Transformational Technologies 5 Taming Seasickness

I get queasy at sea, and throw up from time to time. Terrie, my wife, and Pippin, our daughter, get really seasick. Paul, our son, is almost immune, although there has been the odd occasion when all four of us have been hanging over the rail, throwing up together. It’s not the best family bonding experience.

In our early cruising days, Scopoline patches were readily available, and very effective. However, we rarely used them because they made us feel ‘spacey’, and I found it hard to read a chart (the symbols would tend to jump around). Scopolomine did, however, keep Terrie operative on a rough 5-day passage across the Gulf of Mexico, during which I got her pregnant (that patch must have been doing a pretty good job). Shortly thereafter it was reported that Scopolomine could cause birth defects. It disappeared from the marketplace (for seasickness) until its reemergence a year or so ago in a modified form.

I spent the months of Terrie’s pregnancy privately worrying about the baby she was carrying. It was a long and arduous delivery. When Pippin finally started to emerge, I couldn’t sort one body part out from another. I can still remember the immense sense of relief when it became clear all her fingers and toes were intact and everything was in order. We’ve never taken Scopolomine again.

We took Pippin cruising just after her first birthday. Contrary to what was written in books at that time, babies get seasick. When we went ashore, Pippin would engage in a sit down strike rather than get back in the dinghy to go out to the boat. One of the first things she learned to say was a chant repeated over and over: “No boat, walk on the beach. No boat, walk on the beach…”. 

We ended that cruise with a slow, calm passage from Haiti up the Bahamas Channel to Key West. At one point Pippin called out:  “Mummy, I feel sick”.  Her throat and stomach were moving in little spasms.  Oh no, we thought, how can this be in such easy conditions.  “Mummy”, she said “I’m farting in my throat”.  She had the hiccups. 

Subsequently we tried all kinds of seasick remedies, including acu-pressure bands (elasticized wrist bands with an embedded plastic knob that applies pressure to a nerve in the wrist) and ginger in different forms. Nothing really worked, other than a mixture of promethazine and ephedrine (developed by NASA for space sickness) which has significant side effects. Of the over-the-counter medicines, like so many other sailors we have found Stugeron to be the most helpful (not available in the USA).

Seasickness has put a permanent damper on our cruising, to the point that we get the passages out of the way as fast as possible, and then island hop. This is one of the reasons we like the Caribbean so much – once you get there, it is just a short sail from one lovely anchorage or island to another. I have always wanted to sail the Pacific, but until recently had given up on this goal because of the long passages.

This past year we moved a long way towards solving the seasickness problem. The miracle cure is a wrist band that administers a tiny electric shock to that same nerve we were trying to hit with the acu-pressure bands.

I am a skeptic when it comes to this kind of thing, but I can’t deny the evidence in front of my eyes. Terrie has not been sick once since using the wrist band. Although she still feels queasy at times, she will sit and read a book in conditions that would have previously completely incapacitated her. I have deliberately got myself to the point of just about throwing up, and then put on the band. It’s a strange feeling. There are two nerves in the wrist close to one another. If you shock one, it sends a tingle up the thumb or forefinger and seems to do nothing. If you shock the other, it sends a tingle up the middle finger and the seasickness goes away. We’ve tried it on a friend’s wife, who has been another perennially sick, somewhat reluctant sailing partner, with the same magic result.

The band has its limitations. The shock has to be administered in a very precise place. You can’t keep the band accurately located when working the boat. But then people rarely get sick when working. If this technology works as well for others at it has for us in relieving the misery of seasickness, it will, for many, rank even above the miracles of satellite navigation and other wonders as the single most important technical advance that we have seen in the cruising world in our lifetimes.

By Ocean Navigator