Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . On the Wind . The science of seasickness is something sailors know

The science of seasickness is something sailors know

2011 July 18

For many years, She Who Must Be Obeyed has been trying to get a scientific grant. About what you ask? Well, she doesn't really care, except that she has two essential criteria.

First, it has to be a really big grant. Think something along the lines of the biggest Powerball Lotto ever won.

Second, it has to be really easy. Something requiring, oh, 15 minutes a day would be acceptable.

SWMBO has, I'm sorry to report, missed out on several great opportunities and I've had to speak to her firmly about this. She missed getting the grant that proved conclusively that smokers have less money because they buy cigarettes. I'm cutting her some slack on that one because she doesn't smoke. 

She also didn't get the grant to study women's sexuality in Biblical times, which is a topic of concern among many of our friends, and she completely overlooked the grant proving the longer the ambulance ride to the emergency room, the more likely you are to die. 

But I am particularly miffed that someone else received a grant to produce a study titled, "Postural Effects of the Horizon on Land and Sea." At first glance by those uninitiated in the mumbo-speak of the grant world, that might be about whether you slouch while looking at the horizon.

Au contraire!

In this study, published in Psychological Science, which, not surprisingly, is the journal for the Association of Psychological Science, the abstract cuts quickly to the chase. Quote: "Motion of a ship at sea creates challenges for control of the body." 

Well, duh. A lifetime of bruises, lumps and scrapes attests to the fact that when you're punching upwind in big seas, you have trouble controlling your body. There are times, being tossed out of a bunk or struggling up a tilted companionway, that I've had no body control at all.

But here's the best part: "Anecdotal reports suggest that the body can be stabilized by standing on the open deck and looking at the horizon."

Are you kidding me? Everyone as far back as those cavemen venturing out on tippy rafts knows that you're less likely to hurl your lunch of mastodon cutlets if you just look at the horizon. 

Eight gazillion bazillion sailors know this. But, and here's the catch: only Thomas A. Stoffregen of the University of Minnesota School of Kinesiology, managed to snag a grant to prove it. 

If that doesn't make you nuts, here's the frosting on the cake.  He did the testing while cruising the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Not only did he bag the money, but he got out of Minnesota in the winter. A double score!

The good researcher has been studying "body sway" as related to motion sickness for decades, considering how much people rock back and forth in different situations. He's found that most people sway about 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) every 12 to 15 seconds. 

I'm sorry that he didn't consult with me or include some of my sailing buddies (Jon, Eric, you know who you are) because we've had decades of practice with body sway, usually at the club bar after the trophy presentation. I concur with Stoffregen that we start at about a 4-centimeter sway, but with the application of certain medications, it isn't long before our swaying is considerably more than that, often concluding with no sway when horizontal on the floor.

I did learn (for future reference) that a study needs photography to support the thesis and conclusion. In this case, the study has photos of the crew/lab rats standing on a dock in stocking feet with their hands in their pockets while staring at the far horizon. I was particularly impressed that there was an arrow on the photo with the notation "horizon" to indicate where it was for those who have never seen one before.

Stoffregen isn't alone, however. Dr. Patricia S. Cowings, a research psychologist with NASA, has been working on motion sickness as well. Known to astronauts as the Baroness of Barf, it seems she has her work cut out, because half our astronauts suffer from some form of space-hurl. 

I thought it was bad when I got seasick at the top of a 60-foot mast during an ocean race and, yes, I felt really sorry for the guys on deck. But I wasn't stuck in a space helmet. Ick!

Dr. Cowings has published her research in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, in which she compares the effectiveness of an anti-nausea injection with taking deep breaths of fresh air and, ta-da, deep breathing seems to work. Duh. 

To be fair, the deep breathing is part of biofeedback training for the astronauts but, in grant jargon, I have empirical evidence to share. After hanging upside down in the bilge trying to get a smelly diesel engine to start while our boat was rolling in long swells, I can report that sitting on the lee rail taking very deep breaths of fresh sea air prevented a Technicolor yawn. I don't remember if I looked at the horizon.

She suggests two seconds of inhale and two of exhale. That's about the right time, according to my anecdotal data. One Mississippi, two Mississippi is good anti-puke timing.

So there we are.  Stoffregen got some bucks and a midwinter vacation for his study, Cowings is using our tax dollars. One found that looking at the horizon helps quell quease. The other says take deep breaths. 

So. How about "An Empirical Examination of The Effects of Quercus Arboreal Ensconcement on Motion Nausea." 
It means sitting under an oak tree.
Big bucks, I think.