Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, July 5, 1999

How to avoid
a very popular
holiday illness

OF all the summer holidays, July 4th seems to be the one that moves the most boat owners to go sailing. By the 4th, it's warm enough to want a break from the sizzling city, there are parties in and around the harbor and we're tired of friends complaining that we never take the boat out anymore.

It's a great idea except for one major problem: Nearly everyone gets seasick.

I vividly remember one sailing trip I planned for some foreign friends to show them a true American Fourth of July. I bought hot dogs, made potato salad, and off we went downwind to Keihi Lagoon. It was a great day of swimming and eating until we had to sail home, upwind. In no time, my friends were losing their hot dogs over the side and deploring America's independence.

Another Fourth of July weekend, I took a few friends to Lanai. We all started in the cockpit, then one by one, each retreated below to lie down. Soon, my husband and I heard familiar sounds. We found one friend, Beth, lying on the floor near the toilet.

"What can I do for you?" my husband asked.

"Kill me," Beth replied. "Please."

Even if they beg for it, don't kill your seasick friends, because if you do, you soon won't have any friends at all. A whopping 90 percent of humans get seasick as do most cats, dogs, rats and other mammals.

The exact reasons are unclear but medical researchers agree the affliction comes from sensory confusion in the brain.

Humans (and animals) have sensors that constantly provide the brain with information about the outside world. These sensors -- the eyes, organs of the inner ear, and structures in joints, tendons and muscles -- work together to keep the body in balance.

A heaving boat mixes the signals these sensors receive. The eyes, for instance, register stability, but the others detect movement. For many people, this results in nausea and vomiting.

One theory is that this is an evolutionary adaptation against poisoning. Many toxins disrupt nerve communication and produce sensory confusion. Vomiting eliminates the offending toxins.

THERE'S good news and bad news about treating seasickness. One piece of good news is that no one dies from seasickness. Although you might feel like you're dying, or wish you were dead, the brain eventually accepts the tilting boat as normal and stops sending vomit signals. However, this may take time, sometimes days. While your brain is adapting, lie down, close your eyes and drink small sips of water.

More good news is that there are drugs that help. Those sticky patches you paste behind the ear are back on the market. (They were unavailable for years due to manufacturing problems.) The patches contain scopolamine, which seeps into the skin and decreases or even eliminates nausea.

Other remedies are over-the-counter antihistamines and ginger root, either raw or in capsules. Try these alone or together.

The bad news is that most drugs have unpleasant side effects such as dry mouth, sleepiness and a drugged feeling. Also, some people are so sensitive to motion that nothing can make boating a good experience. I have a friend who can't even sit on my boat in its slip or at a calm anchorage without feeling sick. Those types should swear off boats forever.

I've learned my lesson. This Fourth of July, I invited friends to my boat in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor where we left it tied firmly to the pier. We watched the fireworks on a stock-still deck and everyone's hot dogs stayed where they belonged.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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