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