As expected, my summer sailing trip does not go as planned. The wind is not behaving like predicted so I did have to adjust the route. Luckily, I have no appointments the coming two weeks and nobody to meet, so I really do not care where I sail to, as long as I can sail. So, instead of going North to reach Anholt and maybe the Gothenburg archipelago, I decided to do the classy Bornholm-trip. This was a good decision as I did have my partner, Gabriella, with me, who apparently sailed her first ever real long trip on a boat. So, playing it calm without any pressure was much better than to force a plan t work. But … well, but it turned out not to be a calm trip, at least not for the first three days.
“My motivation was very high and so have been my spirit when we casted off the first day”, say Gabriella. “The boat is much bigger than expected although being small still, but when we steered GEKKO out of the home marina I must say my mood was very high.” As high as the waves, apparently, because just as we had left Neustadt that Saturday morning, wind suddenly increased from a nice 10 knot TWS to 16 knots. Still nothing bad, I put in the first reef and set the course to Gedser in Denmark which I thought could be a good first destination. Quickly, things escalated …
Experiencing the unexpected: Tackling one´s own fears
“I knew from Lars´ stories that GEKKO was a fairly fast boat, light and nimble, responsive and … well, quick. But I did not had a real idea what “fast” means when sailing. Doing 8 to 9 knots sounds pretty slow to me, that’s the speed I reach with my bike when slowly cycling the city. But out on the seas it was quite different!” The boat sprung to life and I had to adjust our course to an upwind point of sail: With wind speeds now between 16 and 18 knots true, quite a nice swell quickly began to build up and the boat started to ride the waves. Gabriella´s mood deteriorated accordingly.
“I haven´t expected this, how could I? This was my first time ever out and it was terrible, to be honest”, says Gabriella: “The heeling of the boat was terrifying: Although I knew the we couldn’t capsize, crazy pictures and thoughts began to hit my mind … masts flying off, keels ripped apart and I saw me being thrown into the waves. It was really not funny anymore!” This all happened in a matter of 30 minutes: From easy sailing to upwind beating, gusts now exceeding 20 knots. I adjusted a bit our course, gave up some degrees in trade for less heeling and much less wave-piercing, but still – damage was already done, first signs of sea sickness showed clearly in Gabriella´s face.
Detecting the first signs: Reacting to prevent the worst
Although I was now in 3rd reef and well on a close reach, the boat sprinted with 7 to 9 knots and jumped the waves. Especially when we tacked to port side and sailed away from the land-lee, swell increased and made it worse. “I began to yawn every minute or so. My stomach was empty, as we didn´t have had that much of a breakfast feast, and even with two wind-proof jackets I began to shiver a bit.” Detecting these first signs of sea sickness, as the Captain, I knew that it was too late already: Asking her how she felt, she still denied being sea sick (which is a clear sign of it) and said instead that she was just a bit uncomfortable with the heeling.
Now, these are the common first signs: Yawning all the time, being very quiet, focusing the indefinite horizon and shivering. I adjusted course even more to get the boat a bit calmer, but obviously sailing through this mess – and still having a destination to reach – meant to force her to tackle it. She even denied feeling sick for two more hours, I was busy sailing the boat. As she was a bloody rookie aboard I couldn´t hand her the rudder so that this task might keep her occupied and so I couldn´t react other than to abort, veer away and sail back to my home marina. In the mean time, poor Gabriella made acquaintance with my bucket and fed the fish. “I felt terrible! Not so much because I had to puke but because we had to turn back”, Gabriella recounts.
Next day, much calmer, wind came in from abaft and it was an absolutely golden sailing day to Gedser: Under Gennaker in a constant 10-12 knots breeze, no apparent waves, I could show her that sailing can be pleasant and easy as well. I was keen to leave asap again because I didn´t want her to think about what happened all too much. Going out again, “overwrite” the bad emotions with happy ones, create sense of achievement and success, that was the plan. And it worked. We reached Gedser after a nice 10 hour-sail on one bow, mostly with Gennaker. Perfect.
Common mistakes when sea sickness kicks in
But, well, things tend to change all the time. Especially in the Baltic Sea where weather conditions and thus sailing conditions rarely stay the same. I´d say that every 6 to 8 hours weather changes, wind directions change, wave pattern change – all is open again. We left Gedser for Klintholm, a nice beam reach, I told her: Easy sailing. Much less heeling and no wave riding. Wind prediction around 10 knots, perfect. I of course turned out to be different. Just as we cleared Gedser, wind sprung up to 17 knots. I was fast reefing, 2nd reef for once because I knew what was coming.
„The boat was so fast, 9 to 10 knots, and again, waves came in from the port side very high.” Although wave height wasn´t much more than 1 or 1.5 meters, on a small boat like GEKKO this matters much. “He told me that not the wind is the problem, but the motion of the waves. And quickly everything was back again: The sickness, the empty stomach. I felt terrible.” To help her, I told Gabriella to have a Coke (quick sugar for energy) and to lay down as much as she could. I also tried to talk her out of her motion sickness and keep her mind from instilling bad thoughts, but that didn´t work too well.
“Going down was the worst”, Gabriella recounts: “The boat went from one side to the other, each step I took I did have to do with greatest care. I knocked my head all the time and the motion sickness was the worst. Even laying down in the saloon couldn´t help.” I remember, when I got hit by serious sea sickness during my Atlantic Ocean journey, that the one and only thing that helped me was indeed laying completely horizontal down in the saloon near the keel. Well, it didn´t work for her apparently …
“Even worse than being down (or up) was to take a pee.”, Gabriella says. As Captain I couldn´t of course sense the fill level of her bladder and I she had told me, I certainly would have reacted earlier, but now with literally thirty seconds until I pee myself the one and only solution was – again – my third crew member, Mr. Bucket. “Getting my pants off and down in that tiny cockpit, surrounded by a boisterous sea, flying around in that ridiculous heeling was a nightmare!” But she managed to get everything safely out, not a drop off target, pants back on and with a big, long sigh she again sunk down next to me. Her face as white as chalk. “At least this time no puke in the bucket.” Sarcasm is a clear sign of recovery.
It gets better – each time
We reached Klintholm after a sub 9 hour-sprint and apart from her being seasick again it was a glorious sailing day! I was able to veer off a bit and GEKKO surfed with 9.5 knots on a beam reach. Amazing! “When we finally reached the harbor and the boat was tied up safely, all the stress fell suddenly off. Two or three hours earlier, something happened: A large wave hit our port side and sprayed all over the bow. We got wetted all over, liters of cold water poured down my back inside the clothing, we were wetted all over. Lars grinned at me and said that I had been baptized now by Rasmus, God of the winds, and Poseidon, God of the Seas. Somehow, this helped.”
So, diverting the thoughts of the sea sick person to better things, keeping their minds occupied, can reduce the effects of sea sickness. Also, being calm, staying focused and relaxed as the skipper will instill strength and a good mood. I made a huge mistake that day: Although I knew from forecast that a nice 18-20 knots breeze with according wave pattern was to be expected, I haven´t ordered us to wear life jackets. Which, of course, is a major thing! Later, when shit already hit the fan and she found herself being seasick again, I couldn´t do it because that would have made her freak out even more: Why now? Is it so dangerous? Gabriells still speaks of that particular day as the day “we soiled through a storm”, which it definitely wasn´t. So, learning for me: Wearing a life jacket must mandatory from the start as a matter of course.
So we resumed our sailing trip after two legs of quite speedy and windy sailing. “I got used to life aboard and the sailing routine. Still, the sailing language is foreign to me, but some of the terms – I promise – will stick with me forever!”, she recalls. “Such as upwind, for example: Most stressful of all points of sails. Or reefing, which always came as instant relief for me, and the word indeed sounds like “relief” too.”
Sea Sickness? Not with me!
Gabriella says that she learned a lot, even more through sailing the rough days: “Nice weather, no waves, a reaching course and winds around 10 is much nicer, of course”, she says: “But in a weird and wonderous way I am happy and thankful of the experience of sea sickness. I now know what this is all about and I know that most of the sickness is a product of my own head. I know that preventing myself from letting those negative thoughts taking over my mind is a huge step. Also, being warm (clothing-wise) and having a stomach that is filled and calm helps.”
The windy this, her first real sailing trip, started, the windless it continues: We reach the beautiful Island of Bornholm with literally the last puff as wind died down completely. With sea sickness now – but just a tiny little bit – being created by the swell in the marinas, Gabriella now learns another chapter of sailing: Tackling the conditions nature provides. We have to be patient, wait for good conditions. “The funny thing about a calm is”, Gabriella says: “I now wish we´ve had wind. Some wind. Any wind. Ain´t that funny?”
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Sailing to Madeira – completely knocked out by sea sickness
My first bad weather sailing experience