Mal de Mer (aka Sea Sickness)

Mal de Mer (aka Sea Sickness)

Mal de Mer sounds like some resort in Florida, but it is no where close. No doubt this is an unpleasant topic, and even more unpleasant to experience. Commonly it is one of the big topics when new sailors step aboard. The good news is, it goes away once back on terra firma. Does everyone suffer from it? The answer is no, sort of.

You’re eyes are probably starting to swim at this moment just thinking about it. But that is the biggest point of this article. I’ve seen people talk themselves into it, I’ve seen newcomers stepping aboard thinking of nothing else other than seasickness, and I have seen too many times it is a “State of Mind” that puts many over the edge. So do me a favor, look forward to sailing, think about how fun and challenging it will be to learn. Keep an open mind and open ears, ask a lot of questions why things are and how things work. Keep the thoughts of seasickness out of your head.

My good friend Alan Veenstra, owner of Chicago Sailing, adds some thoughts on other contributing factors to seasickness to avoid.  Alan, take it away –

“My experience with people is based on the following that helps people avoid seasickness:
• Not already ill, not hung over and have not eaten disagreeable foods.
• Are not spending time below decks.
• Not cold or otherwise uncomfortable.
• Pleasant day (reasonably sunny and warm).
• Modest cruising sailboat ( 30’-40’) being sailed well.
• No other fears or dangers.

Among those who have not taken motion medication or other precautions, I estimate that about 10% of new sailors will experience some level of discomfort in 1-3’ seas. Very few succumb, but some do. The percentage goes up to about 20% when:
• Seas go above 3’. The percentage gets higher as the seas increase. After 6’, all bets are off.
• The weather is cloudy, cold etc
• Too much alcohol drinking, and not enough eating.
• Going below too much.
• Trepidation about safety (incompetent skipper, heeling too much, other perceived dangers).
• Fear that they will be on a ‘forced march’ for an undetermined period of time.

I also find that most of these situations can be reduced by having the afflicted parties understand what is happening to them and how to ease the problem. I usually reassure them first:
• Try to limit the conversation to the afflicted party, quietly, discreetly. They are usually embarrassed at ruining everyone else’s event.
• Do not be embarrassed, it is natural.
• Never say the words ‘seasickness’, but refer to it obliquely.
• Let them know that we will do everything possible to reduce the motion of the boat .
• Reassure them that we are out to have a good time and that we will head in early if the conditions do not improve (when this is possible).
• There are very effective ways to ease your discomfort (sit in a stable position, look at the horizon, steer the boat, eat saltine crackers, drink Coca Cola).

Finally, I circle back to those who became afflicted when we are in the smooth waters of the harbor. I ask if they feel better and most do. Then I congratulate them on their perseverance and let them know that if they were successful in overcoming the discomfort while still afloat, that they are much less likely to have the problem next time. This is important truth gives them some perspective and encouragement to not let this day color their opinion of sailing. It works!”

Thank you for your insights above, Alan.

You’ll never know if you have the affliction until you try to go sailing. You’ll never know if you have it mildly and can overcome it until you go sailing. Put it out of mind, and get out there and sail. Have confidence your first time out, that the boat is competently crewed, that you’ll enjoy the fresh air and open space, you’ll get an occasional splash of water in your face, learn that boats do heel and how to position yourself not to slide and how to hang on, and realize that it can be as interesting as a thrill ride at a theme park sometimes. Let Mal de Mer capture you by surprise, the way it hit me twice in my adulthood. It hasn’t stopped me from coming back.

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