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What Do You Do With a Seasick Sailor?

<i> Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month. </i>

“If there’s any one thing in the world that will make a man peculiarly and insufferably self-conceited, it is to have his stomach behave itself, the first day at sea, when nearly all his comrades are seasick,” Mark Twain wrote in “Innocents Abroad.”

Fear of seasickness is one of the major excuses cited for not taking a cruise. Although fewer than 5% of the passengers on any cruise complain of motion-sickness symptoms, it’s still annoying when it happens.

Anyone worrying about mal de mer can plan ahead for smoother seas by carefully selecting a ship, itinerary, travel season and even cabin location.

If your previous seagoing experience is limited to sailboats, fishing boats or a hitch in the U.S. Navy, the stability of modern cruise ships may surprise you.

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Virtually all cruise ships today are equipped with retractable fin stabilizers that project underwater from each side of the ship to counteract any side-to-side rolling motion. It’s generally estimated that they cut out 90% of the roll.

But even most modern stabilizers are not able to control pitching (the up-and-down motion of the ship’s bow), so the captain must do his utmost to avoid going into bad weather and heavy seas.

At least one ship--the futuristic 354-passenger Radisson Diamond, with its unique twin hulls--promises considerably less pitching and rolling than a conventional single-hull ship. It claims to have only 20% of the roll of a mono-hull cruise ship and 10% of the noise and vibration levels.

Diamond Cruise Line says in its brochure that its innovative SWATH (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) design can “virtually negate the effects of the sea” because of its computer-controlled inboard fin stabilizers and the relatively narrow hull area it has in contact with the waves.

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When stabilizers are inboard rather than outboard, they aid in counteracting pitch as well as roll. Pitch and heave are also reduced because water is funneled between the two pontoons.

When we took the Radisson Diamond’s inaugural May, 1992, sailing in the English Channel, that body of water was so uncharacteristically smooth that we could hardly tell when the ship was moving and when it was alongside the dock. Still, all the of the line’s claims seemed to hold true.

Another revolutionary design feature in the sail-cruise vessels of Windstar Cruises and Club Med Cruises are computer-trimmed and operated sails that keep the ships at an even keel under sail, with heeling well under 6%.

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Ships with a deeper draft (the measurement from the vessel’s waterline to the lowest point of its keel) usually perform better in rough seas than ships with shallow drafts. Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norway, for example, has a 35-foot draft, whereas the Carnival Line’s megaliners Fantasy, Ecstasy and Sensation, which carry nearly the same number of passengers and gross registered tonnage, like most recently built vessels have 25-foot drafts.

Cabin location can also make a difference in how much ship motion you feel. Accommodations that are located on a lower deck amidships (about halfway between bow and stern) offer a more stable ride than the higher-priced sun deck and promenade deck locations. Book a cabin too close to the ship’s bow or stern and you may feel every swell.

Destination and itineraries can make a big difference for passengers concerned about seasickness. Land is always in sight and waters are calm is such sheltered waters as Alaska’s Inside Passage or the great rivers of the world.

Conversely, in areas where two seas meet--Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for instance, where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean; South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, or South America’s Cape Horne--the water can really be stirred up. The same is true in regions where currents are powerful (with a speed greater than 0.8 knots an hour). Examples are the Bering Strait, the Java and Solomon seas, the South Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, the French-Spanish Bay of Biscay, around the Spitsbergen and Falkland island groups, and along the southern tip of Africa.

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Finally, some seas and seasons are worse than others for passengers who fear seasickness. Capt. Konstantinos Skordos, master of Classical Cruises’ Aurora II and a longtime cargo captain, says summertime generally offers the best cruising weather, especially in the Mediterranean; “but the Aegean can be rough sometimes in summer.”

His favorite smooth winter waters are between Costa Rica and Panama, where “there’s always good weather in winter,” and he gives high marks to Mexico’s sheltered Sea of Cortez. However, he noted, Scotland’s west coast and Shetland Islands can have rough seas even in summer.

In our experience--about 175 cruises in 15 years--we’ve had a handful of memorably rough voyages. They have included an April crossing on the North Atlantic; Cape Horn and the Drake Passage, south of South America, on an Antarctic sailing in January; a November sailing along the coast of West Africa, especially around the border of Namibia and South Africa; the South China Sea, and the seas around Nome, Alaska, anytime.

Even a short three- or four-day cruise out of Los Angeles south to Ensenada, Mexico, especially in winter, can involve several hours of rough seas on the northbound return.

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We recall with pleasure the smooth seas aboard most Caribbean cruises and all Alaska cruises--except for the Nome area, where only a few expedition vessels sail.

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After all the advance planning, if mal de mer strikes anway, there are several possible remedies:

Some travelers swear by knit, bracelet-like bands, worn around both wrists, which exert pressure on acupressure points to relieve symptoms of nausea. Travel stores, variety stores and large drugstores usually carry them under such brand names as Sea Band or Travel Garde.

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Non-prescription antihistamine remedies, such as Dramamine, can be taken one or two hours before sailing but do cause drowsiness. Some ship doctors recommend a Dramamine injection, which usually acts faster than an ingested tablet, for a sudden or severe onset of seasickness.

The most commonly used device is the Transderm Scop, a Band-Aid-like patch--applied behind the ear--which appears more innocuous than it really is. Available only by prescription, the patch contains scopolamine; according to printed inserts, it is not recommended for pregnant women or people with glaucoma, kidney or liver ailments, obstructions of the stomach or intestines, urinary or bladder obstructions, skin allergies or skin reactions to drugs.

Common side effects of the Transderm Scop include a dry mouth and, less frequently, drowsiness or a temporary blurring of vision. Very infrequently, disorientation, memory disturbances and hallucinations may occur, particularly among older people, according to a spokesman for its manufacturer, CIBA-GEIGY. He also warned that people using the drug should not drink alcohol but quench their thirst instead with water or soft drinks.

Staying on deck in the fresh air will generally alleviate symptoms more quickly than lying down indoors, and many passengers say looking at the horizon seems to help.

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If all else fails, one sure way to get rid of the seasickness problem is to grow older. Young people are much more sensitive to motion sickness than older people.

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Classical Cruises’ Aurora II, the subject of the April 17 Cruise Views column, was unexpectedly sold by its German owners to shipping interests in the Far East, according to Classical’s president, Jamie Rosen. The Aurora II will continue its chartered sailings for Classical as scheduled through August, after which autumn sailings will be transferred to the 64-passenger French motor-sailing yacht, Le Ponant.


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