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July 1998 Vol. 13, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Over the Railing Please

Ways to fight off sea sickness

from the July, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you’ve ever been seasick — truly seasick — then you know why some people have speculated that death may seem a preferable option. While extreme nausea and vomiting are legendary symptoms, Charles Dickens, in The Calais Night-Mail, described it as “a stout wooden wedge driven in at the right temple and out the left, a floating deposit of lukewarm oil in my throat, and a compression of the bridge of my nose in a blunt pair of pincers.”

For live-aboard divers, open ocean crossings can put the sturdiest traveler down. For example, reader Sam Pearlstein (Manlius, NY), on a trip aboard the Okeanos Aggressor with plenty of experienced divers in September, noted that “several of us were seasick on the 36-hour crossing to Cocos Island.” And a week later they had to return.

Even the short trip between Cayman Brac and Little Cayman can cause problems for some. Steve Nieters (Allton, IL) reported that, on his Little Cayman diver trip in January, one person was seasick most of the week and didn’t even dive.

Divers even get seasick on day boats operating from landbased operations. At Sonaisali Island Resort in Fiji, says Angee Silliman (Hillsboro, OR), “they took us outside the barrier reef with rough surf, and several firsttime snorkelers were afraid to get in the water and were seasick by the time we came up.”

In January in Cozumel at the Scuba Club Galapago, Ramer and Christine Roth (Golden, CO) reported that ”even in the large 55' single boat, several members of our party got seasick.” And Sherry and Kevin Graham (Puyallup, WA), diving Ambergris Caye in Belize, reported that “we dove with 5-6 ft. waves, and some people got seasick though it was a fifteenminute ride to sites.”

Other than taking medication, there are a few things you can do to keep from getting sick:

  • Go easy on food and booze; a hangover jump-starts seasickness.
  • Get away from strong odors such as diesel and exhaust, smelly marine heads, and even cigarette smoke.
  • Stay amidships, where there is the least motion.
  • Reduce sensory conflict by keeping your eyes on the horizon, making sure that you can see the oncoming waves. The folks at Cruising World say: “Don’t go below at the beginning of a passage unless necessary (and if you do, focus on a gimbaled or freelysuspended object). Sensory conflict is heightened below decks because your inner ear perceives motion but your eyes don’t. Don’t passively let the boat’s motion toss you around. Ride the waves. Sit or stand upright, letting your trunk and neck muscles keep your head and upper body balanced over your hips. This is nature’s way of curing seasickness and, once you pick up the rhythm of it, is far easier than constantly fighting to hang on.”
  • Perform tasks that keep your mind active, your body moving, and both hands occupied. Avoid reading.

For many people, however, drugs are the only preventive. For divers, scopolamine is often the drug of choice. Marketed as Transderm Scop, it’s a dimesized patch that’s placed behind the neck. It leeches just the right amount of the drug into the bloodstream to prevent mal de mer. It also stays on underwater and works for up to three days; for longer trips, just slap on another.

While the manufacturer took it off the market in 1994 because of problems with the patch delivery system, it’s once again readily available, though only by prescription.

Some patch wearers have mild side effects (dry mouth, mild malaise, mental fuzziness, clumsiness, and difficulty focusing). However, tests by the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit in 1986 did not find the effects detrimental to their divers — the drug did not interfere with divers’ ability to process and retrieve information, and the divers functioned satisfactorily in a 60- foot chamber test.

Some tips about the Scop patch: several days before your trip, test the patch at home to determine whether or how it affects you. Wash your hands after applying——you don’t want to get this stuff in your eyes. Also, put your patch on the day before you head to sea. And, while the patch shouldn’t come off underwater, you may wish to put a circular Bandaid over it so you won’t inadvertently knock it off if you wear a hood (some divers apply it to their thigh).

Nonprescription antihistamine antimotion pills also work for most people, but they often cause drowsiness. If one is doing a 36-hour crossing, drowsiness might be a desired effect, but if one is going to the reef in fifteen minutes, drowsiness should obviously be avoided. Dramamine (dimenhydrinate), Bonine, Antivert (meclizine), and Marezine (cyclizine) depress the signals from the inner ear and quiet the gastrointestinal tract. Some people prefer a prescription antihistamine: Promethazine, sold as Phenergan. Sturgeon (Cinnarazine) is unavailable in the United States, but it is a well-respected, over-the-counter motion sickness drug from the United Kingdom that’s available in many countries.

Motion sickness medications should be taken at least one hour before departure, although some physicians, such as Florida subscriber and Air Force emergency medicine specialist Dr. Rob Allen, recommend taking the initial dose (usually 25 mg.) 14-16 hrs. before getting on the boat, a second dose immediately prior to boarding, and then regular doses every 24 hrs. There are some obvious cautions about taking antinauseal medications: make certain the medication doesn’t cause any drug interactions with medications you’re already taking, don’t mix different antinauseal medications (which can cause unpleasant side effects), and, of course, if you’re seasick or drowsy from medication, don’t dive.

You don’t like drugs? Ginger is another substance that many people swear by, but according to a 1995 article in the Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter, “scientists have yet to show unequivocally that ginger works as a remedy for people who turn green when the going gets rough. Granted, a small 1982 study of college students suggested that a powdered ginger preparation could significantly quell symptoms of motion sickness. Yet subsequent research has come up with mixed results.”

Nevertheless, these mixed results were enough to convince the German Federal Health Agency that ginger is effective in preventing the symptoms of motion sickness. The recommended dose: 1,000 mg. thirty minutes before departure on a short trip, and two to four more if symptoms recur. For long trips, people recommend 1000 mg. every 4-6 hours.

. . .described as “a
stout wooden wedge
driven in at the right
temple and out the
left, a floating deposit
of lukewarm oil in my
throat . . .

Then there are Sea Bands, elastic bands worn around the wrist. Pea-sized buttons on the inside exert gentle pressure on the so-called nei-kuan acupressure point, wiping away the mal de mer. Researchers at the Institute of Naval Medicine in England tested male volunteers in three separate motion tests, during which they tested scopolamine with placebo bands, a placebo drug and placebo bands, and a placebo drug and Sea Bands. The Sea Bands were no better than the placebos at increasing the tolerance to motion, while, as expected, scopolomine worked well.

Still, Sea Bands folks have put out their own claim that the bands work in the form of a letter from the Senior Medical Officer of Britain’s Ministry of Defense. He writes that “eleven people reported that the use of the bands had controlled nausea and sea sickness in them. Three people found them effective in moderate sea states, but had to supplement them with drugs in gale force conditions. Three people found them totally ineffective.”

Sea Bands can be purchased for $16 the pair from Southwest Band Corporation, 400 Australian Avenue, Suite 725, West Palm Beach, Florida, 33401. Call 407/ 832-5112.

Once you fall prey to seasickness, there’s not much you can do until the boat stops. On a live-aboard, go below and lie down in a well-ventilated bunk. To reduce sensory conflict, shut your eyes and keep your head still and face up. Wedge yourself in the bunk so you can relax. Then try to go to sleep. Stay hydrated. Some people have suggested that ephedrine (25 to 50 mg. initially, and 25 mg. every three to four hours) may help.

And accept the advice of reader S.A. Robnick (Oxford, OH), who noted that most people aboard Blabeard’s Morning Star in March got seasick during the “wet, cold, and rough crossing.” Says Robnick: “Take some pills and don’t complain.”

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