THE CURSE OF NEPTUNE

 

by Caroline Kennedy

I’ve always considered it odd that those people who find the idea of taking a cruise attractive, seem to be those who suffer most from seasickness. They’d never admit it, of course, they’d be far too ashamed for that.

Is it a mark of weakness, I wonder, to own up to throwing up? Does suffering from the Curse of Neptune make you a less desirable, less confident,  less popular person? Does vomiting overboard instantly turn you into a pariah, a laughing stock, a pathetic individual?

Funny, isn’t it, this feeling of acute embarrassment? It seems it’s almost like admitting you suffer from halitosis, haemorrhoids or a sexually transmitted disease. For some inexplicable reason we really don’t want to own up to it. Why is that? For instance, even my lovely stepmother who accompanied me on my trip to Antarctica a few years ago and was laid out for three days, refused to accept the fact she was seasick.

“No, no!” she protested, “I’ve been a sailor all my life. I’ve never been seasick. It was just something I ate…didn’t agree with me. I wasn’t seasick!”

Right!

There appears to be no rhyme or reason to this affliction. Some people get seasick on the outward passage but acquire their sea legs on the return trip. Others are totally the opposite – fine on the way out, sick as a dog on the way home. Some people just have to stand on the shore and look out to sea and their stomachs churn. Some never experience any symptoms at all. Some people think if they eat huge quantities of food they’ll avoid it. Others believe they must starve themselves to prevent it.

But whichever category you fall into, it does appear there is definitely some form of stigma attached to being seasick. Why should that be?

This was clearly illustrated on the Antarctic trip. On our way from Tierra del Fuego to our first port of call, the South Shetland Islands, our Russian icebreaker ship had to sail through the dreaded Drake Passage, where waves as high as houses are not uncommon. Since we had all just boarded the boat no one had yet had a chance to develop their sea legs before encountering these huge waves. I soon noticed that from a total passenger attendance of 70 for the mandatory life drill on the first evening at sea, only a small handful of us were still in evidence during the following two days as we experienced a heavy swell and some tumultuous waves.

Later, excuses for absence ranged from jet lag to unpacking, from dieting to headaches, from food poisoning to whale-watching. Nobody wanted to admit the truth – they had been seasick – they had been throwing up in the privacy of their cabins.

So I began to think that if these modern-day travelers couldn’t cope with a little discomfort, with the many available remedies currently on the market, how on earth then did the ancient seafarers cope? So I began to look up some of the earlier articles I’d written about early European travelers during the 16th-19th centuries. How did they fare as they set out to sail the high seas, chart unknown oceans and discover new territories?

I found a mention of seasickness in almost all the Captains’ logbooks or in the ship doctors’ medical reports – illustrating a variety of names for it, from the Curse of Neptune to Mermaid’s Revenge – and many ingenious ways of dealing with it. In fact it amazed me that there appeared to be Captains and crew who continued to suffer from seasickness all their lives. But their quest for adventure was so great and, undoubtedly, the lure of fabulous riches from plunder and conquest of distant lands so overwhelming, it made their temporary discomfort bearable.

So what were their remedies?

One Captain, a Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Charcot, fed his sailors quantities of lentils and offered them excellent French wines from his well-stocked cellar on board his boat, the Pourquoi Pas, in order to prevent “mal de mer” among his crew. As you can imagine he became very popular with his men and, despite the terrible hardships they encountered during their search for a southern polar continent, few opted to jump ship.

In the mid-seventeenth century William Dampier, the doctor on board Captain Draper’s ship, the Cygnet, in the Southern Philippines, wrote about many of his fellow sailors writhing in agony from a “most terrible malady of the sea”. When, eventually, they succumbed to their illness, Dampier opened them up and discovered their livers were “black, dry and light, like pieces of burnt cork.” In fact, what Dampier realized later was that this form of seasickness had far more to do with being poisoned by some less than welcoming natives rather than any terminal form of seasickness.

Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler accompanying Magellan on the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522, when it was finally proved that a ship would not actually fall off the edge of the world when it reached the horizon, wrote that many sailors would “pray on their knees on deck in the heaviest seas” to avoid being sick. This was probably one of the few remedies that succeeded since, rather than becoming seasick, several of the praying men were swept overboard and drowned.

But I think the early Chinese sailors had the ultimate solution. They took copious amounts of opium and simply passed out for the duration of the voyage! Perhaps this accounts for the fact that, although there is certainly strong historic evidence that suggests Chinese merchant ships sailed beyond the Indian Ocean, there are few contemporary accounts of them venturing much further than the South China Sea.

Early English kings were convinced that seasickness was caused by “bouncing brains”. And they solved this problem by having their courtiers and servants hold their heads completely still while crossing the English Channel. So, no matter how badly the boat rolled, and their bodies rolled with it, their heads remained in exactly the same place. However, the monarchs soon gave up this practice when they discovered that, not only did it not work very well, but their servants, with no one to hold their own heads steady, were throwing up into their Royal laps!

In more recent times, it was thought that seasickness had something to do with smell. So people, acting as guinea pigs for the British Navy, donned gas masks to go out to sea. Needless to say, although this was probably an effective antidote against the inhalation of gas fumes, it made no difference at all to the condition of their stomachs.

Then some intelligent person in the US Navy came up with a quaint theory to do with eyesight. Blind people, he categorically stated, simply did not get seasick. Well, that was soon disproved when a boat filled with blind people was shoved out to sea in a gale force wind to prove his point. And, guess what? Some of them got seasick. Others didn’t.

In Australia a marine researcher decided that the higher up you stand on a ship the less likely you are to be seasick. Since only one person could fit into the crow’s nest on top of the masthead, most sufferers ended up on the top deck, immediately giving rise to that famous Australian word, “chunder.” It came from those people on the upper decks hollering to people on the lower decks, “Watch under!” as they leant across the ropes and spewed over the side of the ship.

An Israeli naval researcher then stated that “suggestion” plays an important part in developing seasickness. “If you don’t think about it, if you don’t talk about it, you won’t be seasick.” Simple as that. Sounds a bit like matron at a British boarding school ordering you back to the classroom when you’ve just developed mumps. Your jaws and neck are swollen and your temperature is hovering around 102 and she says, “Nothing wrong with you that a little hard work won’t cure!” So that, too, I’m sorry to say, does not convince me.

A Chinese herbalist then came up with the idea that seasickness is caused by “dampness in the body.” Hardly surprising, I would think, since our bodies are made up almost entirely of water. So how could you avoid being “damp”? But, according to him, dampness in your body makes you ill when at sea and can only be relieved by a rare herb called Er ChenTang. Unfortunately the herb is not readily available around the world so the jury is still out on that remedy.

Some American guy on the internet found his own solution. “It’s God,” he wrote emphatically on his blog. He explained that he noticed while he was driving around the United States on business that, despite his road maps, he would invariably get lost. But, when he prayed to God for divine intervention to stop him from losing his way, most miraculously he never got lost again. So he thought the same solution would apply to seasickness. He went on to explain that he and his family often took their boat out at weekends on the Chesapeake Bay where it could get pretty rough. And, although none of his family ever seemed to suffer, he would always be seasick. “However,” he went on to say, “from the day I prayed to God to relieve me of this suffering, I have never been ill onboard again.” So there you are! That obviously works.

The last wonderful theory I found was that caged birds and dogs never get seasick. Puzzled? So was I. I mean, apart from the obvious differences between them and us, what researchers needed to find out was what these creatures possessed that made them immune to seasickness. It was, according to a vet, the “inner ear.”

So what then was the solution? The very well-funded vet came to this conclusion. “To maintain the balance within your inner ear and so as not to confuse the signals the nerve fibres in your eyes and inner ears send to your brain, stay out on deck at all times, never look down and simply stare out at the horizon for the whole trip.” There is one thing that continues to puzzle me though – I have never actually noticed any dogs, or canaries for that matter, adhering to these rules.

But, based on the vet’s theory, an inventor named Phillippe Jassier got to work. He now has a patent pending on his latest invention, the “artificial horizon” glasses. This means that you don’t have to stand out on deck at all times, you can look down if you want to and you don’t have to stare out to the horizon indefinitely. All you need to do is to wear M. Jassier’s patent-pending artificial horizon glasses and you’ll be just fine!

So, in the end, what I would suggest to those of you who turn green at the sight of a jacuzzi, is not to take any chances when you next set sail. Stock up on all the remedies that have been used throughout history: lentils, wine, iced champagne, St. John’s Wort, honey, Stugeron tables, Sea Legs, magnetic wrist bands, Transderm Scop ear patches, ginger ale, ginger biscuits, peptobismol, coca cola, blindfolds, apricot brandy, cantaloupe melon, breadfruit, tobacco, Er Chen Tang (when it comes on the market) and the soon to be available “artificial horizon” glasses, courtesy of M. Phillippe Jassier.

But my final advice to those of you who really do feel that dying will always be preferable to suffering a bad case of seasickness, stay at home, sit under a tree on dry land, out of sight of water and read a book about the sufferings of others. And this, for no charge, is the only remedy that is guaranteed to work, believe me!

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