The misery I endured from sea sickness is far beyond what I ever guessed at. The real misery only begins when you are so exhausted that a little exertion makes a feeling of faintness come on – I found that nothing but lying in my hammock did any good.
If you have suffered this feeling, described by Charles Darwin on the Beagle, then you, too, have been a victim of la maladie de la mer, the dreaded seasickness.
Many experienced sailors have been affected by seasickness. Lord Nelson, for example, while on board HMS Amazon in 1801 wrote to Lady Hamilton in London, “My dear Emma, it blows so fresh today that I almost doubt if a boat will be able to get on shore with our letters… I shall write you every day if it is possible…” and then adds, “I am more than half sea-sick.”
Seasickness can have significant consequences. Nelson lost a battle (and an arm) after he was too seasick to lead an assault intended to capture the Canary Islands from the Spanish. Richard Lionhart, too, suffered from seasickness. After storms and seasickness in the Mediterranean during the early part of his return to England after the crusade to capture Jerusalem, he decided to return overland. While on land, Richard was captured to be released only after paying an enormous ransom.
During a recent night kayak trip, the ‘Sydney-by-Night’ trip from Manly Cove to Palm Beach, three of the five paddlers were mildly seasick.
The trip started at 12:30 am. Conditions were mild with a wind of 1-3 knots, varying randomly in direction, and a swell of 2-3 metres from the southeast. The chop around North Head required occasional bracing strokes.
What can budding trip leaders and novice paddlers learn from the trip? I interviewed each of the paddlers and here are their stories.
First, The Trip Leader Tells His Story
Apart from one impromptu trip during the Rock ‘n’ Roll weekend, this trip was Kevin M’s first as trip leader.
When did you first notice that paddlers were becoming seasick?
“Shortly after Turimetta Head, about half way between North Head and Palm Beach. The usually loquacious Kevin B had been quiet for a while and he answered questions with ‘yes’ and ‘no’, refusing to carry on a conversation. Also, Kevin B said that he did not need to eat or drink when pressed. About the same time, Paul began to reply to ‘How’s it going?’ with a half-hearted ‘Alright’ and his paddling pace began to slow perceptibly. I wasn’t aware that Alan had become seasick until we arrived at Palm Beach.”
What did you do then?
“Interestingly, group spread closed once the inset of seasickness had begun. There was no need to ask for reduced spread.”
“Once I knew of the seasickness, there was the possibility of either returning to land at Fisherman’s Bay or making a surf landing on a nearby surf beach. In the end, because the seasickness seemed to be mild, I decided to continue to Palm Beach.”
“I was in a double Mirage with Kevin B and so could monitor his condition readily. I considered offering a tow to Paul both to keep a check on his condition and because of his reduced speed but decided not to do so.”
Do you have any insights that you could offer the readers?
“I raised the possibility of seasickness in briefing notes circulated a few days before the trip. In addition, just prior to launching, I asked the paddlers to notify me as soon as they felt any discomfort but this was not taken up. Here is a lesson for trip leaders – recognise that you won’t be told about seasickness directly so concentrate on picking up the more subtle clues.”
Now The 2IC’s Report
This trip was Chris’s first trip as 2IC.
“In hindsight it was a bit of a steep learning curve for me. I must have seemed pretty cavalier in careering off by up to 100 metres in all directions! It seems universal to answer the question, ‘How are you feeling?’ with the answer, ‘Yeah, pretty good.’ It seems no-one wants to be the one to inconvenience the others. I have been guilty of that myself. So the first concrete sign to others of being a bit off-colour is the big heave ho. The subtler signs (decreasing conversation, declining pace, changing cadence, etc) I overlooked, thinking that the others in the group were close paddling buddies simply settling in together for the hard slog part. Seeing how grey the team was in the daylight certainly told a story, though. It’s a testament to their resolve that they kicked on.”
“I know in the trip leader’s briefing he said loud and clear that if anyone was crook they should have no hesitation in calling out. My (limited) experience with the spectrum of seasickness is that there is a big ‘off-colour’ range in that spectrum where you’re not 100% but not incapacitated either, so you grin & bear it. No-one wants to call stumps for simply being a bit off, but it really is a degenerating downward spiral from there sometimes.”
Next I Interviewed Kevin B, Alan & Paul
When did you first feel queasy on this night-time trip?
Alan: “I didn’t really feel nauseous until we were off Whale Beach, where I gave up the mental fight against being physically sick. I knew we were home and hosed by then so I just let myself go after Paul ‘coughed’ a couple of times next to me.”
Kevin B: “I started to show signs about 3:00 am. I was never too bad and felt certain that I had control of the situation. I was also getting cold and I was aware that my body temperature was too low but I did not want to stop and fiddle around trying to put a Cag on. I found that focusing on a distant light felt the best so this is what I did for the next two hours.”
Paul: “Towards the end of Narrabeen Beach (almost half way into the trip) I started feeling a little uneasy. I started the trip with my Cag on and had become hot once we rounded North Head and, as a result, had been drinking a bit of water. The seasickness wasn’t too severe, but I thought I’d better take it easy on the intake of water and food.”
Did the seasickness influence your paddling skills?
Alan: “The main effect of seasickness on the group was a reduction in paddling speed. My guess is the group was down about 30%, which would have been significant if we’d had to fight a headwind and/or current. The bit of rebound off North Head would have been rather interesting if we’d encountered it at the end rather than start of the paddle.”
Kevin B: “While I never had any doubts that I could make the distance, feeling off-colour certainly reduced my sense of balance. I felt physically better paddling harder and looking into the distance as far as possible. As for drinking, I was sipping on my drinking tube at regular intervals but taking only very small quantities.”
Paul: “I slowed down my pace, as I wasn’t drinking much water or taking any food, which I’d normally require after paddling for a few hours. Better to continue at a steady speed and not get too hot and need more fluids, or exhausted from lack of food. I don’t think my awareness of the swells or surrounding conditions was overly affected but my stamina was probably suffering.”
Would you do anything differently for the next night-time trip?
Alan: “The paddle was a bit of a downer for me (because of the seasickness), so in the future the main thing I’d do differently would be stick to sleeping on Sunday morning. If I did do an open water night paddle again I’d take a cue from Chris J and try ginger tablets as a seasickness remedy. I might also review my cold pizza pre-paddle carbo snack, as this probably didn’t help matters.”
“I wouldn’t have offered or taken a tow as conditions were mild, there were plenty of pull-out options, and we were only mildly affected by seasickness. I knew none of the group would willingly notify the trip leader when they felt a bit queasy – my experience of paddling in a group is that there’s a general reluctance to display perceived weaknesses such as this. I was really happy to have kept my sickness sufficiently under wraps such that Kevin M expressed surprise at the end of the paddle to learn of my affliction. It was a bit hard to hide my spray skirt burleying from Paul though, as he was paddling beside me at the time. The keep-it-under-wraps attitude may not be politically correct, but I don’t think it hurts to have to dig a bit deeper occasionally to complete a paddle. We’re not a macramé group after all.”
Kevin B: “The lessons I learnt were that two thermals plus a light tee shirt was not warm enough for an extended night-time paddle. I have paddled all winter with this setup as I prefer this to a Cag, but I was far too cold at night even though the temperature at 12.30 am was 18 degrees. Secondly I will try these ginger tablets next trip that I have now purchased and if they work I will keep them in my first aid kit for future trips at night. Thirdly having a stove to make a hot drink at Palm Beach was a great way to warm up.
“As far as notifying the trip leader of my condition I never considered it bad enough to pull out or even slow down. I never reached the stage of being physically sick or even really close but I would guess if the group speed reduced much more or we had had to stop for a while then I might have had a problem. For me I just needed to keep moving. “
“Oh and the best part of the trip was the sun coming up at 5.04 am. Looking at 3:00 am at a flood-lit trawler bobbing up and down to my starboard had done nothing for my stomach so I had turned to focus on the city lights on my port side. When the clouds out to sea were lit by the first rays of the sun, they formed the first steady objects to starboard that I could focus on. What a relief to be able to turn my head to starboard. It felt great!”
Paul: “I think a few hours sleep prior to starting a midnight to dawn paddle wouldn’t have been a bad idea. At the time I began to feel uneasy, sea conditions were becoming calmer, but if conditions had become rougher, if the wind speed had increased or if time had become an issue, the others in the group would need to have been aware of my seasickness.”
So there you have it, my budding trip leaders and hard paddlers, stories right from the paddlers’ mouths, as it were. The trip leader is running Sydney-by-Night II in March so step forward and take the opportunity to learn about night-time paddling. Good luck.