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Common Sea Kayaking Ailments: Sea Sickness

Posted by on April 3, 2012

Sea sickness (aka “Mal de Mer”) is, undoubtedly, one of the most miserable ailments that can overcome a sea kayaker. The up and down, side to side, and gyroscopic motions that occur while paddling in confused seas are the perfect receipt to insight a bout of sea sickness. Unfortunately for some of us there is no way to avoid this and it can be a frequent issue. Thankfully for others it’s something that never or only rarely has to be dealt with.

In all of my years of kayaking I have been so very lucky to only have been sea sick once. It was in 8ft + and confused seas where I kept losing sight of the horizon. A quick trip to the beach solved the problem and I was able to get back on the water and on my way within about a half hour. This experience made me a much more compassionate instructor which has been much to the benefit of my participants. When anyone on my trips appears to be suffering from sea sickness I make sure to give them the option of getting off of the water and I dip into my bag of “sea sickness tricks” to try to make them more comfortable in the meantime. So what’s in this bag of tricks??

Signs and Symptoms:

Everything starts with recognition of the signs and symptoms of sea sickness and being able to differentiate it from other, more serious conditions. The signs and symptoms of sea sickness include:

  • Sensation of dizziness, spinning, or falling
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Weakness

The following symptoms are not associated with sea sickness. If any of these symptoms are present then you should be alert to the possibility of a more serious condition being responsible for the victim’s apparent dizziness:

  • Palpitations
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Weakness in one arm or leg
  • Decreased vision or ringing in the ears


Unfortunately, sea sickness is one of those things that once it starts the fun don’t stop! This is unless you are able to remove the victim from the water’s motion or if you spend enough time on the “rollercoaster” to get used to it and have the sickness fade on its own. The following treatment strategies may or may not do much to ebb the symptoms a bit.

  1. Keep your vision fixed on a stationary object in the distance. The horizon or shoreline work well as a stationary visual reference (assuming that the waves are not too big!). Avoid focusing on anything close up like maps or writing because this will make things worse.
  2. Splashing water on your face will sometimes help.
  3. Try to promote fluid intake especially if the victim has been vomiting. Sipping Gatorade or another sports drink may help.
  4. The only thing that will stop the sea sickness is taking the victim to shore or calmer waters where the motion is less extreme. If the victim is vomiting or struggling to maintain balance in their kayak then consider designating someone in your party to stabilize the victims kayak while you perform a tandem tow.


There are a few things that you can do to prevent sea sickness from happening in the first place. These should be implemented by paddlers who are prone to developing sea sickness or as a preventative measure for those entering bigger conditions for the first time.

  • There are over-the-counter motion sickness medications that can help prevent sea sickness including Dramamine and Bonine. To be effective, these drugs must be administered one hour before you experience motion. Dramamine is a popular choice but can cause drowsiness. Bonine tends to be “less drowsy”. These drugs are safe and have few side effects when taken appropriately.
  • Pre-hydrate for your paddling trip so that you can afford to lose some fluids in the case that you get sea sick.
  • Do not drink any alcohol before paddling. This is a bad idea for a lot of reasons but it will surely exasperate sea sickness.

Hopefully this bag of tricks will help keep sea sickness at bay and you on happily in motion on the water!

Happy and Safe Paddling!

-Kayak Dave

5 Responses to Common Sea Kayaking Ailments: Sea Sickness

  1. The Nothing

    I’m one of those fortunate few that doesn’t have a problem with the sea, but plenty of my friends do.

    With regards to Dramamine, most suggest taking the night before, and then again 1 hour before heading out, to see the fullest effect. The only time I’ve taken Dramamine was 20 years ago, and took it in that fashion.

    Ginger is a natural anti-nausea agent. Many of my friends spend the day before, and while on the water, eating a variety of ginger candies. Some say it works, at least one says otherwise.

  2. John Edward Harris

    I have kayaking for over eleven years. I have been sailing a 24 foot sailboat for two years. I have been on a weeklong ocean cruise. I have been on a numerous ferry crossings along the Carolinas as well as between Ireland and Scotland. I have never once been seasick, that is, until today.

    About an hour into paddling on a choppy bay in 15 mile minds, I missed and brace and went over. After wet exiting, I reentered my kayak with the help of a fellow paddler, just as I have done many other times during training. Once back in my kayak I started paddling, but did not feel balanced. I tipped again, again wet exited, again reentered my kayak with the help of another paddler, but almost tipped several more times before making it to shore, even while being towed.

    Once on shore and out of my boat, my legs/knees felt week and I felt nauseas. After eating lunch and resting for about 15-20 minutes, I felt a little better, climbed back into my kayak and started paddling back to the clubhouse, but as soon as I was back on the water I felt like I could not maintain my balance, as if I had no balance. The smallest wave seemed to knock me off balance and I did not fell like I had the strength to recover.

    Rather than impeding the rest of the group, I opted to remain behind. After waiting a couple hours, I was picked up and driven, with my boat on top of the car, back to the clubhouse. Even though there was a feast going on back at the clubhouse, I did not have the least bit desire to eat anything.

    Eight hours later, I still feel weak, achy, and have a slight head ache, but at lest my appetite has returned.

    • Jatton

      This does not sound like sea sickness to me in all honesty, given your previous good run and the fact you had the symptoms still hours later. It’s more likely you had some bug or virus, and the sea motion magnified it.

      • Jatton

        I should add that sea sickness symptoms hours after the event isn’t unheard of, just that it’s more unusual. I myself tend to have land sickness the next day, I put it down to the ocean calling me back. 😉

  3. Marco Henzer

    A week ago I had my first Sea Kayak experience on a lake in Switzerland.

    You may laugh, since this was not even at sea. But sure enough after 1 or 2 hours on the water near the shore, those 1 foot little waves made me feel hot, dizzy, nauseaous. I think the trigger was, when I my kayak was near a stone wall and a passing ferry made it bob up and down with waves from all sides since they reflected off the wall.

    I dampened my exitation over sea kayaking somewhat after I was much looking forward to that day and watching every YouTube video there was ;-))

    My instructior mentioned ginger as well and of course the above mentioned movement sickness medication.

    Concerning what John Edward Harris said above.
    I’m no sea kayaker, but I know a bit about the human ear and the sense of balance.
    What you describe that you felt dizzy after capsizing and you never before had sea sickness.
    This one-time dizzyness can be the result of two things:
    – water in your ear, maybe you have a tiny puncture in your eardrum?
    – dislocation of one of those tiny tiny ear crystal grains which in combination with the fibrills (tiny hairs) in your cochlea make up your sense of balance. This can occur after sudden movements and can also be treated with sudden movements of your head. The reason is that one or several of those crystal grains have gone to a place in your cochlea that they shouldn’t and the fibrills are then giving of “false readings” to your brain and you feel dizzy or may even fall over.

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