Even well weathered sailors get seasick. As the sailboat rocks from bow to stern and back again, and rolls from beam to beam and back again, and yaws round and round around the keel, a sailor’s vestibular system is disrupted. The sailor’s eyes, focused intently on the cockpit floor or the cabin wall (or worse, clenched closed), signal a steady state; the sailor’s body, drenched by ocean spray, wind swept by gusts and bumping up against every possible surface, signals incomprehensible motion; and the mixed messages cause a vestibular system error. It feels like your brain is sloshing around in your skull, like your stomach is doing summersaults in your belly, like you are sweating buckets in a cooler full of ice.
A perfect storm of rolling seas from behind, a face buried in a book, and a stomach full of food is my own personal recipe for a spinning head, a watering mouth and a few reflexive gags. I avoid seasickness by focusing my eyes on the horizon, wearing Sea Bands when I read and taking Bonine when the boat yaws more than my head can handle. Jason has never been seasick, though I assure that the sea has done everything in its power to try to cripple his iron will. He theorizes that seasickness is largely psychological, so he checks in periodically with me to see how my spirits are and talks to me calmly about the sea state and our landfall when he thinks seasickness may be overtaking. When all else fails, he pops a chewable Bonine into my mouth, perhaps believing the placebo will do better than his counsel.
Even the greenest of sailors can get landsick. Mal de débarquement (that is, landsickness) is a neurological syndrome plaguing sailors whose vestibular system’s default state becomes a state of motion. It is incurable, treatable only by returning to that state of motion. It is variable; certain land activities trigger stronger symptoms. Land showers after a long passage are the worst – a confined space where you close your eyes and feel water falling around you, suddenly the shower floor lists and you reach out to stable yourself against the heal, feeling like a drunken fool when you open your eyes and realize you’re flat footed on flat land. If you see a sailor on land stumbling around on sea legs, serpentining down the dock, buy him a drink because he’s probably landsick.
As I was becoming a sailor, I dismissed the prospect; I had been born and raised on land, certainly some time at sea wouldn’t disrupt my system enough to make land the source of sickness. When I first moved onto the boat, I spent the first hour or two of everyday in my office holding the corners of my desk firmly, feet planted flat on the floor, eyes focused on my computer screen, trying to stop my head from spinning and my stomach from churning. Through foggy eyes, I kept looking out the window for evidence of an earthquake. I racked my brain about what I’d eaten for dinner the night before, how many glasses of wine we’d enjoyed before bed. But the earth wasn’t moving and I didn’t have food poisoning or a hangover. I was landsick.
It is the cruelest irony of making landfall. Before one becomes a sailor, land is the tierra firma we all seek, the place to get safe from the wind and waves and water of the sea. As we become sailors, the sea becomes our refuge, the place we go to find solace from the dizzying distractions of the world, the harrowing hazards of land. Land looms to a sailor as a reef to run into, a muddy ground to drag an anchor through, a harbor full of neighboring sailboats to collide with, a certain bought of landsickness. The sea becomes our equilibrium, the place we feel most at home, the nature that soothes our wounds and spirits our souls. The boat becomes our cradle with a lullaby of the water rushing against the hull. The sea is our home, and land a dreaded necessity.
I aspire to be like the ducks and frogs, to swim from land to water and back again seamlessly, to be at home both at sea and on land. After nearly six weeks on land to visit family and take care of life’s tasks, I am constantly staring out at the lake, breathing deeply the smells of wet pavement and soggy towels, finding my way back out on a boat daily. It is time to return to s/v Blue Moon, to sail out into the sea, to readjust our equilibriums. Are we landsick or just sick of land?