds will refresh you and ease any discomfort.
On larger islands, for example Grenada, St. Martin and Martinique, with larger supermarkets, browse through the dried-fruits section. You might find dried and caramelized ginger, a real treat — and one of the oldest cures against nausea and seasickness. (I have run across some in a new supermarket in Simpson Bay, sold in plastic containers that turned out to be waterproof, so now I always keep some in the cockpit.) Caramelized ginger keeps forever, and costs only a couple of US dollars for a generous package.
If you do not find it, grab some locally grown fresh ginger root at a vegetable stand near your harbour. It will keep for several days in a dry and dark place. Use it to make ginger tea.*
Last but not least, if seasickness is a fact despite all preparations and cures, I neutralize it with a glass of something strong — usually a small glass of wine or Caribbean rum, whatever happens to be closest. The right amount of alcohol seems to knock out the balance organs, and makes the boat’s movement much more bearable. Ginger beer or ginger wine can be found in bigger supermarkets on the islands. The ginger-based alcoholic drinks have a double effect, as both ginger and alcohol seem to do you good when seasickness is a fact. Throughout the Windwards, the Jamaican Ginger Wine is sometimes the only affordable bottle for a budget sailor searching through the wine and liquor shelves (with the possible exception of local rums, sometimes with doubtful source and contents). This should of course not be attempted if you are under way, as alcohol and sailing should not be mixed, but if you are not underway (or somebody else can take the helm and the watches), then the cure is extremely good. Just don’t overdo it, as you will surely double the symptoms by being hungover as well as seasick.
No wonder the old-time Caribbean pirates seemed to be a bit tipsy all the time — that must have been just to keep them from getting seasick! What the pirates also did right was to be at sea as much as possible, which gives you sea legs after one to three weeks. But if you are too intrigued by that exciting new island that you’ve just sailed to, and want to go ashore for a couple of days, you will have only yourself to blame. Your hard-won sea legs may eventually disappear and you will need to endure another couple of weeks of getting your balance organs used to the sea conditions again. So use your sealegs, or lose them.
And if you lose them, just remember: when you feed the fishes, do it over the lee rail.
* To make ginger tea, peel a two-inch piece of ginger root and slice it thinly. Bring four cups of water to a boil in a saucepan and add the ginger. Cover it and reduce to a simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain and add honey and lemon to taste
The Arctic Tern Scale of Rolling at Anchor
by Devi Sharp
If you spend enough time at anchor you are bound to have one of those nights — one of those crazy rolly nights. I remember spending the night in Columbus Bay in southern Trinidad after three weeks up the Macareo River. We agreed to have a potluck on one of the four boats in our group and watch a movie. After three weeks we were all running low on food, but combined we had the makings for a nice feast. Aboard our Island Packet 45, Arctic Tern, I still had a red cabbage and a few apples for braised red cabbage, Heather was making lasagna and someone else was making brownies and the meal was sounding very good.
When we anchored in Columbus Bay the wind and tide were laying all four boats in one direction, in harmony, but by the time the cabbage was cooked we started to roll. The wind and tide were no longer aligned and in fact we were starting to roll almost gunnel to gunnel. As the roll got more extreme each of us called in on the radio to cancel attending the potluck dinner. The cabbage-infused air was positively nauseating. I took seasick meds, lay crosswise on our berth and went to sleep.
The memory of that night and a bit of encouragement from my fellow sufferer Ann inspired me to develop the Arctic Tern Scale of Rolling at Anchor.
1) Rock-a-Bye Baby: Gentle movement that is comfortable and might even rock you to sleep. Don’t leave your wine glass untended.
2) Pesky: Periodic rolls that cause unmanned objects to unexpectedly fall onto cabin sole. A pesky roll can wake you up at night, but usually will not keep you awake.
3) Annoying: Bottles start clinking. Objects roll off un-fiddled spaces. You tend to lurch and walk into walls. Annoying rolls will wake you and might require minor changes to sleeping arrangements.
4) Really Bad: The inside of the boat becomes noisy with stuff rattling and clinking. Unsecured objects become missiles. Sleeping arrangements must be re-arranged from fore-and-aft to athwartships, or bodies need to be chocked. Misery and whining is permitted.
5) Untenable: This is a gunnel-to-gunnel roll and if you can go somewhere else you should — either move the boat or leave the boat. Forget about cooking or reading. If you cannot escape just take drugs and go to sleep.
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