It was five hours into our crossing from Chicago to South Haven, Mich., last summer when I knew things were going to go downhill.
The sail started out great. Minimal waves, good breeze and a nice but non-threatening overcast that prevented the sun from beating down on us. Then two or three hours in came the swarm of biting flies, so thick that you couldn’t see white on the deck and so hungry for a place to land that all three of us had to put on pants and long-sleeve shirts just to maintain sanity (and even then, I don’t mind saying that I lost it a few times).
But finally, all of a sudden, as quickly as the flies had come in, they were gone. We could breathe again, though the wind disappeared and made actual sailing impossible. It was getting to be lunchtime, so I put Claire down below for her nap and Aaron and I grabbed a bite on the bow while our pal Auto drove us through glassy water for awhile.
And then we realized why the flies had left. Slowly but surely, the wind established itself in a new direction and began to build as the storm approached. We had checked the marine forecast fastidiously before we departed in the morning and though there were some storms forecasted, they were supposed to be closer to shore, near New Buffalo and St. Joe – a fair distance southeast of our course. But, as can happen, this one tracked further north than was predicted.
The pouring rain wasn’t that bad, really. Aaron and I have sailed in it before and, though a little unpleasant, it’s perfectly manageable if you’re wearing the right gear. The height of the storm only lasted 15 or 20 minutes, and Claire slept through the whole thing – a miracle!
But what the storm lacked in length, it made up for in shifting winds, kicking up the waves and making Lake Michigan a washing machine. And it stayed that way, after the storm passed, after the sun came out. Also, by that point in the day, we just wanted to get to South Haven as quickly as possible. This required sailing in the ditch – the absolute worst approach to the waves.
When I felt that first pang of seasickness, I knew it was just a matter of time, and I perched over the side of the boat, fingers and toes clenched, and waited. And it came. Again, and again, and again.
I’ve had bad motion sickness for most of my childhood and all of my adult life. Those twirly rides at carnivals, simulation games, tiny planes, and yes, big waves – these are my nemeses, to be avoided at all costs. But as soon as Aaron and I started dating, I was out on sailboats more and more and became determined to overcome it (especially after some embarrassing dates early on).
I’ve tried it all – Dramamine, Bonine, motion sickness wrist bands, prescription patches behind my ear, ginger pills, ginger ale, ginger beer. Most have had little or no effect on me – Bonine being the most successful, but even the non-drowsy version made me so loopy that it wasn’t really an option. (Taking care of Claire while we’re sailing is my No. 1 job.)
BUT, contrary to what my doctor told me, it has gotten more and more manageable the more time I spend on the boat. In all of the sailing we did last year, I only got physically ill twice – first, during that South Haven crossing, and then during a sail from Racine, Wis., to Milwaukee – a story for another day.
I even do relatively well in bigger swells now, and I can go down below in most conditions. Heck, I’ll even fix us lunch in the galley while the boat is tossing anything that isn’t secured like popcorn in the microwave. It’s predominantly when the winds and waters are confused and kick the boat around in every direction at the same time that I can’t overcome it. And in most cases, the best medicine for me is just to have a job and stay focused on it, keep my mind off of it as much as possible.
Incidentally, Claire also became seasick on those two occasions, and on that crossing to South Haven, when she came up from her nap, it took her about 15 minutes or so of sitting on my lap in the cockpit before she got sick on me as I was sick over the side. I have never appreciated solid ground and a hot shower more than when we finally docked at South Haven that night. Unlike for me, though, who stays sick for the rest of the day once it’s set in, she was smiling and singing songs again as soon as it had passed.
You can’t foresee everything, but the marine forecasts are pretty reliable. And that’s why, on some perfectly sunny, warm days – such as this past Sunday – we’re docked at the harbor. These same days sometimes bring winds of 15-20 knots and 6-to-8-foot waves. Not my prescription for a pleasure cruise.
I don’t think I’ll ever fully shake the seasickness, but life on the water is worth it to me. And if it means we’re a little more conservative with when we go out than other boats, so be it. I must keep remembering – we’re cruisers! Having fun sailing isn’t just desirable – it’s required.