Seasickness: how island residents deal with rolling bellies on the ferries

Mon, 06/15/2009 - 4:15am

06/13/09 - When the surf’s up, the Block Island ferries rock with the waves, and seasickness can spread across the cabins and decks like the common cold in winter. And, like the common cold, there is no absolute remedy for everyone who is afflicted, nor a real scientific explanation for why some get it, and others don’t., a natural products website, points out that the word nautical is derived from the Greek word “naus” for ship. It also notes that the word nausea is also derived from “naus.” Seasickness apparently has afflicted mariners since the dawn of civilization.

Tiffany Hewitt, who has worked the ferry snack counter winter and summer in good weather and bad for 12 years, says she has never been seasick. Nor, says island resident Kay Lewis, has her husband Keith, a retired chief engineer in the merchant marine.

Perhaps old salts have stronger stomachs than the rest of us. Merrill Slate never experiences motion sickness anymore, although decades ago when he was in the Coast Guard in rough areas of the North Atlantic, he says he got sick two to three times a week. He curbed his food consumption at those times. When he first returned from his hitch, “I was woozy even in an automobile. I had to stop to rest.”

But others step aboard the ferry for the first time and succumb. Recently, a musician who’d worked onboard a cruise liner off California and Mexico for six years had his first bout of the illness on his way to the island to perform for the Block Island Health Center’s fund-raiser. He arrived on the ferry in late afternoon, climbed the stairs to his room and didn’t emerge again until the next morning.

Although most people recover within a few hours, or overnight, every year several tourists are taken by ambulance to the Medical Center after a severe bout of the seasickness.

In our stomachs or ears?

Motion sickness is usually explained as a problem that originates not in our bellies but in our inner ears. According to the Cleveland Clinic website, it is a result of “the brain receiving conflicting messages about motion and your body’s position in space.” This difference in what the eyes report and the inner ear perceives results in nausea, lightheadedness and dizziness.

But Tom Stoffregen, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, does not agree. He says if this were true, most of us would be sick much more of the time, and places like Disneyland would be a nightmare rather than fun. He hypothesizes that the movements of people who become motion sick are different from those who don’t, and has designed research to test this. In an article on the University of Minnesota newspaper website, Stoffregen says those more prone to motion sickness tend to walk weirdly, stagger and wriggle as the discomfort comes on.

Stoffregen, whose interest in the subject stemmed from wanting to know why some astronauts got sick and others didn’t, also says that science also hasn’t determined why motion sickness results in vomiting.


One common bit of advice is to concentrate on the horizon and go outside for fresh air. Another is to take an over-the-counter remedy like Dramamine or Bonine.

However, many of us who travel back and forth on the frequently rocking ferries have our own strategies. Although Keith Lewis never suffers from motion sickness, his wife Kay does, and she treats hers with a bottle of beer, which she thinks might just make her sleepy enough to ignore the discomfort.

Sara McGinnes and a number of other island residents lie down on ferry benches and sleep. The belief behind this, some say, is that the stomach acid bounces up against the wall of the stomach instead of traveling up the esophagus. Unfortunately, the ferries are often too crowded during the tourist season to find space to lie down, and the Carol Jean now has dividers throughout the cabin.

“Go to the back of the boat,” Monty Stover advised a summer medical resident who called him from the ferry. Monty, who is the Medical Center’s executive director, said the ill young doctor was sitting in the front of the boat where the motion is the worst.

Island resident Becky Ballard, who has suffered from acute seasickness, likes the over-the-counter drug Bonine because it doesn’t make her drowsy. Her advice: “find the steps that go down to the car deck inside the ferry. Prop open the door so the breeze comes up the steps, and sit on the steps away from all the other folks who feel sick.”

Ginger is an old folk remedy for treating nausea. Island resident Janet Merritt usually takes a capsule or two before she boards the ferry, but she claims it helps even if she takes it while under way.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that ginger is effective for nausea, including a study with 644 patients that tested the effectiveness of ginger to alleviate the nausea associated with chemotherapy treatment. The patients taking the ginger started three days before the treatments, and those taking the ginger in addition to their usual anti-nausea medications reported fewer and less severe symptoms. The authors of the study, which was featured on, even think that drinking ginger ale would be effective for motion sickness, provided there is real, not artificial, ginger in the drink.

Part-time island resident Bruce Allen carries a kit with three remedies: ginger gum, a battery-operated relief band that sends jolts of electricity to pressure points in his wrist, and Motioneaze, an oil he learned about from friends who are frequent sailors. This oil contains lavender, peppermint, birch, frankincense, myrrh, and ylang-ylang, a tree that is native to the Philippines. Bruce rubs the Motionease behind his ears. If all these remedies fail, he opens his laptop at a table and concentrates.

Once off the boat, if you are still suffering from the effects of the ride, Dr. Janice Miller, co-medical director of the Block Island Medical Center, advises that the best remedy is sleep.