The Seasick Paddler

If you have been seasick then you know how it feels. If you haven't, you may think you know how it feels. Those of us who have gotten sick know that we wish for death, because it would be a welcome relief. Those watching from the outside know we are sick, but cannot appreciate how incapacitating it can be. I raise this point, because a seasick paddler changes the days paddle. In addition, there are precautions and strategies that you may wish to consider if you find yourself with a seasick paddler in your group.

I am NOT a medical expert on seasickness. However, I am an expert at being seasick. For the ten plus years I taught Scuba diving, I was sick on every boat trip to the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara (I went out at least three times a month.) When I started kayaking along the SB coast, I was sick on every trip for 6 months. I went out a few times a week. Due to my desire to pursue these sports I learned to endure. I also learned a lot about being sick.

I will share with you what I have learned from my field experience with seasickness as a victim and as an instructor/guide. Most people have not gotten sick enough times to develop techniques for getting sick. The smart ones stay off of the water or find drugs that work for them. Due to my passion for being on the water and under it, I stayed the course while being sick. I hope this information will help other instructors and guides who do not have practical experience in this area.

There are exceptions to the rule, but I have found, once someone gets seasick they need to get off of the water. My two greatest concerns with a sick paddler are capsizing while they are vomiting and the other is staying upright while heading back to shore.

Anyone who has ever vomited knows that during the regurgitation process your normal breathing is interrupted. When your trunk muscles contract you are not able to inhale. However, after you do expel the contents of your stomach you usually feel a need for a big breath. Imagine if you leaned over the side of your kayak to vomit and you capsized in the process. Do you think you would have the control to hold your breath and not inhale while you were under the water? If you have that kind of control great. If not, you may suffer severe consequences. The protocol I developed for our classes and trips was to educate the paddlers when and how to vomit if they did get sick. I will discuss prevention later in the article.

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I know some instructors avoid the topic out of fear of getting the group paranoid about sickness and possibly causing someone to get sick because it was a topic of discussion. I prefer a proactive approach by making a brief statement with some suggestions for prevention and safety. If the class/trip is taking place on the open ocean, then pre-trip info suggests motion sickness medication for those who know they are prone to it. I am not a pharmacist so I do not dispense the medication nor do I steer a student to any particular brand or device.

When the group meets at the beginning of the day I ask, "Is anyone prone to motion sickness?" If I get a yes I ask, "Are you taking any preventative measures?" Depending on the medication, some of them need to be taken a few hours before the motion begins. I then make the next statement to the entire group. "The best way to prevent motion sickness is to watch the horizon and not focus on the deck of your kayak. If you begin to feel seasickness coming on please call one of the staff over to you. If you find you are getting sick and need to vomit please do so directly on your spray skirt. It is important that you DO NOT LEAN OVER THE SIDE OF YOUR KAYAK to do it. Try to let us know you are going to be sick and we will come as quickly as possible to stabilize your kayak." It is very easy to wash any debris off of the spray skirt when you are surrounded by water. As a side note, if you do not have a strong stomach you should not be the one stabilizing. In any case, I suggest the stabilizer be behind the sick paddler with their head turned away while they hold the kayak.

I specifically do not say at the pre-launch meeting that you will be taken ashore if you are sick. Some folks would rather hide their symptoms, until it is too late, because they don’t want to end their trip. I would rather the individual share their symptoms early, because we may be able to help.

After seeing lots of paddlers get sick, I can usually tell when someone is starting down that terrible road. When I see the signs, the closest staff member is directed to help the paddler. We first establish if they are getting sick. If yes, we encourage them to drink some water and focus on the horizon. We also suggest that they keep moving. If necessary we tell them to paddle around the group if we are taking a break. We also try to cool them down with some cool water on the face and neck. It appears that some cases occur when they are over dressed (just an observation). We also reiterate to vomit on their skirt if they need to do so.

Our actions will be based upon the symptoms and desires of the paddler. If it is a mild feeling we see if the cooling down, paddling and watching the horizon works. If it gets worse it is my policy to get that person to shore as quickly as possible. If they can paddle on their own we will paddle next to them. If not, we will do a one on two tow so there is a kayaker stabilizing the sick paddler's boat. It is important to have a bail out plan for every point on the trip to reduce the time the seasick paddler needs to suffer. If a seasick paddler is too dizzy to stay upright on their own, then having someone to stabilize them becomes a necessity. Having a double kayak on a trip allows more options. In addition, you may wish to consider having a set of "Sea Wings" on your group trips. They can add additional stability to a kayak (see USK article "Sea Wings Recoveries and Uses").

The biggest problem is when to decide to get that person off of the water. It is not a clear-cut answer. Most folks want to get off the water. However, embarrassment causes complications in the early stages of being sick. Some paddlers don’t speak up soon enough, which could mean the difference of getting sick or warding it off. Once a paddler is really sick, self-image is rarely an issue, because they don’t care about anything except getting off of the water or suicide. I find it is best to get them off the water before they get to the "leave me to die stage." If you have established a good enough rapport with the group, most will take your advice to head to shore. It is the stubborn ones that cause the most problems. I have met very few paddlers who can continue with the group while being very sick and not be a burden to the group. Ultimately it can become a safety issue. There are times I have had to say, I need you to get to shore for your safety and that of the group." This is for the paddler who is holding the group up because they are sick and refusing to cut their trip short.

The greatest concern I have with seasick novices (ones that don’t know how horrible it can get) is they think they can do it, but find out they cannot. As a professional educator I sometimes ask myself, "Is this a lesson that can be taught?" Maybe it is, but when I am in a group setting I have other priorities. As mentioned earlier, I want to get them off of the water.

Another complication is the temporary relief ones feels after they vomit. It is very common for the paddler to say, "I feel much better know. I do not need to go ashore." They do feel better at that moment. I have learned from repeated experiences the episode of relief is a short one. The high percentage of cases has shown me the sickness returns and does so with a vengeance. When someone tells me they are feeling better after they just threw up their breakfast, I ask them to drink some water while I tell them they will escorted to shore. I use the opportunity to let them paddle rather than waiting until they are sick again and need to be towed. I encourage drinking water for two reasons. One is to reduce the dehydration factor. Second is to have something in the stomach to throw up if they get sick again. If you have ever experienced "dry heaves" you can appreciate my concerns.

There are some paddlers who are passionate about their seasick prevention medicines/techniques. Since we all respond differently I will not recommend any particular one. The over the counter medications seem to be most widely used by paddlers, but they do tend to make one drowsy, so driving to and from the launching point can be a problem since some of them need to be taken and hour or more before. There is a prescription patch that you can get from your doctor. Believe it or not I have seen paddlers get success with the pressure bands on the wrist or sucking on a piece of ginger. I am sure there are other preventative methods. In terms of having a reliable medication/technique that works after the paddler is seasick, I have yet to hear of one other than getting on stable ground. I am not a big fan of dispensing medications. If you decide to give out medications you better know what you are doing and know what the victim is also taking and how the medications will interact.

For those who always get sick there is hope. I thought I would never get what is commonly referred to as "sea legs." After those six months of paddling and getting sick, my seasickness stopped coming. My body got accustomed to the motion. However, even after getting my sea legs I had a few instances where I became queasy. The closest to getting sick was a result of trying to fix someone's foot pedals in rough seas. I had my head in their cockpit with my head tilted to the side. I was fine one minute and then in an instant I felt my old nemesis coming back. I sat up instantly and watched the horizon. I had someone else fix the pedals. I was on the edge of getting sick for the rest of the day. Drinking water, splashing water on my face, watching the horizon and moving kept me from full sickness. I believe, if you want it badly enough you will get your sea legs. As a side note, the medications didn't work for me.

For those who do not get sick, count your blessings and be kind to those who do. For those who do get sick, I think it is worth it to hang in there until you get your sea legs. For the instructor/guides, I suggest you be proactive in addressing the issue of seasickness with your clients. In addition, it is imperative to know the closest bail out point for any location on your route.

Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition, Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.

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