I put all my faith in the Dramamine patch. My photo editor suggested I get one from the doctor’s office, rather than buy the stuff you can get over-the-counter. I thought a prescribed Dramamine patch would be stronger, would form a protective bubble around me, keeping me bouncy and happy and nausea-free for the duration of the assignment.
We, the reporter (N) and myself, were going on a trip with some high school students who were studying marine biology (if I remember correctly). They were riding a pirate ship to some islands southeast of Florida–perhaps the Bahamas? Anyway, we had the good fortune of tagging along with them for a few days to document their experience. I was taking pictures, which is why I think so many details are foggy now; I was more concerned with the visual elements while the reporter was collecting details on what the students were studying and what they were going to do when they arrived at the final destination.
We met the crew at a harbor in Miami, and it was a balmy, beautiful night. The students laughed and chatted, as family members milled about, checking out the ship, and musing over the tightness of the quarters. The ship was beautiful, exactly what you would picture when you hear the term “pirate ship,” though I think it’s more commonly called a “tall ship.” The captain was charismatic and handsome and introduced the crew to everyone. They took us on a tour of the ship and showed us our quarters. N and I would share a room in the hold of the boat, next to the galley. The students would be sleeping in a separate part of the ship’s hold. The sections were not connected; if we wanted to visit the students, or wanted to use the bathroom (which was located in the students’ section of the hold), we had to climb out of the galley area, walk across the ship’s deck and climb back down into the hold. Not a big deal at first glance, though this separation would become problematic as the trip continued.
The group socialized for a few hours, and it was late when family members said final goodbyes, so that the students could go to their quarters and prepare for sleep. The captain planned to leave harbor some time in the night, so we all retired to our beds. I had my handy Dramamine patch behind my ear; it had been there for a few hours. It left a weird taste in my mouth and left me feeling generally medicated. I didn’t care though, because it was going to keep me functioning out at sea. I think everyone there laughed about taking Dramamine, and making sure they brought some with them.
N and I crawled into our beds. The ocean gently rocked us asleep. I recall waking at 3:00am and recognizing that we had left the harbor. The gentle rocking was now more pronounced, but still quite enjoyable, and I snuggled down into my bed, happy to be at sea.
In the morning, I woke up to the smell of breakfast, an unfortunate side-effect of sleeping next to the galley. It always smelled like bacon grease and dough, and the smell was very thick. N and I made our way to the deck. Students were on their knees, puking over the side. Others had found their sea legs and were helping the crew, and learning how to handle the sails. I started taking pictures. It was cool and drizzly. There was a chop to the water, but nothing that bothered me. I walked around, trying to find a tactful way to photograph seasick kids. The boat creaked and swayed below my feet, but I gave it no thought. Soon N decided she wasn’t feeling so well, and returned to our room by the galley. She had looked a little green. I chatted with some of the kids, asked them how they were feeling, took pictures of the ones whose faces and body language betrayed their seasickness. And then I made the mistake of plopping down where the others were sitting and staring out at the horizon.
It started as only a twinge as I watched the horizon line move up and down. An uneasy fluttering in my belly. The water continued to chop at the boat, and I noticed the chop a little more. “But that’s not possible,” I thought to myself. “I’m using a Dramamine patch.” The longer I sat there, the stronger the fluttering became. I picked up my cameras and tried to keep working, but the feeling intensifed, and I was getting a little green myself. I decided to return to my room as well and rest for a while.
I fell asleep and was woken by the physical movement of my body rolling back and forth in my bed. While I was asleep, the choppy waves had become tumultuous and ridiculous, and were battering the ship back and forth like a ping pong ball. I literally rolled from one side of my tiny bed to the other in accordance to the waves. It felt like the ship had become some sort of amusement park ride; dishes fell off the wall in the galley from the strength of the waves pushing us around. Sometimes it felt as if the ship caught air, and landed with a thud back on the water. My stomach was positively upended. Back and forth, back and forth, I rolled. There was no possibility of being still.
Then I realized I needed to use the bathroom.
The bathroom, of course, was on the other side of the ship. The action of sitting up was all my stomach needed to lose its contents. I had a plastic bag near my bed and used it as my receptacle. I felt a tad relieved and climbed the stairs to the deck of the ship.
It was raining something awful. The crew wore rain suits and were fussing with various things on the ship. The storm and the waves were severe enough that most of the workers were tethered to the ship by ropes, and, in hindsight, I’m surprised they didn’t reprimand me as I staggered my way across the deck. With as loopy and sick as I felt, and with the ship careening so radically, I’m surprised I didn’t topple over the side. And, at the time, I felt so ill that I don’t think I would have cared.
I climbed into the students’ quarters and found the ridiculously tiny bathroom. Judging from the smell, I wasn’t the only one sick on the ship. Once I finished, I staggered my way through the rain and back to my bed, climbed in, and vomited again. I flopped against the mattress and felt the ship rock to the left, to the right, and my body moved in response. I got sick again. I felt abject. Absolutely abject and desperate. “This is hell on earth,” I thought to myself. “There’s nowhere to go. There’s no getting off this ship.” I decided from that point forward, should anyone ask me what I imagine hell to be like, this ship experience would be my answer. Eventually a more Buddhist-minded thought came to to me: Nothing Lasts Forever. This storm would subside, I would stop feeling sick, we would get to land. And it helped to recognize this fact. But my answer to the question of hell still stands.
I think we figured out that we were bedridden by the ocean waves for 17 hours–a total time warp. 17 hours of rocking, vomiting, and occasionally staggering to the bathroom, then vomiting again on the return to bed. The waves weren’t so extreme for the entire 17 hours, but by the time we woke up and were able to get out of bed and not be sick, 17 hours had passed.
When we finally climbed to the deck, both of us sallow and peaked, the sun was shining. Most of the kids had been out and about for awhile, recovering much faster than I. At least one student had even helped during the storm. There was land in sight and I couldn’t have been happier. We were stopping at a different island than planned because of the rough sailing, and the captain wanted to give everyone a chance to collect themselves, and get some ground under their feet. He blamed the rough waters on the Gulf Stream. But, finally, there was land in sight.