When I was four or five years old, my parents took me on the Bluenose ferry, which traveled a narrow stretch of the Atlantic between Maine and Nova Scotia. I was enthralled at first, taking in the warm sun, the brisk wind, the sparkle on each wave as it rose. But that lasted only until my dad and I descended to the dark lower deck where passengers parked their cars. I couldn’t see the sky anymore, and my brain clunked into panic mode as the floor heaved and rolled beneath me. I felt as if my stomach contents might eject any second.
I was so young that I can’t remember if I actually threw up that day. Even so, my Bluenose journey profoundly affected my relationship with boats. For years, I dreaded ocean-going vessels as Orwell’s Winston Smith dreaded rats. Certain associations—the smell of diesel, the rolling horizon, the stained orange life jackets—are still enough to provoke a sense of unmooring that’s as psychological as it is physical.
Seasickness arises from a fundamental contradiction. Fluid movement in the inner ear tells the brain the body is moving, but the eyes perceive a near-stationary scene inside the boat. It’s these conflicting sensory messages that lead to malaise. The sensory confusion certain poisons create has long induced vomiting in humans, which makes evolutionary sense: If you ingested something toxic, you’d want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. One motion-sickness theory holds that this is why motion-related sensory confusion also throws your stomach into reverse gear.
The high seas don’t poison you, of course, but the important thing is that your brain reacts as if they do. After my Bluenose debacle, I read Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy, in which Dahl described in loving detail how seasick he got when he crossed the North Sea to visit relatives in Norway. I returned to this chapter repeatedly, with morbid fascination. I loved to travel, but what if that meant days of curling up on deck and vomiting over the rails? It seemed too great a sacrifice. (I didn’t know then that explorers like Charles Darwin and Roald Amundsen had suffered terrible seasickness.)
But my seasickness anxiety wouldn’t peak until years later, when I learned I had to take a long overnight ferry ride from Italy to Greece. The day before we left port, we made a day-long stop on the Italian isle of Capri. Instead of basking in the sun and browsing the local markets with my mother and grandmother, I huddled under a cafe table, clenching my jaw as bear’s-tooth cramps gripped my midsection.
Once on board, I gave up all thought of sleeping in my airless berth as the smell of exhaust permeated the boat. I spent much of the trip standing stiffly at the rail, thinking of my sort-of boyfriend and singing Monica’s “For You I Will” (“I will cross the ocean for you…”) over and over. My fear seemed more bearable when I pretended it was a sacrifice on someone else’s behalf.
I’ve mellowed somewhat since then and have taken longer boat trips around San Francisco Bay and the Galapagos, though my eyes strayed often toward the horizon, that stomach-steadying influence. My unease feels so visceral when I board a boat, but really, I think it comes from being way too cerebral. It comes from the inner questions that rattle like deck bolts: Will I lose control over my faculties, my dignity? Will I encounter something so awful, so uncomfortable, that I won’t be able to handle it?
This month, my work will take me on a dream trip to the Solomon Islands. I’ll be on a sailboat for a week. My goal isn’t to avoid getting seasick per se, though I certainly won’t complain if I remain yak-free (and I’ll be bringing medication with me, naturally). If I do get sick, though, I plan to let it happen—let whatever wants to come up come up, as they say. I could glue my eyes to the horizon out of fear and a need for control, but it would mean shutting out everything around me: the animated voices of the crew, the smell of salt spray, the brilliant close-up hues of coral polyps. Living through discomfort, I’m finding, isn’t nearly as corrosive as dreading its arrival.
Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer in San Jose, CA, who contributes to outlets like Aeon, Sapiens, and the Washington Post. She is also the author of What Makes a Hero: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. When she is not writing, she’s reading, chasing her young boys, or arranging decorative gourds.
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