To say I get seasick very easily is a sick understatement.
I’ve gotten seasick on a 2,000-passenger cruise ship in the Caribbean. I’ve gotten sick on the 100-car auto-ferry that putters sturdily from Lewes, Delaware, to Cape May, New Jersey. I got sick while snorkeling on gentle waves in Baja Mexico, on both a Jetski and a pontoon boat on a tiny lake in Michigan, and even, somehow, while rocking silently in a motor boat roped to a dock.
But I have never vomited. Instead, I become nauseated and disoriented and I simply shut down, withdrawing from any contact or activity with my fellow travelers. I disappear into an exquisitely uncomfortable, dizzy isolation. I am light-headed, inert, and lame-brained.
The symptoms seemed so strange — so different from the toilet-hugging episodes others report — that I began to wonder if this was actually motion sickness at all, or just some idiosyncratic behavioral response to waterborne travel: I hate being here, go away.
But a detailed summary published by the National Library of Medicine validates my experience. For some, motion sickness “may appear to untrained observers as apathy, boredom, irritability, and personality changes.” In more severe cases, it says, one symptom can be “social isolation.”
On the Mexico snorkeling trip, a friend saw how I was behaving and thought my wife and I had gotten into a terrible argument.
It would be so much easier to just puke and be done with it.
Why Motion Sickness Happens
Nearly everybody is susceptible to motion sickness in extreme cases. Friends who have taken small-ship cruises to Antarctica through hellish storms report that nearly all the guests were curled in their beds, with buckets at their sides.
Habituation can reduce the effects, which explains why the crews of those Antarctic ships empty the guests’ buckets instead of filling them themselves. But most of us are not on the water in rough conditions often enough to get used to it.
To oversimplify, motion sickness occurs when the various systems in your body responsible for balance — your inner ear, eyes, bones, and muscles — are in conflict with each other. Let’s say you’re just sitting at a café on the middle deck of a mega cruise ship the size of an aircraft carrier. Your body feels stable. The surface of your cappuccino is placid. You have no view of the sea. But your inner ear registers subtle motion.
This conflict of inputs leads to a cascade of physiological actions, with alarm signals rushing through your brainstem, thalamus, and cortex, finally reaching the vomiting center and resulting in a powerful nausea.
Yes, medical sources call it the “vomiting center.”
What I’ve Tried For Sea Sickness
Because my strong tendency to motion sickness restricts my travel choices, I have diligently tried everything said to work by many others.
- Dramamine, Bodine, Marezine: All are powerful, widely available antihistamines. They knock me out. Worse, they provide little relief.
- The Transderm Scop patch: Widely considered the medical intervention that best balances positive benefits and negative side effects, it’s a prescription patch you wear behind your ear. I gave it a try on a cruise. It helped a bit on calm western Caribbean waters. But the patch made me dizzy and drowsy.
- Ginger ale, ginger candy, ginger supplements: Nope.
- Acupressure wrist bands: You must be kidding.
What Finally Cured My Motion Sickness
Recently, a friend and her new boyfriend Dean — a proud open-water sailor and owner of a 37-foot sailboat he keeps not far from Annapolis, Maryland — invited my lovely wife and me for an afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay.
We wanted to accept the social invitation. Winds were expected to be light, around 10 mph according to the National Weather Service, with waves up to 3 feet.
I told Dean about my delicate constitution, and he said, conspiratorially: Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
He assured me he had a medication all sailors use in Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Mediterranean — everywhere he sails. In most places, it’s available over the counter. While it’s an antihistamine, it doesn’t make you drowsy. Nobody Dean knows bothers with other treatments. It’s the go-to drug for the British Royal Navy.
The drug is called Stugeron, known generically as cinnarizine.
About half an hour before we motored away from the dock, he handed me a plastic-and-foil blister pack. Take one 25 milligram pill, he said. I did.
Miraculously: It worked.
For the first time, I was able to enjoy the water like a normal person. We spent a couple of hours rockin’ around the bay. I realize waves of 3 feet are not rough seas, but they were more than enough to have sent me unprotected into a stupor. Throughout, I was symptom-free. I was able to run ropes through pulleys and fasten them to cleats and so forth.
I was able to feel the breeze on my face and tug my hat against the wind, enjoying the view, the spray, and yes, even the constant bobbing up and down. The monster wakes generated by distant cargo ships didn’t faze me a bit.
Getting Your Hands On Stugeron
The FDA has stubbornly refused to approve Stugeron for sale in the U.S. This is because Stugeron is a calcium channel blocker. Those who take blood pressure medicine recognize this kind of drug can, in rare cases, lead to low blood pressure. The FDA ruled that this exposes too many people to risk allowing its use, even under a doctor’s supervision.
Many other nations’ medical agencies disagree. I am no doctor or medical expert, so I leave it to others to figure out if the FDA is right and everybody else is wrong, or vice versa.
But all this means my new sailing buddy Dean and I simply need to order Stugeron by mail from a Canadian pharmacy. (If you are at risk of low blood pressure, I recommend you educate yourself further before doing so.)
I placed an order. The pills arrived without incident. I feel like a new world of travel opportunities is open to me.
A gourmet small-ship cruise of the Baltic! A remote snorkeling adventure in Australia! A journey among the Greek islands! A small-ship voyage to Antarctica? Who knows?