Out There: The Big Queasy

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Out There: The Big Queasy

Feeling a touch of seasickness? Try giving conventional wisdom a heave.
By Randy Wayne White

Recently I was forced to notify the Human Movement and Balance Unit of the United Kingdom's Medical Research Council that I would not be delivering my much anticipated paper at its International Workshop on Motion Sickness in Portugal. True, the paper I had hoped to present was anticipated mostly by me. But still I feel like I've failed the scientific community--not to mention those wretched souls who, out of personal weakness and lack of grit, foul this republic's waterways and airsickness bags in a selfish attempt to leverage sympathy.

As I explained to Dr. Angus H. Rupert of the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Pensacola, Florida, "Commander, I once believed that compassion plus certain homeopathic prophylaxes were the only keys to dealing with people who are prone to motion sickness. I was wrong. These people are hopeless. They deserve whatever the hell happens to them."

Dr. Rupert--who, surprisingly, had never heard of me or my work--replied, "I take it that your experiment failed."

Did it ever. In the space of a single boat trip, all my carefully constructed theories about motion sickness crumbled. "You and the other American researchers will have to go to Portugal without me," I told Dr. Rupert. "Please pass along my apologies--I've let you all down."

By taking the high road and accepting the blame, I was fulfilling my professional obligation to protect the anonymity of the real culprit, a certain man named James W. Hall. A tenured professor of creative writing and literature at Florida International University in Miami, Hall is a highly regarded poet and author of such best-selling eco-thrillers as Gone Wild, Bones of Coral, Under Cover of Daylight, and Buzz Cut. About his work, the New York Times Book Review once stated, "James W. Hall's writing runs as clean and fast as the Gulf Stream waters." Obviously, the reviewer had never been in the Gulf Stream in a boat that was down-current from Jim Hall.

Months ago, when I was interviewing candidates for my seasickness experiment, Hall told me, "I think my mother seeded the idea of motion sickness in me when I was a child. On the first long car trip our family ever took, she said, 'I don't want you getting carsick!' It had never occurred to me to get carsick. I didn't even know what car sickness was. Then my mother said, 'Whatever you do, don't watch those telephone lines.' What would any child do? I lay down in the backseat and watched the phone lines go up and down, up and down, up...and...down." Hall suddenly stopped talking and took several deep gulps of air. "Can we change the subject?" he asked. "I'd really like to change the subject."

I found it interesting to see how Hall abjured all personal responsibility for his weakness by fronting the despicable fiction that it was his mother's fault--transference, those of us in the profession call it. "That's one of the most pathetic stories I've ever heard," I said to him. "Please tell me more."

He did, and it got better. "The first time I became seasick," he said, "was in a friend's boat off Key Largo. It got a little choppy and my friend said, 'Hope you don't get seasick.' That's all it took. I spent the next hour being unwell."

"Unwell" is a favorite euphemism of the many literary types who suffer mal de mer; they use it in an attempt to distance themselves from blue-collar terms such as "commode vespers" and "stomach flute serenade." The preferred scientific term, "bilging ship," is almost never used.

"The next time I got sick was off Key West," Hall told me. "I'd been assigned by a magazine to cover a marlin fishing tournament. It was 12 hours of absolute hell. My knees were bloody by the time we docked. No fish were caught, so I wrote about the existential quandary of being unwell while everyone else on the boat is eating chicken."

The man's litany of humiliations was impressive indeed, but what made him an ideal research subject was this curious fact: James W. Hall owns a boat.

Would a claustrophobe purchase a cave? Would an acrophobe spend weekends dangling from a bungee-jumping tower? It told me that Hall had spunk. His explanation confirmed it. "I hate being sick, but I like to fish. I love to be on the water. I've tried Dramamine, but it just knocks me out. And then I get sick anyway. The ear patch, the acupressure wristband--nothing works. But I refuse to be bullied. I take the boat out every chance I get."

Hall was perfect: a poet who approached his affliction with the sensibilities of a foundry town linebacker. Still, it wasn't easy to convince him that I held the key to his recovery. "What makes you think you understand seasickness?" he asked. "You've never been seasick in your life."

He was right on that score. But I had been a fishing guide for many years and I'd seen hundreds of Hall's desperate kindred abandoning all pretense of human dignity before heaven and anyone dumb enough to watch. No one could doubt that I wasn't sympathetic."I'm a licensed captain," I replied. "A professional, for God's sake. I've watched mature adults perform like Veg-O-Matics, then crawl off my skiff without tipping. I once returned from Mariel Harbor, Cuba, with a boat full of 147 puking refugees. I don't understand seasickness? What I understand is that you people make the mess but never stick around to help clean up. Which is why I've dedicated so much time to devising a cure."

"And you've found one?" Hall asked.

I answered, "Why don't we take your boat out into the Gulf Stream and see for ourselves? What do you have to lose that you wouldn't lose anyway?"

THE EVENING BEFORE OUR TRIP, I planned to have Hall follow a carefully devised routine that included eating all the spaghetti he wanted. The next morning, before heading out, he would consume a breakfast of chocolate-chip cookies. Then, as a counterbalance, he would take some ginger capsules, which are thought by some to be a seasickness preventive. "I'm not sure I can do this," he said when I outlined the regimen. "God, how I hate the sound of my own retching!"

"I didn't mention the cotton?" I said. "You're not going to hear anything, because you'll have cotton in your ears."

Admittedly, my approach to curing motion sickness flew in the face of the scientific community. I knew this to be true, because I had read the research and interviewed several of this country's leading authorities. It's generally accepted that the symptoms of motion sickness begin when the brain receives confusing messages from the inner ear. Responsible for the body's balance mechanism, the inner ear contains certain calcium crystals, known as otoliths, that are designed to tell the brain whether or not the head is level. But otoliths can be untrustworthy when one's environment goes topsy-turvy. The inner ear also has tubes, called semicircular canals, filled with a fluid that sloshes back and forth with every rise and fall of a boat, plane, or car. Frustrated by all this chaotic data, the brain may choose to seek revenge (no one can explain why) by punishing the spirit. First, body temperature drops, and the skin pales. Then the level of vasopressin, a hormone, rises in the bloodstream as the sufferer experiences cold sweats and uncontrollable salivation. The final stage is nausea and a God-honest yearning to return to the womb, which is why so many motion sickness victims pray for death from a fetal position. Oddly, there are people who are fine during the course of a trip, only to suffer all the symptoms once on solid ground. Mal d'embarquement, the malady is called.

"Some people get sick very easily," Dr. Deborah Harm, a senior neuroscientist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told me. "With others, it takes a strenuous laboratory procedure to create symptoms. The only people who are immune are those with a nonfunctional vestibular system, which means inner ear damage due to disease."

Disease? Slightly irritated, I pointed out to Dr. Harm that my vestibular system was full of life and as functional as anyone's. "Well," she said (cryptically, I felt), "it's also true that psychological components can play a part."

Dr. Ruperttold me that certain types of people were more prone to the malady. "The very young and the very old seem to be more susceptible," he said. "Research also suggests that women are more susceptible than men. And there is a correlation between people who are aerobically fit and motion sickness. That is, if you're in very good shape, you have a slightly better chance of getting sick than if you're some couch potato."

THIS WAS VERY GOOD NEWS FOR COUCH fixture Jim Hall--and I told him so on a Saturday morning at the Black Point Marina on Biscayne Bay, just south of Miami. We had Hall's 20-foot Mako in the water. The cooler was packed with ice, sandwiches, and beverages. The bait locker was loaded with fresh-dead ballyhoo, a small, needle-nosed fish, for trolling. "I want this experiment to be as true to life as possible," I told Hall and his friend, Joe Wisdom, as we idled through the canal toward the Atlantic. "Forget that I'm making extensive notes on your every move. Just do what you normally do on a typical fishing trip."

"Normally," Wisdom said, checking his watch, "I have a beer about now."

Gad! It wasn't quite 9 A.M. Wisdom, though a respected dean at Florida International, had the look of a mean and unpredictable drunk. But because he is an expert fisherman, I had invited him along to run the boat and also to serve as a control subject. Not prone to motion sickness, Wisdom had been fed spaghetti the night before but had not been given ginger capsules.

I sat at the stern of the Mako, cutting the lard-soft ballyhoo into chunks as Wisdom powered the boat onto plane and steered us across the bay. Then it was out through the cut at Boca Chita and into the Gulf Stream, where more expensive Miami lunches have been lost than to any combination of spring-break toga parties and swine flu. Up to my elbows in gore, I waved Hall toward me. "Been eating lots of cookies? You take your ginger capsules?"

Hall responded, "Huh?"

I reached up, yanked the cotton out of his ears, and repeated the questions.
He nodded: Yes, he'd done both.

"I hate to break it to you, but those ginger pills are useless. Studies have shown that they're absolute quackery. I'm telling you this now because the only way you can spare yourself is to immediately change your attitude about seasickness."

I thought Hall was going to punch me. "You set me up, you spawn! I suppose the cotton balls are a lie, too!"

Before I could answer, he'd thrown them overboard. As I watched them sink, I said, "No-o-o-o, the cotton balls could have saved you. Very soothing to the inner ear. Your only hope now is to follow my directions to the letter. Remember: You have a bellyful of Italian food."
Hall wisely decided to listen.

"After years of careful observation," I said, "I've come to the conclusion that you people make yourselves sick with your constant fretting. Tell the truth: Haven't you spent the whole morning worrying about getting sick?"

"My wife did say I looked a little pale when I left the house," Hall admitted.

"That's why you have to change your mental approach from defense to offense. Go on the attack! You have to try to get sick. Reverse your cerebral polarity and you'll never have another unwell day in your life."

"Try to get sick?" Hall considered it for a moment. "That's plain stupid. Besides, it's too nice a day to get sick. I think I'm going to be just fine today."

It was a nice day. Dead calm. To the northwest was the stalagmite clutter of Miami's skyscrapers. Behind us were the shoals of Biscayne Bay. Ahead was the violet demarcation of the Gulf Stream. It, too, was dead calm.

With Hall refusing to cooperate, I was forced to take more extreme measures to keep the experiment on track. I wiped my hands on my shirt and pulled out a box of Nicaraguan cigars from the bag at my feet. "I really didn't want to have to use these," I said.

I've never been a smoker, nor will I ever be. Perhaps that is why the hour that followed is a little blurry. Joe Wisdom, serving as our guide, located a school of dolphin fish. We caught a couple while trolling and then cut the engine to sight-cast. Every few minutes I'd toss out a glob of chum to keep the school close. We drifted along, rolling and rocking on a weak sea, catching one fish after another. Soon the deck was a mess of blood and flopping dolphins.

I was so busy fishing and chumming and smoking that I'd almost forgotten about Hall when I heard a shaky, childlike voice moan, "Oh my... oh my..." Hall was collapsed on the console seat, his head in his hands. He looked up at me for a brief moment. His face was the color of rancid tallow. "Isn't it hot out here? I feel really hot."

I removed my cigar. "You're not hot, you milksop. You're seasick--this close to bilging ship. And all because you didn't take my advice. Now I'm going to have to start from square one." I puffed on the cigar, which by now was saturated with ballyhoo juice. For the first time, I noticed that the thing had a very odd odor, not unlike a can of bad tuna that has been stored in a cedar chest. I sniffed at the cigar, then tossed it into the garbage bucket.

I noticed, also, that I had broken out in a cold sweat. Meanwhile, my eyes had found an unexpected focus: all that fish offal coating the boat. When I tried to divert my attention, my eyes swung inexorably back to the deck. To Wisdom, I said, "Is the wind picking up? It feels to me like the wind's starting to pick up."

Wisdom, who was finishing his umpteenth beer, replied, "There's no wind. A little groundswell, that's all."

Groundswell, no doubt. Long, rolling waves that lifted the boat, then dropped it. One after another--bow up, stern down, stern up, bow down."Know something?" I said to Hall. "It is hot out here."

Hall was hunched over, holding his stomach, muttering something about Italian food. I wiped my face on my hands. The smell of that cigar was everywhere. "Whew!" I said. "Scoot over. All that chumming has made my legs tired."

Hall looked up long enough to say, "You know, you don't look so good."

"Shut up and mind your own affairs," I snapped. "All your whining is making me queasy." Then, to Wisdom, I called, "Can't you make this boat stop rocking?"

Wisdom, oblivious to it all, was hunched over the cooler. "Hey," he said, "who drank all the beer? If we're out of beer, then I think we should head in."

"Of course we should head in!" I shouted. "Hall refuses to play along with the experiment. And besides, I think I may be getting a touch of the flu."

Which is precisely why I won't be presenting my paper to the International Workshop on Motion Sickness in Portugal.

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