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The Tao of motion sickness

"Should we take some seasick medicine for tomorrow's trip?" one of my companions asked the charter boat operator the night before we were to spend a day fishing for halibut in Kachemak Bay out of Homer, AK.

"If you spend this much money, it would be a shame to spend your trip puking," the man replied with a wry smile, as he slipped the credit card receipt across the counter with a pen.

A hundred and seventy-five bucks a head to spend a day rocking and rolling on rough seas is no picnic for many people, even if you come home with a couple of barn door-size halibut. My companions bought some Bonine. I declined, deciding to try a new approach, which actually is an old one.

Being on the water is nothing new to me. I grew up on Lake Erie and spent a lot of time bouncing around on the waves. I never had any problems with motion sickness, but then again swells on Lake Erie usually don't get bigger than three feet. Waves larger than that, and small craft warnings go up.

Then I moved to the west coast and the blue Pacific, where the waves are definitely bigger. I had no problem with seasickness in Washington or Oregon waters. Then I moved to the San Francisco Bay area.

What charter boat captains who run out of the Golden Gate refer to, as "light chop" can be 6-8 foot swells with 4-6-feet waves cresting on top of them. Under such conditions, nearly every time that I have ventured into the Pacific out of the Golden gate, where the outgoing fresh waters of the Sacramento River collide with the briny Pacific swells pushed in the opposite direction by prevailing westerlies, I have ended up at the rail losing my breakfast and finding heaven turn into hell.

Seasickness, is caused by movement that upsets the sense of balance, which is perceived by the inner ear and your eyes. Also called motion sickness or "mal de mare," dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting are common symptoms. It can happen in cars, trains, boats and planes. Children are more likely to get it than adults, especially older adults.

Like riding a bicycle, you learn to "get your sea legs" if you go out enough, but if you only venture out to sea infrequently, your inner ears don't seem to remember much from previous bad experiences.

Motion sickness is ultimately a physical reaction to perceptual stress. Your resistance to succumbing to getting green is also influenced by hangovers, other illnesses that weaken you, lack of fresh air, and a lack of sleep. Fear also increases the chances of getting seasick. In short, the more fatigued you are, the greater are your chances to get sick on a rocking boat.

One cause of motion sickness is the lack of a solid orienting visual reference point, which is always present on land. The loss of such an anchoring point may trigger a panic reaction that reduces your ability to cope with the unusual situation of a pitching boat. If you can see the shore, gazing on a specific point on land will give some relief that will help you get your bearings in a rolling sea.

Stay outside the cabin of the boat in the cool, fresh air, and toward the stern of the boat. The bow rises and falls a lot farther on most swells. One man on our fishing trip got sick every time he went to the bow.

Over-the-counter motion sickness medications like Dramamine and Bonine, which are antihistamines, help many people, but they can have side effects. Read the side of the package where it cautions about people with heart disease, urinary problems, etc. developing complications, plus drowsiness, etc. Typically you take them the night before, and then prior to departing. Those in our group who took them slept going out the fishing grounds; and missed the whales and sea otters.

Scopalamine patches, a prescription remedy that is worn behind the ear is also effective for many, but it has similar, or worse, side effects. (Read the fine print.)

As a middle-age writer, who spends too much time sitting on his derriere in front of a screen, I decided that on this trip I would try something else that would not make me drowsy or worry about side effects.

Our family doctor is an acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist. Yah, I know the people in San Francisco are off the map, but we like the preventive approach to healthcare and have benefited a great deal from herbs, needles and various physical exercises he uses.

Some people dismiss Oriental medicine as quackery. My acupuncturist, who happens to be a former E.R. trauma physician in Beijing and currently teaches at The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, recommended "All Natural Chinese Herbal Tea Tablets" (Huo Xiang Zheng Qi Wan) made in China and distributed by Krown International Trading Company in Hayward, CA 94544. I felt this approach was definitely worth trying as research suggests that Asians are often more susceptible to motion sickness than blacks or whites.

To the pills we added motion sickness elastic wristbands, which are worn on each wrist like watches. They have a small button that applies pressure to an acupuncture point on the wrist that stabilizes the stomach. Yes, I know it does not make sense to a western mind that the wrist and the stomach have anything to do with each other, but does science tell you everything about how to catch fish or find a big buck? Hardly.

And as a final touch, I bought some sweet ginger candy to munch on during the trip for an energy burst and to calm the stomach. Research reported by the University of Wisconsin Medical Center, incidentally, confirms that ginger root may be as effective for motion sickness as over-the counter medicines like Dramamine or Bonine.

The morning of the trip, I ate a roll and drank some tea before departing. You need to eat something; otherwise you will have less energy, which will make you more prone to seasickness. (Avoid greasy foods, however.) On the trip out, I took a seat outside the cabin toward the stern of the boat as the boat headed two and a half hours out. Watching the whales and sea otters was a treat.

We anchored in eight-foot swells, with 2-3 feet waves cresting on top. Not quite a "perfect storm" sea, but no millpond. Soon you could hear a combination of people whooping at the strike of a big halibut, and people standing next to them whooping their breakfast over the side.

Let's face it, getting seasick is no fun, and it's dangerous in a lurching boat. I've been on boats where it becomes macho thing to stick it out, despite lots of people getting seasick. There ain't no taxi back early, folks. Not my idea of fun.

On this trip, I used this strategy for motion sickness prevention twice. It worked both times. There were no side effects, and no drowsiness. I felt calm and energized.

During the day, while in the swells, I sipped on hot tea and ate pieces of ginger root candy. On the ride back in, when we hit the sheltered waters, I gobbled up my sandwiches with gusto.

Would it work every time? Time will tell. Would the same approach apply to women with morning sickness or people on chemotherapy who get nauseated? Consult your doctor, and/or a good acupuncturist.

If you are planning a trip out onto water that may rock and roll, why spend the day feeling miserable? Traditional Oriental remedies for seasickness may seem weird, but they have no side effects, and at least for this landlubber, they work.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.