That time when seasickness (almost) defeated me. Racer’s word


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Stock photo purely illustrative of the case cited in the article.

I decided to recount this personal experience because I know how, for many sailors, seasickness can be a great restraint, psychological and physical. A problem that for some can become a block so insurmountable that it jeopardizes their continued progress in this beautiful sport called sailing.

I’ve been boating for almost 30 years and racing for 20, yet underneath I’ve always known that my body under certain conditions gives me “strange” signals. Signs that for a long time I always ignored, until there came a time when I could no longer pretend nothing was wrong. The narrative will be somewhat detailed because I believe that in the topic of seasickness, it is very important to describe the situations in which the malaise takes place so that we can understand and overcome it.


For those unfamiliar with the Palermo-Montecarlo regatta, it is an offshore race of about 500 miles that takes place in the second half of August, usually starting shortly after mid-August. In 2012 I was embarked, as bowman, on a First 40.7. I arrived at the regatta in optimal physical shape, after an intense racing season with many hours at sea, so ready to face the offshore race after having done in the previous months the 151 Miglia and the Giraglia, so well broken in. However, the Palermo-Montecarlo is a different kind of regatta. It is certainly not comparable in difficulty coefficient to a 600-mile “summit” like the Middle Sea Race, but it does have a climatic component, the heat, that is by no means negligible. Added to this is the fact that the average weather conditions for this regatta are either very little wind and becalmed, or very strong and often Mistral-like winds.


In the 2012 edition, the first phase, as far as Sardinia, was very slow and in easterly breeze regimes. During the first two nights the crew was engaged in constant sail changes, and as bowman at that stage I made the first mistake that I would pay for later. Even if there was maybe another bowman on duty, I would still wake up to help with maneuvers, out of overconfidence in my physical possibilities. After helping with the maneuver, I would often not go back to rest immediately but would stay on deck, perhaps on standby in the gunwale, to be sure that no further sail changes would be coming soon. This caused me to lose considerable sleep hours, which during an offshore regatta are critical, a deficit that punishes you in the long run.

On the morning of the third day of racing we tack along the coast of Sardinia in approach to Porto Cervo, the tactical choice is clear: we will make the Pass of the Snakes. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a channel just under 0.3 miles wide whose entrance is between Cape Iron and Bisce Island. Traveling along it leaves all the islands of the Maddalena Archipelago to the right and is the shortest route to the Straits of Bonifacio. At the Palermo-Montecarlo, not making the Bisce almost certainly means cutting oneself out of the race so much is the advantage those who do it get. Running it, however, means being prepared for passages with shallow water and frequent wind shifts, as there is a lot of turbulence given by the islands in this channel.

We enter the Bisce at about noon, under a scorching heat of 35 to 40 degrees, and here I commit a second error. A few lengths behind us is a sister boat, we both sail under spinnaker, it would be my time to eat but I decide to throw down just a slice of apple and a glass of juice to stay ready to maneuver, I’ll eat better later I tell myself. In fact, soon the roulette of wind jumps begins. The air spins all over the place, we switch from spi to light genoa, then to windseeker, then light again, three sail changes within 15 minutes and that’s just the beginning. We advance slowly heeled by our opponents. At the exit of the Bisce, however, it is as if suddenly someone has opened a window from Mistral. 5,10, 15, 20 knots. Within no more than twenty minutes we make three more peels with the bow sails, from light to medium heavy. Third mistake, I get wet. The windy weather situation was not expected and I perform the last sail change without dressing with repeated dives into the waves.

The Straits of Bonifacio give us their proverbial welcome with the Mistral. Sea with steep waves in short sequence and steadily increasing wind. When the anemometer begins to steadily pass 30 knots stabilizing at 35 another sail change is mandatory: we keep the full mainsail but switch to jib 4, the last available jib before the storm jib or reducing the mainsail. Before going to change with my bow mates I go below deck: I have two goals, to get dressed and to put on the umbilical for the life jacket. The first goal I fail immediately: the interior of the boat is a mess, with two unbent genoas piled between the bow and dinette. Because of the speed with which the wind changed, and because of our inexperience, it was not possible to bend them. In order to reach my bag located in a locker beyond the sails I would have to make no small effort with the boat beating violently on the waves, and I feel a headache that advises against it. I grab my umbilical hanging in the dinette and make my fourth and decisive mistake, trusting my body to withstand another wet sail change without a oilskin. I go out on deck, hook onto the jack line and run toward the bow.

The change is far from simple, resembling more like a scuba diving test. For those unfamiliar with the sequence of a sail change it is normally done as follows: we stand on the edge that allows us to have the inner tuff luff channel clear, hoist the new sail on this, after this we tack with both sails to the bow and lower the old one when it is inner. In the conditions we were in, however, we decide not to execute the maneuver with this sequence, the boat is out of control due to too much canvas on shore, and the genoa has to be hastily lowered. After hauling it down it has to be packed in a bag since there is already no more room below deck, and in the meantime we sail mainsail only. A maneuver that in theory is quick and easy but due to fatigue and weather conditions turns into something long and exhausting. On the first attempt jib 4 escapes from the channel and flutters for a few seconds slapping the bowmen. Eventually we tame it and hoist it back to sailing now with a good trim. But darkness falls for me, in the true sense of the word.


I remember finishing the sail change and hearing one of my comrades say, “You don’t look so good.” Nausea. The bloody nausea, which grabs your stomach and goes up to your head, short-circuiting you. Added to this is an obvious drop in pressure that makes my movements very slow. I slept poorly, ate poorly, got wet repeatedly, and did everything in the manual on how to get seasick. My body is about to present me with the bill, and it will be steep.

I decide that my time on deck is over, in theory I would still be for an hour in the off shift, and I sashay underneath gritting my teeth. In my head, the only thought is to rest to regain energy, but doing so in the cockpit, with continuous waterfalls, is unthinkable. I wedge myself ashore, the better to choose the lowest possible spot, between a sail and the dinette bench, trying to find a position that won’t roll me over with every wave. I find my own balance, but I honestly feel terrible. I am grappling with sensations that are quite new to my body, considering that in the past this has been only, occasionally, a passing discomfort for me with no consequences. I immediately imposed a principle on myself, which in the following years I never abandoned, overcoming this challenge: I do not vomit. As to how I do it, I don’t have a good answer, but I don’t vomit, ever, although that doesn’t stop me from being sick. I’ve never asked a doctor, but I think with seasickness it’s best, if you can, not to vomit so as not to dehydrate and weaken further

I start tossing and turning to try to find a position that allows me to keep my head locked (a method I recommend), I find it, I suffer a little less but I feel completely without strength. In the meantime it’s almost getting dark, the Mistral doesn’t let up, my turn off ends, and I’m supposed to go back on deck, but that’s out of the question for me at the moment. They are not able. My comrades understand this and comply. At this point I must have fallen asleep. Not before I felt guilty with my classmates and ashamed of my condition.

An indefinite amount of time passes. I am awakened by an arm, the boat is still beating hard, everything is dark. It is a comrade of mine who wakes me up and asks how I am. I’m not much better. He hands me a small bottle of water and invites me to drink. I don’t feel like it. He forces it on me. I drink. Judging by the taste it is mineral salts, disgusting to my stomach. I get back down, but little by little I feel my body beginning to respond. The legs and arms become less heavy; the head is lighter. I wait a few more minutes. I pull myself up with my torso and sit down, the inside of the boat is smelly with a mixture of moisture, bilge and sweat that would knock out anyone not used to similar situations. My head, on the other hand, now holds, I am once again in control of the body, and suddenly … hunger. Much hunger. I know it’s a good sign, I open the well of the refrigerator, and the first thing I find is a bag with mono portions of grana padano. I open the first, second, third, eat. I accompany it with some slices of bread, drink some water. Addesso I have the strength to get to the bag with my clothing. I wear a thermal, put on dungarees and the top piece of the oilskin. I go outside, breathing hard. Rebirth. The next 30 hours before arrival seem like a walk in the park. We close fifth. The following year with the same boat and much of the same crew we finished second. And to this day I have never stopped doing offshore racing.


The account of this episode was deliberately long in order to be able to minutely describe some of the conditions during which seasickness can be triggered even in a well-trained body. If you try to take a survey even among “medalist” or highly experienced sailors probably all or most will tell you that they have been seasick at least once in their lives. There is nothing to be ashamed of. There is no need to hide; on the contrary, we need to talk about it to exorcise the fear of it and also manage to humor the topic. Most importantly, we need to learn more about our bodies and respect them. Listen to his signals, give him time to recover from strenuous work cycles (so NEVER skip shifts), eat properly and always stay well hydrated. Another thing to avoid at all costs are temperature changes, heat strokes alternating with “buckets” of water. Therefore, it is essential to protect yourself as much from the sun as from the water, always dress in advance and have, in an easily accessible place in case of strong seas, your technical clothing. Above all, never be ashamed of your weakness. If your fellow boaters are worthwhile they will help you, if they are not remember this when you get off the boat and ponder whether sailing with them again is a good choice. Seasickness is something that can be controlled; it should not force you to give up sailing or be afraid to go sailing. It will be preparation, knowledge of the body and the ability to intuit its signals in advance that will let each of us know what we can do and what we should avoid or, simply, understand when we need a little extra preparation to achieve a goal. Be it an offshore regatta or a cruise to the Giglio.

Mauro Giuffrè


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