Horizon stare still best option to find sea legs

By Mike Rose

Seasickness is no respecter of age, seamanship or size of ship, but staring at the horizon may still be the best treatment. Photo / Supplied
Seasickness is no respecter of age, seamanship or size of ship, but staring at the horizon may still be the best treatment. Photo / Supplied

There is little doubt that the dreaded mal de mer or seasickness is one of the worst and most debilitating of ailments that strike those trying to enjoy a day at sea.

It is a peculiar malady, seemingly attacking people at random.

Some of the worst boaties I have known - in terms of their ability, seamanship and knowledge of how things work - are the least affected by seasickness and can happily party on in the worst of conditions.

On the other hand, legendary offshore sailors such as Johnny Wray (of Ngataki and South Seas Vagabonds fame) and even Sir Peter Blake were known to be afflicted.

The malady not only shows little respect for reputations, it also pays no heed to the size of the vessel the afflicted are on.

Those who suffer can be affected on the biggest ocean liner, the most stable of pleasure boats or the smallest of dinghies or kayaks.

Remedies for those affected also differ widely.

For those of a more natural bent, tablets containing ginger are popular (indeed, I have seen these handed out like lollies on the tourist boats that cruise to Queensland's Great Barrier Reef).

For those seeking something stronger, there are pharmacy-only offerings that one takes in advance of a trip (sometimes even the night before). There are also devices that fit on the wrist; others that go behind an ear.

Each have their adherents - and those for whom they simply don't work - but all have one thing in common: they need to be taken or in place before the seasickness strikes.

So what are the options for those who have headed to sea unaware of the dangers or perhaps too "macho" to take precautions and who suddenly find themselves turning a little green around the gills?

For centuries, if not longer, the advice has always been the same: if you feel wobbly, if you feel queasy, keep your head up and keep your eyes on the horizon.

There are a number of theories as to why this works but luckily we won't have to wonder much longer.

It appears that a group of scientists in the United States has decided to study this phenomenon and has already made some preliminary reports.

The leader of the project, Thomas A Stoffregen of the University of Minnesota, has studied "body sway" for decades.

This is how much people rock back and forth in different situations (not just at sea) and what this has to do with motion sickness.

He and his co-authors, Anthony M Mayo and Michael G Wade, have found that in a normal situation, standing still, people move back and forth by about 4cm every 12 to 15 seconds. They then decided to check how this changes when their subjects are standing on a ship instead of on dry land.

To do this, Stoffregen made contact with the American consortium that runs scientific research ships and gained permission to join them as they travelled between various projects.

In his study, which has recently been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Stoffregen compared the sway of people standing on a dock in Guaymas, Mexico, with the sway of the same people aboard the ship.

In each experiment, the crew member stood comfortably on a force plate and focused on a target. This was either something about 400mm in front of them or a far-off point: a distant mountain when standing on land or the horizon when on the ship.

On land, the subjects of the study stood steadier when they looked at the close-up target and swayed more when they looked faraway.

However, on board the ship, the reverse was true: they were steadier when they looked at the horizon.

"This is actually counterintuitive," said Stoffregen.

"When you're standing on a ship, you need to adjust to the ship's movement or you'll fall over.

"So why would it help to look at the horizon and orient yourself to the earth?" He thinks the act of looking at the horizon may help stabilise the body by helping the mind differentiate between sources of movement: the natural movement coming from one's body and the movement caused by the ship.

He thinks this motion of bodies may also predict motion sickness.

"It's the people who become wobbly who subsequently become motion sick," he said.

Stoffregen admits that his research is still in its early stages and has so far focused solely on those who have spent a good deal of time at sea.

Nevertheless it appears that, once again, modern scientists are finding a way to prove something generations of sailors have known all their lives.

- NZ Herald

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