Seasickness – Train Your Brain – Part 1


sailing offshore

“I can’t go cruising…..I get seasickness, I’ll just stick to short trips”.


Everybody can get seasick, some just get it more than others. There are some rare, very lucky souls, who have never felt it – yet. And I say ‘yet’ because given the right situation, it can happen to anyone.

Getting seasick just as a great trip starts, as you head out for a coastal cruise or even a blue-water crossing, is really a bit like getting a hangover BEFORE the party even starts. The sick part comes first, before the enjoyment, but then, what fantastic enjoyment it is when the ‘hangover’ is over. When the mist and bleary wretched haze clears from your eyes and with a rush of blood to the legs the wobbles disappear and your sea legs arrive. You greedily suck the clean, crisp sea air into your lungs and savour it, throwing your head back from where it spent so many hours hanging over the gunnels to now feel the wind in your hair. Gone are the racking stomach cramps and suddenly your appetite is back, you want to eat, lots. You look out on the ocean, life is great and the previous 2 days’ desire to jump overboard and swim ashore seems a distant nightmare.

Yes, the good news is – you DO get over it. All professional sailors will agree, and of all the tens of thousands of miles of charter sailing trips I’ve taken guests on, every single person that ever got seasick always got over it. For some it was over in hours, whilst for others it took a full two days out at sea. Even with a lifetime spent on the ocean I myself may not get sick for ten thousand miles, then suddenly it may hit me just as I depart to cross an ocean or head to another country, but we ALL find that suddenly it is over.

I’m no “sea-salt” tough guy hero, but I have crossed many oceans, sailed through cyclones, raced internationally and done tens of thousands of sea miles as a professional in small boats. Years ago I regularly threw up with the best of them, but the cruising always made it worth it. Once I discovered the solution, I haven’t been sick in many years. I have lived on the ocean most of my life, and train my brain to deal with it now almost every single day.

Your Brain and Motion:

Lets start by understanding seasickness with a quick biology lesson.

Throughout life your brain has the job of interpreting information from eyes, ears, touch etc and translating it into ‘facts’. It then uses these ‘facts’ to make decisions for you. For example, if you tilt your head back, your inner ear, which has little hairs with sensor balls stuck on top of them, says to the brain “hey brain, these little balls on hairs are bending backwards”. At the same time, if your eyes are open they say to the brain, “I can see a ceiling”. “Aha!”, your brain would then say, “We see a ceiling and the little balls on hairs are leaning towards the back of my ear, so; FACT: we are leaning back. When your brain sends a ‘message’ to your eyes telling them to move in a direction, let’s say left, a copy of this command is duplicated in the part of the brain responsible for modelling it’s interpretation of the environment. If you tell your eyes to move left, the modelling section of the brain also received this command. The brain also uses input from your muscles and nerves, and analyse pressures from parts of your body to work out if you were looking up, falling backwards, lying back or leaning against something. Based on the many sensors, it then computes an accurate model of the world and makes decisions based on this. It may fling out your arms to balance you, or do something else. All this occurs subconsciously many thousands of times a minute. However, human ingenuity has progressed at a rate beyond that at which evolutionary adaptation of the brain can work…as explained below:

The confused brain and seasickness:

When you are accelerating, (eg in a car or airplane) these same little inner ear balance balls on hairs also lean backwards, exactly the same as when you are lying down. This time your eyes tell your brain that you are not lying down, ‘hey, look, we are going faster than that car’. Your brain decides a different reaction, it learns what to ignore and what to pay more attention to. It makes you tense up, lean forward, or do whatever it feels is necessary to compensate and to balance yourself.

But our brain is not set up for boating and flying. Airplane pilots need to rely on instruments when flying in bad weather, because their brains get confused about whether accelerating is actually climbing and whether the ground is here or there etc. In training, pilots get placed under a hood to confuse their brains by sending different signals to it by banking, accelerating, turning, applying yaw, roll etc and FACT; no pilot knows what is up or down, whether turning, spinning left or right. They get taught to not believe their brains and taught to believe the instruments, yet planes still crash because of this when pilots’ brains told them to do the wrong thing. The result is called Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT), which still accounts for 34% of crashes.

When you get on a boat, a lifetime of preconceived (sensible, logical land-lubber) notions and ideas that your brain has learned gets messed up, a bit like the pilots. Our brain gets in a real mess. The little hairs and balls say, “we’re going to the back, oops, no, the side, oops, no the back again and now leaning forward…” while the eyes are saying, “level is…my head left a bit, nope the wave is crooked, um, maybe right, nope too far, maybe left….” “we are speeding down a wave, oops up, oops we are in a trough…” and your body is swaying and rockling around and saying, “the pressure says we’re falling to the right”, but the eyes say, “nope we’re not, the boat is actually falling left and making you think I’m going right…” The brain receives all this and as fast as it tries, none of the data it receives matches anything it is used to dealing with. Because the movement we are seeing is not coming from the movement of the eye muscles, there is no copy of the movement sent to the modelling section of the brain. There for the model of the world that our brain is producing does not accurately match up with what our sensory data is sending us…and you thought solving a rubik’s cube was complicated…

If it was a computer it could just throw up the dreaded blue screen of death, and then tell you, “All data has been lost, please restart”. You – on the other hand, just ‘throw up’. No blue screen, you look more grey than blue. And the ‘restart’ can take days.

Train Your Brain

Now that we understand how this all works we are able to work out a solution. And it’s really easy. We just need to “train” our brain. Go out boating regularly, for short trips on calm water and then as it learns, go out in rougher and rougher conditions and longer trips. Train it. The remarkable thing about the brain is it’s plasticity. While your brain is learning, keep close to a shoreline and keep looking at the land and horizon as much as possible so at least it has one thing it knows is not moving, whilst it learns to process the other things. It will eventually learn to ignore certain inputs and rely on a “fuzzy” mix of inputs – and you will have your sea legs! I’ve tried this on many people and it works far better than any short term sea-sickness cures. Admittedly however, it’s not as instant as some medications or remedies. And our brains have terrible short term memory in this area, so to keep it up to date and to keep our sea-legs we have to keep boating, regularly, and in the conditions we want to avoid sea- sickness in. Many a Sydney to Hobart sailor has discovered that a year of weekend sails in the harbour with no sea-sickness mean nothing when the swells of Bass Strait are reached (or retched?).

As a kid I felt sea-sick on the swing – and I still do. So I sit on a swing until I get the wobbles, then get off, then do it again, and again. And it goes away. Its training the brain to accept it. Small doses.

Seasickness – Instant Cure

Training may work in the long term, but what do you do when you are out there and suddenly feel queasy?

Want INSTANT relief? Try these;

Natural Remedies:
1) Steering the boat works faster and better than any remedy – FACT. And the reason is Anticipation and Riding. Yes, with anticipation the brain can start focusing, anticipating the waves, riding the waves, feeling the sway, the up and down or whatever else is happening, if you do this, your seasickness will be reduced immediately. Don’t fight the waves, get in the rhythm and the sooner your body and mind and ocean get in rhythm, the sooner seasickness goes.

2) Ginger (real ginger not just biscuits) taken before you leave works for some, and works even better when taken with peppermint. works at stopping vomiting, and even if it doesn’t stop the nausea, at least your breath smells better !





We all hate getting seasick. NASA scientists have been working on this problem for decades, and after all is said and done, and I have analysed countless studies and experiments; the very best they can come up with is still what my Indonesian boat man used to tell seasick guests, “it be ok soon, you need go on boat lots more…”. You can’t expect to run a marathon if you rarely even run a mile. Getting out on the water in rough conditions to condition yourself is the maritime equivalent of the high altitude mountaineer acclimatising his or herself to low pressure and low oxygen by doing ‘easy’ climbs at high altitude before going for the target summit.

So to all those armchair boaters reading this, if you get sea sick – you NEED to get out there, get sea sick and get into brain training!

If you go boating more, you get seasick less – and that’s a FACT.

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