In Tips for Crew, Tips for Skippers

As the saying goes, the best cure is prevention, and a truer word has never been spoken when it comes to seasickness.

Yes, we said it, seasickness.

Seasickness can strike even the most hardened sailor at any time, and the less hardened, well, much more often.

As someone who’s been afflicted with this dreaded condition from time to time myself, I fully understand the concern a potential bout of seasickness can cause a wary sailor, especially when they’re about to embark on a long offshore race.

A 2016 article by Yachting World suggests that 90% of seafarers have suffered at least once from seasickness, although many are reluctant to admit it.

When building an offshore race team, finding crew that ‘don’t get seasick’ is a popular sentiment amongst skippers. Although this is an obvious advantage, finding a full crew who never have, and never will be afflicted is a more difficult task.

So, if you can’t guarantee the absence of seasickness, the next best option is to minimise its likelihood and impact on the afflicted crew and the team.

Managing Seasickness – Start with the Basics

The best way to manage seasickness is by preventing it all together. There are a number of things you can do if you’re worried about getting seasick. Different things work for different people, but a few things that may help include:

  1. Drink lots of water. Staying well hydrated is one of the most commonly cited, and easiest ways to prevent seasickness.
  2. Don’t sail on an empty stomach. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, sailing on an empty stomach can increase your likelihood of feeling seasick.
  3. Avoid consuming caffeinated drinks, colas, alcohol or fatty foods a few days before heading offshore. Yep –that means those beers with the boys (and girls) will have to wait until you reach the finish line.
  4. Get a good night’s sleep ahead of the race, and make sure you start your journey feeling fresh and at your best.
  5. Keep calm. Feeling anxious or fearful can increase your likelihood of experiencing seasickness. So, whether it means doing some extra preparation, taking a relaxing walk or spending some time meditating before the race, make sure you start race day feeling at-ease.

Seasickness Medication

If you are prone to seasickness you might also want to take some medication as a preventative measure before heading offshore. Usually medication needs to be taken at least a couple of hours before heading out, and some common advice is to start medicating up to 24 hours before your journey. Once you’re sick it will be harder to keep the medication down and for it to have effect, so don’t try to tough it out until you’re sick to take any medication.

A note of warning – it’s not wise to try a new seasickness medication while out on the water. Many include a sedative and can make you drowsy or have other negative effects – not ideal if you’re in the middle of a long offshore yacht race. The best advice is to try out a new medication while onshore or in a short race to check out any potential side effects before venturing too far out to sea.

Make sure you chat with your doctor or pharmacist to get advice on the right medication for you, and how to use this.

Preventing Sickness During Watch Transitions

Transitioning between watches, when you’re preparing for a little shut-eye or dressing to go back on duty, is a key time when seasickness can strike.

Spending too much time below decks with your head in a bag searching for gear is not a good place to be if you’re feeling sick. An easy way to minimise this is to make sure you’re well organised before leaving dock.

Ziplock bags or small coloured cloth bags are a great way to organise gear so it can be easily found later, and also provide protection from the inevitable dampness of a racing yacht.

Before setting sail, you can also install lots of innovative and inexpensive ways to store gear so it’s always in easy reach. Labelled carabineers or hooks are great for keeping wet weather gear easily accessible. Labelled shoe or makeup organisers can be hung in a convenient place to store small items such as headlamps, gloves and medication. Sectioned cubbyholes keep crew gear separated and organised for easy retrieval.

In between watches is a great time to make sure you’re well hydrated and fed. It’s also important to stay warm and get a good rest, so as much as possible change into warm, dry gear and get in a few hours of solid zzz’s when you head off watch.

Recovering from Seasickness

Most people who get sick at the outset of a voyage do start to feel better after their body has a chance to adapt to the movement. According to Dr Tom Stoffregen, an expert in human movement science at the University of Minnesota, most people get their ‘sea legs’ within 36 hours of leaving shore.

The common phrase to get your ‘sea legs’ refers to your brain’s ability to adapt the messages it receives from your sensory system, honed for life on stable land, to the pitching, swaying and rolling environment of a yacht at sea.

If you do start to feel sick, one of the easiest ways to recover is to stand up and look at the horizon. According to Dr Jelte Bos, of the Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, looking at the horizon gives your brain important information to help its predictive system adapt to the ship’s movement, and standing up challenges it to do that faster.

Keeping busy also helps, as it keeps your mind off thinking about the movement and feelings of nausea. If you’re stuck on rail duty try watching for wind shifts, grab an end of line and practice a few bowlines or see if you can tag in for someone in a more active position.

Managing Seasick Crewmembers

When a crewmember gets sick it can affect the performance of the whole team.

With a crewmember not performing at their best, or potentially not at all, others may need to fill the gap, and more importantly, ensure the afflicted team member stays safe.

In a long offshore race anything can happen, so making sure you can deal with the inevitable challenges is key. Every crewmember has a critical role to play, but it’s important that each crew isn’t the only one on the yacht that can fill the position.

If your navigator or bow person is incapacitated, is there someone else who can fill his or her role? How will you manage if you’re a man or two down? Are there enough warm blankets and medical equipment on-board to treat a sick crewmember? Like most things, the key is to be prepared.

Conclusion and Further Reading

As unpleasant as it is, a potential bout of seasickness is not something that should keep you on dry land. Even if you do end up getting seasick, by taking the right steps to manage it and adopting a mind-of-matter approach, chances are you’ll recover fast and any sickness will be well out of your mind by the time you reach the finish line.

If you would like to do some further reading, we’ve compiled a few articles from around the web with a plethora of expert tips and knowledge. Enjoy!

  1. Yachting World: What are the best remedies for seasickness? We find out in our transatlantic survey
  2. MySailing.com.au: Mal de mer – seasickness avoidance and treatment
  3. gCaptain: What is Seasickness? And 50 Ways Professional Mariners Tackle It! 
  4. ABC: Seasickness and science: Are your ‘sea legs’ in your brain or your muscles?
  5. The Atlantic: The Mysterious Science of Motion Sickness

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Photo of Shibumi and her sailing crew in the MYC Woman's Challenge