Got Seasick? Scientists Confirm Staring at the Horizon Can Help

Monday, 07 February 2011

June 28 - July 16, 2003

Quick, what is the worst injury that a paddler could get while on the water? Is it a blister or a dislocated shoulder? Maybe, but I would put the argument out there that seasickness is one of the worst and also one of the most common plagues for paddlers.

If you have never had it then you don't know what you are missing. The dizziness, nausea and general fatigue from being seasick are a badge worn with pride by all who have had it. I kid people. I kid.

Seasickness is easily one of the worst things you can get on the water as it could happen to almost anybody and sometimes even in the slightest chop. If you do get sick your day is done and often requires the rest of the group towing you back to shore.

So what causes it? It's caused because your brain is confused by the input sensors giving it mixed messages. Your inner ear (which senses motion) is registering the boat going up and down while the paddler is looking at the boat or the waves which are not moving so much in relation to your body.

So how do you treat sea sicknesses? If you know you are susceptible then you can take drugs like Gravol or those fancy wrist bracelets that cruise ship patrons like to put on. The thing with sea sicknesses is that nothing really works well once it has set in.

The real goal is to try to keep yourself from becoming sea sick in the first place and with that, you need to keep your head up and looking around.

Since the dawn of time, sailors have said that you need to keep your eye on the horizon to mitigate the effects and it looks like science is finally catching up with that idea as well. In a recently published article in Psychological Science they found that staring at the horizon makes people steadier while at sea.

"It's the people who become wobbly who subsequently become motion sick" said Thomas Stoffregen, a cognitive scientist at the University of Minnesota.

In the study they measured how much people swayed back and forth both on land and while standing on a ship. They asked volunteers to stand on a force plate that measured the amount of natural sway while staring at either an object about 16 inches in front of them or to focus on the horizon. They then did the same measurements on a large boat.

What's weird about the results of the study is that on land the volunteers swayed more while staring at the horizon compared to the close-up object but the results were the complete opposite while standing on the ship. Staring at the horizon makes you considerably more stable on a ship.

So what does this mean? Keep your head up and you will naturally be a lot steadier (or at least your brain will think so) and somehow your brain is able to reconcile the conflicting sensor messages if you stare at something far away.

What I have observed over the years of teaching is that when beginner gets nervous in waves the first thing they will do is put their head down and either look at the boat or the waves. Remember, looking down is the fastest way to confuse your brain and that's quickest way into get sick. The second you do start to get the prickles of sea sicknesses you need to get your head up and staring at the horizon. You also should tell somebody and get to shore so you can take a break. Standing on shore for 10 minutes while your brain figures out what is going on is a whole lot better than spending the afternoon on shore because you tried to ignore it.

Last quick tip if you don't deal with it early. If you do find yourself puking while in a kayak don't ever attempt to lean out and puke off to the side of the boat. With your impaired balance there is a 100% chance you will end up rolling over into that puke. I know it's gross but puke on your spray skit. It can easily be washed off and you won't find yourself swimming in puke...

More info: Wikipedia [via]
Image Credit: June 28 - July 16, 2003, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from dylan_industries's photostream.

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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