Mal de mer? Pas de problème!

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 59 of the June 2011 issue.

by Lew Toulmin

I never thought I was prone to motion sickness until I sailed on a brigantine from Fiji to Vanuatu, in the so-called “Pacific” Ocean, in 2003. The highly experienced New Zealand crew strongly recommended I take the antiseasickness pill Stugeron. They said that, over a period of 10 years on that tall ship, this medication had worked best for the most crew and passengers, with the fewest side effects.

I was reluctant to take anything but finally obeyed orders just as the ship departed the protected waters of the Fijian archipelago and entered rough ocean seas kicked up by a gale. I was already starting to get queasy with the violent motion, but then the Stugeron kicked in and I felt pretty good.

I took it for a day, until I got my sea legs, then felt fine, regardless of storms, and didn’t need it anymore for the 18-day voyage. It did not make me drowsy or give me any side effects.

This experience got me interested in seasickness. Let me share what I have found.

Most scientists agree that motion sickness probably did not exist until mankind invented seagoing vessels. It is, thus, not a disease but, rather, a temporary condition that can be brought about when someone is subjected to abnormal motions.

According to the Bible of seasickness, “Motion Sickness” by J.T. Reason and J.J. Brand (1975, Academic Press, London), seasickness can be induced in all mammals, and even fish can get seasick!

Surprisingly, 100 percent of humans will get motion sickness if conditions are extreme enough, but only about seven percent of cruise ship passengers experience seasickness.

Studies of motion sickness have shown conclusively that it is associated with the functioning of the inner ear. Persons who have lost their inner ear cannot get motion sickness.

Women are reportedly somewhat more susceptible to it than men, and children under age two are virtually immune to it. Susceptibility is high from age two to 12, drops fast from age 12 to 21 and drops slowly from 21 to 50. Above age 50, motion sickness is reportedly “very rare.”

So what can you do to counteract motion sickness, besides get older?

• You can try Stugeron, like I did. This medication is not known in the US, but it is common in Canada and Europe, so I buy it over the counter whenever I am abroad.

The generic name is “cinnarizine” or “cinnarizin,” and it is an antihistamine. I bought my current supply for 11 Swiss francs (about $10.50) in Zürich. It came in a box of 25 tablets of 25mg each, and you take one tablet before traveling and one tablet every eight hours or so with food until the symptoms disappear.

In my experience, just two to three tablets and one day are sufficient. And I take it only if the seas will be rough.

Naturally, you should consult your doctor before taking this or any other medication, and you should check for drug interactions.

You can also obtain Stugeron/cinnarizine over the counter via the Internet from Canada, for example, from DrugWorldCanada.com Prescription Service (Unit #202A, 8322 130th St., Surrey, BC, Canada V3W 8J9; phone 866/485-7979, www.drugworldcanada.com). According to a DrugWorldCanada.com representative, shipping to the US is legal (US Customs checks the shipments), and they’ve never had an issue with getting their items through.

DrugWorldCanada.com has 15- and 75-milligram tablets of cinnarizine available over the counter; I use and recommend only the lower dose. It costs $29 for 100 tablets of the 15-milligram cinnari­zine manufactured by Janssen-Cilag. Shipping is free and takes 16 to 18 business days.

• Another effective medication is the well-known antihistamine Dramamine (dimenhydrinate). My wife uses this for both air sickness and seasickness. It makes her drowsy, but on long plane rides she likes this. Nondrowsy versions of Dramamine and the similar Bonine are available.

• A friend of mine had a serious problem with the other famous medication “the patch,” or scopolamine. This derivative of jimsonweed is quite powerful, as my friend discovered.

She accidentally put on two patches instead of one on her neck, getting a double dose. She then suffered from hallucinations, dizziness and confusion. She could not utter a single coherent sentence, was terrified and had to be taken off the boat and locked in a dark room for three days.

I think I’ll pass on scopolamine; I’d rather be seasick.

• Ships’ doctors have a medication, antidopaminergic prometha­zine (brands: Phenergan, Promacot), that can be injected for severe seasickness. Metaclopromide can also be injected for severe stomach cramps associated with nausea. It takes effect in minutes.

• Medications recommended for seasickness in the British medical journal The Lancet between 1828 and 1928 included opium, amyl nitrite, chloroform, creosote, quinine, nitrous oxide, strychnine, cayenne and cocaine! Needless to say, I don’t endorse any of these.

• Some sufferers report that vitamin B6 or ginger ale, ginger snaps, ginger candy, ginger tea or pure ginger gives some relief. I have not tried these, but they can’t hurt — and I love ginger snaps.

• A mechanical device I like is any of the wristbands that each have a little button which presses on an acupressure point inside the wrist, apparently affecting the inner ear and preventing motion sickness. It sounds unlikely, but it has helped me on occasion. It costs about $10 in drugstores.

There are several ways to minimize your exposure to the unusual motion that causes seasickness. One obvious way is to take a river or canal cruise rather than an ocean voyage. Another is to take your first cruise in relatively sheltered waters — such as the Caribbean, the Inland Sea of Japan or, in the summer, Alaska’s Inside Passage — instead of in the open ocean.

Yet a third is to choose a really large vessel, which reduces the relative impact of the waves.

Modern cruise ships have excellent stabilizers, which reduce roll by up to 75%. According to an engineer on the original Queen Mary, during some storms in the 1950s the inclinometer in the engine room showed that the vessel was rolling past the scale maximum of 45 degrees. He estimated the maximum incline at 48 degrees of roll! The stabilizers on the modern Queen Mary 2 and similar ships make this virtually impossible.

If you are prone to seasickness, be sure to select a cabin near the center of the vessel and close to the waterline, thus minimizing the distance you move in the pitch, roll and yaw of the ship. Since cabins lower down are usually cheaper, you will save money, too.

Here are other, miscellaneous tips for the seasick-prone.

Try to be well rested, fresh and in good health when boarding. Don’t both fly and sail on the same day.

Don’t drink alcohol before sailing or board when hung over. Don’t eat a big, greasy meal just before boarding. Avoid smells such as diesel fuel. Avoid other persons who are seasick.

When the weather first gets rough, go out on deck, move with the ship and focus on the horizon.

When you get tired, go directly to bed and try to go to sleep right away. Don’t read, listen to music or watch the lamp sway.

As every sailor knows, there is one sure cure for seasickness: grab an oar and put it over your shoulder, march inland until someone asks you what that odd thing is you’re carrying, then find a stone church and sit with your back against its wall for four hours. Works every time!