My love affair with offshore fishing began as a kid. We’d spend days off the Florida Keys, venturing out in search of diving birds, trash, and weed lines—the essential clues for finding mahi. Hours of trolling in sweltering heat were justified when a blue-green streak clobbered a skirted ballyhoo, line ripping from the outrigger, reel screaming as a hooked mahi ran wild. I also learned a lot about preventing and treating seasickness.
A few recurring traditions always accompanied our offshore trips. The first was Aerosmith. Specifically, the song “Walk This Way.” My dad blared it as we idled out through the canals on his 27-foot center console and we’d sing along, bobbing our heads, and throwing up the obligatory air guitar.
Second tradition: flying. As we ventured across the choppy waves, us kids would sit side by side on the large padded seat toward the bow, positioned on our knees. As the boat hit the crest of a wave, we’d launch high into the air so that, as the boat reached the trough, we’d free-fall back into the boat, laughing hysterically.
The memory of the third tradition isn’t as fond as the others: liquid ginger. My mom would always administer a few drops of the extract under my tongue. You know, the odd-shaped root plant that looks like a deformed potato. I despised the harsh, spicy taste. She said it was so I wouldn’t get seasick. As kids do, I took her protective tactics very much for granted at the time.
A Living Hell
It wasn’t until I entered adulthood (read: drinking age) that I began experiencing seasickness.
Imagine the wind blowing 13 knots. You’re 30 miles offshore, slow-trolling in 3- to 4-foot rollers—weather that can quickly turn nausea-inducing.
If you haven’t taken precautionary measures, chances are you’ll be on the deck before high noon. Once it hits, that low, gut-wrenching, ceaseless agony can only be described as hellish.
The common denominators to my worst seasick experiences are poor preparation and reckless celebration. Every time I’ve puked over the rail directly correlated with some type of celebratory occasion: bachelorette party, honeymoon, or catching my first marlin.
What Causes Seasickness?
Debates over the true cause of motion sickness continue among scientific communities, but significant research points to the theory of postural control—the ability to maintain equilibrium and orientation in a dynamic environment.
Thomas Stoffregen, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, argues that motion sickness comes from the brain’s persistent inability to modulate the body’s movements in challenging circumstances, according to an article in Scientific American.
It boils down to conflicting sensory input. Seasickness can occur when your brain gets mixed signals from your peripheral sources: inner ears, eyes, muscles, and tendons.
The inner ear processes movement of the head, while your eyes see from the position of the head. Tendons and muscles sense the rest of the body. If one says, “I’m standing still” and one says, “I’m in motion,” your brain tells your body to protest.
Throw in physical ailment, discomfort, gasoline scent, or scary sea conditions and your central nervous system can implode in a violent bout of vomiting.
Most of us aren’t thinking about neurophysiological functions when we set out to pursue dream game fish on the deep blue sea. While some factors are out of your control, like weather and fish behavior, prepare for your excursion in ways that you can control.
Here are a few tips that will go a long way in preventing seasickness. If you wait to make a plan until you’re chumming over the port side, it’s too late.
Prepare your body: The worst seasickness experience of my life took place off the Bahamas’ Abaco Island. I’d caught my first marlin the day before, followed by celebration featuring every drink from Pete’s Pub and Cracker P’s Bar—including the Bahamian equivalent of moonshine, served from a clear jug stuffed with leaves and twigs. Unfortunately, the seas were not in our favor on Day Two, and I paid for it eight times over.
Avoid excess alcohol. Being hungover on a big, rocking boat results in a ruined day. Get plenty of sleep the night before and avoid a heavy, greasy breakfast prior to heading out. Go for wholesome foods that settle well.
OTC methods of prevention: Plenty of anti-nausea solutions are sold over the counter at drugstores. Some people swear by acupressure bracelets or special patches worn behind the ear which are said to block nausea-inducing signals to the brain.
Oral medications such as Dramamine or Bonine are popular antihistamine drugs that alleviate nausea and vomiting. These drugs do, however, cause drowsiness, so you could find yourself the breathing equivalent of dead weight. That said, they work well for some people.
If you prefer natural remedies, ginger root liquid extract is the shit. It’s long been used in Chinese medicine as a remedy for motion sickness and stomachache, and I believe it’s the reason I never got seasick as a kid.
Behavior onboard: Focus on the experience at hand and the opportunity to catch fish. Try to avoid thinking about seasickness, as you might think yourself sick. Instead, enjoy the company, music, and scenery. Here are a few strategies to implement while hanging out on deck.
Keep a wide stance. According to Stoffregen, spreading your legs a foot or more wide increases the stability of the head and torso and decreases the incidence of motion sickness to about 20%. Seasickness tends to hit when the boat is idling or moving slowly, like when trolling, fighting, or rigging. Stay standing with a wide stance. Don’t fight the rock of the boat; lean with it.
Never ever hang out inside. Avoid the head, salon, cabin, or whatever the interior room the boat has, if any. If you’ve never been sick on a boat, this is your one-way ticket to puke city. Fresh air helps. Stale cabin air hurts.
What to do When the Feeling Hits
Sometimes, despite your most valiant efforts, the odds just aren’t stacked in your favor. If you begin experiencing those unpleasant, seasick sensations, here are a few tricks for alleviating the pain.
Regain your mind/body calibration: You need to get your bodily sensors speaking the same language. Keeping your eyes locked on the horizon can help provide a reference point for your senses.
Jump in the water for a few minutes. This completely removes the rocking boat from the equation and suspends your body in cool, refreshing saltwater.
Some people find it helpful to lay down on deck with a lifejacket as a pillow. Closing your eyes for a spell and allowing your mind to reset can do wonders.
Be nice to your stomach: If hungover, try taking activated charcoal pills. Often used in emergency rooms to treat poisoning or overdose, this natural supplement absorbs toxins in your body and carries the unwanted substances through the digestive system.
Try sipping a fizzy soda like ginger ale or Coke and eating dry food like crackers or chips.
As a ditch effort, the hair-of-the-dog is always worth a shot (pun intended). This tactic usually ends up one of two ways, but if you’re the gambling type, you’ll take 50/50 odds any damn day. At the very least, it can make for a good story when you get back on dry land.
When You Actually Throw Up
There’s no nice way to say it: full blown, body meltdown, seasickness puking sucks. Don’t worry about being embarrassed—chances are you’ll be ignored by everyone else on board who doesn’t want to call it quits and head in early.
Sometimes you can bounce back after releasing those toxins, but sometimes there’s a point of no return. Damn your pride and everyone else’s agenda, sometimes basic seasickness can turn into a greater threat to your health. Know when to draw the line and ask for a ride in.
Chumming in fish with your breakfast has happened to nearly everyone who spends time at sea. Those who go out regularly have typically figured out what works for them to prevent and treat it. Take precautions, learn from others, and you’ll have your sea legs in no time.