AN OLD DIVEMASTER’S GUIDE TO PREVENTING SEASICKNESS
by Bruce Watkins
There's an old sailors' proverb that states, "The only cure for seasickness is to sit on the shady side of an old brick church in the country." While this whimsical advice is entertaining, it does not get to the heart of how serious seasickness may be, and how to prevent it. As to its seriousness, I offer the following true story...
How bad can seasickness really be?
During World War II, a friend of mine was ordered to ship from San Francisco to Australia. From the very outset of the journey, he was so seasick that it threatened his life. He could not eat or drink and was given intravenous fluids just to keep him alive. His torment continued for weeks. As his ship neared Australia, he was informed that an enemy submarine was patrolling the area. This deeply religious man, with unbearable seasickness, actually prayed that the submarine would sink his ship!
What causes seasickness?
While divers on charter vessels are not subjected to such extreme conditions, there are those that regularly afflicted by some level of seasickness. The cause of seasickness is simple — the confusion that is created when your eyes and inner ear do not provide equivalent information to the brain — although the cure is often elusive. However, the symptoms of seasickness can frequently be prevented by a simple behavior changes and proper use of medication.
How do I prevent mild seasickness?
For those who are infrequently or moderately affected, simply get a good night’s sleep prior to your trip and avoid excessive food, alcohol, and fluids. A moderate, low fat, bland breakfast is best. Once at sea, stay above decks if you can – preferably somewhere amidships where the boat’s motion is minimal. It also helps to keep busy, but always look at the horizon. Keep your attention focused on distant objects so there is less confusion in the messages your brain receives.
What is the best seasickness medication?
If you feel you need to medicate yourself, extensive study has been performed by navies throughout the world. They have all reached the same general scientific conclusions: Prescription formulations containing scopolamine (the active ingredient in the TransdermScop® patch) always come out as the most effective. The next best drug was cinnarizine (Stugeron in the U.K. but not available in the U.S). Coming in third were the over-the-counter and familiar medications: dimenhydrinate (Dramamine®), meclizine (Bonine®, Antivert®), cyclizine (Marezine®), and promethazine (Phenergan®).
How soon should I take seasickness medication?
The biggest issue with these drugs is deciding when to take them, as many require four to eight hours to become effective. If you wait until you are sick, these drugs will not help. This old divemaster’s advice it to begin taking the over-the-counter medication 12 hours before you sail, and then two hours before. (As an added benefit, they often help you sleep better.)
What are the side effects of seasickness medication?
Follow your doctor’s directions on prescription drugs. Importantly, every person is unique and reacts to drugs differently. Scopolamine, in particular, has many side effects, so be cautious. This old divemaster suggests not taking any of these medications for the first time while on a dive trip. Try them first ashore to see how you react.
How can I prevent seasickness without medication?
There are also many popular remedies such as wristbands and ginger. While some of these appear promising in some studies, they do not look promising in all studies. The US Navy, for instance, found that ginger did not prevent seasickness, but did make breakfast taste better the ‘second time around.’ There is, however, a psychological component to seasickness that should not be understated. If you truly believe a remedy will work for you, it probably will. Remember that diving is supposed to be fun. Find something that works for you and keep doing it. Remember too, that sickness often magically disappears when you get in the water.
Photo credit: Ron Daniel