“Should we take some sea-sick medicine for tomorrow’s trip?” one of my companions asked the charter boat operator the night before we were to spend a day fishing for halibut in Kachemak Bay out of Homer, Alaska.
“If you spend this much money, it would be a shame to spend your trip puking,” the man replied with a wry smile, as he slipped the credit card receipt across the counter with a pen.
A hundred and seventy-five bucks a head to spend a day rocking and rolling on rough seas, even if you come home with a couple of barn door-size halibut, is no picnic for many people. My companions bought some Bonine. I declined, deciding to try a different approach.
I grew up on Lake Erie and spent a lot of time bouncing around on the waves. I never had any problems with motion sickness, but then again swells on Lake Erie usually don’t get bigger than three feet. Larger than that, and small craft warnings go up.
Then I moved to the west coast and the blue Pacific, where the waves were definitely bigger. No problem with seasickness in Puget Sound or Oregon waters. Then I moved to the San Francisco Bay area.
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What charter boat captains who run out of the Golden Gate refer to as “light chop” can be six- to eight- foot swells with four- to six-foot waves cresting on top of them. Under such conditions, nearly every time that I ventured into the Pacific out of the Golden Gate in pursuit of salmon, where the outgoing fresh waters of the Sacramento River collide with the briny Pacific swells pushed in the opposite direction by prevailing westerlies, I ended up at the rail losing my breakfast and finding heaven turn into hell. Those experiences got me into researching motion sickness.
Stress, sea legs, and conventional methods
Motion sickness or seasickness (on boats) is caused by movement that affects the sense of balance, which is perceived in the inner ear and your eyes. Dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting are common symptoms; it can also happen in cars, trains, boats, and planes. Children are more likely to get it than adults, especially older adults.
Like riding a bicycle, you learn to “get your sea legs” if you go out enough, but if you only venture out to sea infrequently, your inner ears don’t seem to remember much from previous bad experiences.
Motion sickness is ultimately a physical reaction to perceptual stress. Your resistance to succumbing to getting green is also influenced by hangovers, other illnesses that weaken you, lack of fresh air, and a lack of sleep. Fear also increases the chances of getting sick. In short, the more fatigued that you are, the greater your chances are to get sick on a rocking boat.
One cause of motion sickness is the lack of a solid orienting reference point, which is always present on land. The loss of such an anchoring point may trigger a panic reaction that reduces your ability to cope with an unusual situation. If you’re on rocking boat and can see the shore, gazing on a specific point on land will give some relief that will help you get your bearings.
Stay outside the cabin of the boat in cool, fresh air, and toward the stern of the boat. The bow rises and falls a lot farther on most swells. One man on our fishing trip got sick every time he went to the bow. Wear windbreakers and warm clothes so you can stay outside in the fresh air.
Over-the-counter motion sickness medications like Dramamine and Bonine, which are antihistamines, help many people, but they can have side effects. Read the side of the package where it cautions people with heart disease, urinary problems, etc. developing complications, plus drowsiness, etc. Scopalamine patches, a prescription remedy that’s worn behind the ear, is effective for many, but has similar, or worse, side effects. If these work for you, great.
An alternative approach
Personally, as a writer who spends too much time sitting on his derriere in front of a screen I decided that on this trip I would seek out an alternative that would not make me drowsy or worry about side effects.
To create my strategy, I consulted an acupuncturist. Why go there? There’s considerable research that documents the effectiveness of acupuncture for a wide variety of ailments. Also, I used to teach the course on psycho-somatics for psychologists at the University of Oregon, which included acupuncture. To prepare for that, I studied Oriental Medicine for almost a year. This included acupressure, but I dropped out before going through the needles training for acupuncture.
I like the Oriental Medicine approach as it stresses prevention, and my family and I personally have benefited a great deal from the herbs, needles, and various physical exercises used in Oriental medicine.
One acupuncturist I contacted was Dr. Xiao “Rocky” Wang, who was an E.R. trauma physician in Beijing, once worked with the Chinese Olympic team, and currently teaches at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. He recommended “All Natural Chinese Herbal Tea Tablets” (Huo Xiang Zheng Qi Wan) made in China and distributed by Krown International Trading Company in Hayward, California.
He and I agreed that motion sickness elastic wristbands, which are worn on each wrist like watches, also would be worth trying. They have a small button that applies pressure to an acupuncture point on the wrist that is three fingers down from the wrist crease that stabilizes the stomach. Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense to a Western mind that the wrist and the stomach have anything to do with each other, let alone a point on the body three fingers down the wrist from the wrist crease effecting your head and stomach, but results is what I’m interested in and there is research that supports the effectiveness of wrist bands. For example, a 1995 study published in the journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine reported that using your thumb to press your inner arm three finger widths (about two inches) down from your wrist crease relieves motion sickness. The elastic wrist band with a plastic button does exactly that.
As a final touch, I brought along some sweet ginger candy to munch on during the trip for an energy burst and to calm the stomach. Research reported by the University of Wisconsin Medical Center, confirms that ginger root may be as effective for motion sickness as over-the-counter medicines like Dramamine or Bonine. This is also a Chinese herbal remedy.
The morning of the trip, I ate a roll and drank some Chinese herbal tea before departing. You need to eat something; otherwise you will have less energy, which will make you more prone to seasickness. Carbs are great. Avoid greasy foods. On the trip out, I took a seat outside the cabin toward the stern of the boat on the two hour trip to the fishing grounds. Watching the whales and sea otters was a treat. If you are in sight of land, keeping a focus on a fixed point on shore while you are in a rocking boat can ease vertigo.
We anchored in eight-foot swells, with two- to three-foot waves cresting on top. Not quite a “perfect storm” sea, but no millpond. Soon you could hear a combination of people whooping at the strike of a big halibut, and people standing next to them whooping their breakfast over the side.
Let’s face it, getting seasick is no fun, and it’s dangerous in a lurching boat. I’ve been on boats where it becomes the macho thing to stay out regardless of the swell, despite lots of people getting seasick. There ain’t no taxi back early, folks. Not my cup of tea.
It’s always good to test out a method more than once. On this trip, I used this strategy for motion sickness prevention twice. During the day, while in the swells, I sipped on herbal hot tea and ate pieces of ginger root candy. I also ate some crackers. On the ride back in, when we hit the sheltered waters, I gobbled up my sandwiches with gusto.
I repeated the same procedure a second time and it worked just fine. There were no side effects, and no drowsiness. I felt calm and energized. And I did not get sick.
Would it work every time? Time will tell. Would the same approach apply to women with morning sickness, air sickness or people on chemotherapy who get nauseated? Consult your doctor, and/or a good acupuncturist. If you cannot get the Chinese herbal tea I used, ginger tea may also work just as well.
If you’re planning a trip out onto water that may rock and roll, why spend the day feeding your breakfast to the fish? Traditional Oriental remedies for seasickness may be unconventional, but at least for this landlubber, they work.
Featured image copyright iStockPhoto/Chet Mitchell, other images by Andrew Swan