Sea Sickness

If you are a fellow sea sickness sufferer then you have my sympathy. Of all forms of motion sickness, it's 'mal de mer' that gets me the worst.

And I'm far from alone - studies have shown that the majority of people get sick in heavy seas. Then there are the poor souls who get sick even on the calmest of seas. It all adds up to an awful lot of trips dreaded, and cruises ruined!

If you're planning on taking a cruise, don't miss my special tips for Preventing Sea Sickness on Cruises!

So, what can we do to prevent sea sickness?

Well, there are two steps to this - firstly planning and preparing for your trip, and secondly what to do and how to behave when you're actually on board. Let's start with the things you can do before you even step onto the boat.

Preparing for your trip

Research what kind of boats / ships serve the route you want to take. On shorter, or more minor routes there probably won't be a choice, but in many cases there may be a variety of types and sizes of vessels available.

Larger boats and ships are generally more stable and therefore the better bet (but see boxed text below). Alternatively you may prefer to minimize your exposure by choosing fast services such as those offered by a hydrofoil or catamaran. Catamarans have the added advantage of 'cutting through' the waves rather than riding the swell. This pattern of motion doesn't suit everyone, but some people will find it a relief.

Are big ships better for sea sickness sufferers?

Larger ships usually have two or more stabilizer fins on the hull which largely eliminate the side-to-side rocking motion. However, it's not as simple as 'the bigger the boat, the smaller the risk of sea sickness'. Every boat and ship moves through the water in its own particular way - some may affect you badly, and some may be just fine. Unfortunately, how your body will react to a particular pattern of movement is unpredictable, and so you'll have to discover your own individual tolerances by trial and error.

Another important thing is to choose your sailing time carefully (assuming, of course, that you have a choice). At certain times of year - for example in the Mediterranean Sea - there tend to be strong winds by day which die down at night. In that case a night sailing would obviously be preferable.

Likewise, those planning a cruise in the Caribbean would be well advised to avoid the hurricane season (see notes for cruising).

General tips for preparing for a trip on water are really the same as for other forms of transport - see my Basic "Dos and Don'ts" for Preventing Motion Sickness.

Getting a good night's sleep before your trip is really important, as is being well hydrated. Avoid alcohol! As countless hapless travelers have discovered - the only thing more hellish than violent sea sickness is violent sea sickness coupled with a hangover...

On board - what to do / how to behave

First of all, whatever kind of boat or ship you're on, it's always better to be on deck in the fresh air rather than down in the stuffy, and possibly smoky, saloon. If you do need to be inside, however, then the center of the ship, down near the waterline, is the most stable area - this is where you'll experience the least roll (side-to side), pitch (up and down) and yaw (change of direction from side-to-side) motions (uggh - I actually feel slightly nauseous just writing that sentence!)

When up on deck, stay around the center of the boat or ship, or move towards the front if engine fumes are a problem. Don't be tempted to go higher than the main deck as the movement of the ship is greater the higher you go. Some people have to face forwards (in the direction the boat is moving) in order to feel comfortable, but I find great relief in having the wind on my face. Of course, if you think you are actually going to vomit, ensure the wind is on your back or things will get particularly nasty!

Keep your eyes on a distant stable object, the coastline or the horizon. If it is dark, and you're lucky enough to have a clear night, try using the moon or a bright star. Move your head as little as possible, and don't look down at the waves! Work with the motion of the ship instead of tensing your body and fighting against it. A friend of mine recommends 'dancing': in other words, let the movement of the ship control how you move. This isn't as crazy as it sounds as matching your movements to those of the ship will help your brain adjust to the sensory information it is receiving. You may look a little crazy, but if you can persuade a friend to join you it could even be fun... But if dancing is a step too far for you, then just relax into the motion of the ship. Hold on to a rail or pillar and just let your body sway and move together with the ship.

Controlling your breathing and keeping your mind occupied can be a great help too - combined with relaxing into the motion of the ship, this has helped me survive even the roughest trips!

If you're lucky enough to be on a ship with a pool then you may well find that getting into the pool and swimming underwater will give you immediate relief. This seems to be something to do with the water equalizing the pressure on your ears. Similarly, if you have a cabin with a bath, then lying in water deep enough to cover your ears may help too.

If you can't go out on deck (because of the weather, or because there is no deck access), then find a place with good ventilation. Stay away from anyone wearing strong scent, or eating strong smelling food - both powerful sea sickness triggers.

You may feel like curling up in a corner, but it's important to stay away from enclosed spaces as they'll just make you feel even worse. On cruise ships elevators are especially to be avoided! Of course, if you have a cabin or comfortable seat and can sleep, then do!

Short of sleeping, whether you should lie down or not seems to be one of those things that depend entirely on you as an individual. Some people insist that the only way to beat sea sickness is to be up and walking around, but personally I find it a great help to lie down and close my eyes when things get really rough. Lying on the floor once got me through a stormy ferry crossing in the Baltic Sea. As ever with motion sickness, it's a case of finding what works for you. If lying down gives you relief, then do it - even if it means lying on a grubby carpet. If not, don't.

Finally, sailors' lore says that tying a bandana or strip of fabric tightly around your head prevents sea sickness. Personally I think it's more likely to give you a headache, but if you've tried everything else you might want to experiment.

On longer trips the good news is that your body should start to adjust to the motion of the boat at some point within 24-72 hours as you 'get your sea legs'. Sea sickness will then be just an unpleasant memory... for that trip, at least!

Check out my general "Dos and Don'ts" for preventing motion sickness and sea sickness, plus options for remedies, treatments and medication.


Trevor on January 19, 2014:
Do you have any advice on traveling on a hydrofoil - a four hour journey (yuck) - thank you
Paul F on November 4, 2014:
Hello, my problem is that I love my fishing and when the boys go on a trip I'm left behind. Can you help me?
halef bay on January 16, 2015:
Hi I am happy to see this page. I am student of maritime faculty. I will be Captain, now I am deck cadet. I have spent time on ships and I realized that I have sea sickness during my sea training. I have lived difficult times when everyone on ship eat, I can not even think eating. It is the worst thing in the world. I have to do this job after 2 weeks later I am going to go to ship again for sea training. I will stay on ship for 8 months. My ship will pass oceans and in oceans you can see very big storms that can kill me :) because of sea sickness. Please tell me what should I do. Thanks for your attention.
Oakleaf on January 22, 2015:
As someone who gets really grim nausea when a passenger, I was very worried about having to cross the Irish Sea [infamous for roughness] twice in one day, as we were freighting a large and fragile item. I get nauseated in vans, too, and knew that I'd be spending 8hrs in a van.
Sometimes I don't bother with motion sickness meds, and the dreaded nausea comes on so badly that I just have to sit so still, not talking, not moving my head, and by this stage, taking meds for nausea is almost useless. So for the Irish trip, I researched, and the drug that appeared to come top was ''Transderm Scop'' that adheres to the skin behind the ear.
My doctor was willing to prescribe it [UK] and on the morning of travel [I had to do a day's work before the journey to Ireland] I put on the little patch.
What was unusual, the work journey [40 mins] usually has me feeling a bit sick, but this time I was able to swivel round, chat to those sitting behind, and no nausea at all!
Then, later that evening, we had to do the Port journey. Again, no nausea.
The ferry forecast said ''moderate to rough'', but although I was nervous at first, I didn't feel sick at all... the only side effects were a dry mouth.
After many hours of journeying, I returned home, and felt an odd sensation of the floor moving like I was still on the ship [but have had this before]... it is a little strange, but nothing to do with the drug.
Personally, despite it being the ''same active ingredient'' as ''Kwells'', I found the patch less stupefying. I did buy some ''Sea Bands'' for use on short journeys, and used them once, and was very disappointed to find the usual grim nausea begin in earnest. Not sure why they didn't work on me. I did have them positioned correctly [I think] but they just felt a bit uncomfortable... tight. Will try them again, on a short journey, as the drug free part of these appeals.
Anonymous on July 24, 2015:
I've always been bad in cars and sometimes get motion sickness on winding roads even when I'm driving. Several times per year I travel on a ship and got badly seasick the first time. The first trip I took ginger-based anti-seasick tablets and I found they are next to useless (for me at least). Now I normally don't like to recommend products by name as it sounds like I'm biased but I heard that anti-seasick tablets called Kwells here in Australia were better. I tried them and they worked. With each trip I've lessened the dose and now I can do the 12 hour trip without any tablets or sometimes just one if the weather is bad. That's after only about 10 x 12-hour trips. The active ingredient is hyoscine hydrobromide so it may be available under different brand names in other countries. The only thing I recommend is having a tablet a day or more before the trip to get used to the effect they have. They tend to make it feel like you're on a boat when you're on dry land - you feel the ground moving. I also wouldn't advise piloting a boat (or any other vehicle) while on these tablets as they do make you very drowsy. Overall, I love travelling on boats now and am planning on buying my own.
Henry Mora on July 26, 2018:
I am an Open Water Swimmer. Typically doing Tri-Athlons with a one mile swim. Lately I can't block the feel of the swells while swimming in Lake Michigan. I've had Dry-Heaves plus had to learn to puke while breathing out. Once did a swim meet with a prescribed medication. It nearly put me to sleep while swimming.
Thomas Clarence on May 5, 2021:
This summer, my wife and I are planning on traveling internationally and we are wanting to go on a whale cruise at some point during the trip. It was really helpful when you mentioned that standing in the center of the boat can help prevent seasickness. My wife gets motion sick pretty easily, so I will have to remind her to stand in the middle of the boat during the whale cruise.

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