On the Job

Handling Seasickness on Board as a Yacht Chef

30 August 2022 By Nina Wilson
Illustration by John Devolle

Pre-galley, Nina Wilson trained as a dive instructor and skippered sailing boats in Greece before starting her yachting career in 2013. Currently head chef on a 55-meter, her talents included telling brilliant jokes and being able to consume six cheeseburgers and feel no guilt. Follow her on Instagram @thecrewchef.

Look, I hate to bring it up, but there’s no avoiding it if you work on a vessel. It is the nature of the beast, and it’s only a matter of time before you find yourself blowing chunks.

I will pre-empt a question here: “Why do you work on a boat if you get seasick?” Ugh. Honestly. Boats like these (sorry, “yachts,” darling) typically don’t go into rough water. They’re not designed for places like the North Sea; the Reidel glassware would barely make it an hour and the chandeliers would get themselves into such a tangle. Passing through unsavory conditions is a very rare occurrence, so it’s a risk that I’m willing to take as part of the job.

I will happily admit that I am prone to some queasiness. Seasickness and I, we have a long history. I first started working on boats at 15, where the largest was a dive vessel that would travel 70 nautical miles out to the Great Barrier Reef, crossing “the shipping channel” (aka my own personal hell). I am still triggered by the smell of bad-quality chocolate cake, which they would unfortunately serve for morning tea, and then we’d see it again a few hours later, scrubbing it off the carpet.

It was on there that I discovered seasickness is a lot like yawning, and when you’ve got a vessel with 330 landlubbers and a handful start regurgitating lunch…that stuff spreads fast, I tell ya. Something about the noise, the gushing of chunks into an insulated bag, and then the smell. The boat’s air-conditioning system was barely up to scratch in the North Queensland summer, and I have vivid memories of standing mid-salon scratching a lemon with a fork amid a crowd of gagging passengers. (Yes, they truly had us try to “lemon away the sick.”) It climaxed when a mother of three — desperately clutching a sloshy-sounding bag while trying to comfort her brood — proclaimed, “This is bloody worse than being in labor!”

Passing through unsavory conditions is a very rare occurrence, so it’s a risk that I’m willing to take as part of the job.

I strongly feel that as yacht chefs, we get a raw deal. Not everyone gets seasick, and those people still need to eat, so it’s not like we can just shut the galley down. Additionally, the environment that we are in is not conducive to keeping the nausea at bay. All the traditional advice — “Look at the horizon!” “Stand at the back of the boat and get some fresh air!” — is not the slightest bit helpful when you consider the galley itself. It’s a tiny metal box with no windows, and it’s pretty warm in there because ovens, and then let’s add a lot of strong aromas…

It’s the perfect storm!

I recall at the start of a passage down from Florida to the Panama Canal, we began a mega-prep morning. There was a Chashu pork belly and a Greek-style lamb shoulder braising away, while beef-brisket pie filling and a Bolognese sauce were on the stovetop. I can’t recall whether we had been warned and decided to chance it, or simply that we weren’t expecting any rough weather, but when we rounded the corner, the bow was dancing a jig.

Immediately, battle stations were assumed. The fiddle was brought out for the stove top and hastily locked into place; the nonstick mats laid out on the counter to stop the fruit platter taking a nosedive. Nevertheless, it was too late for us to take a tablet. (It’s damn inconvenient, the whole must-take-one-hour-before-travel situation!) The sous chef started out strong, but when I started talking about how strong the lamb was smelling and maybe we should have put more oregano, she turned pale and disappeared.

A professional seasickness-avoider like myself knows exactly the triggers and has a surefire cure on hand. First, I’ll start to get hot, and then I get a bit of a head rush. Alarm bells! My initial weapon to resist the mal de mer is a can of Indian Tonic water. Schweppes will suffice, but let’s be honest, it’s a yacht so it’ll probably be a Fever-Tree. If that doesn’t keep it at bay, I need to immediately orient myself in a horizontal manner somewhere cool — so most likely I’ll sprint to the back of the main salon and lie down as fast as I can. My sous chef has another method, where she embraces the chunder, and decides to simply get it over and done with. “Be right back!” she’ll call, trotting down the crew corridor to donate her lunch to the commode.

I have vivid memories of standing mid-salon scratching a lemon with a fork amid a crowd of gagging passengers. Yes, they truly had us try to “lemon away the sick.”

Indeed, all crew act differently. We have the saltiest, seasoned ex-sports fisherman on board as our second officer. “Never, ever,” he would say, “have I been seasick.” Well, when I served up spaghetti Bolognese (salvaged from the stovetop as an emergency meal) and he didn’t appear, I knew something was wrong — that was his No. 1 most requested meal. He emerged, 12 hours later. “Turns out every sailor does have their sea.”

It was so awfully rough during that passage, the chief officer came up to take his watch, spent five minutes in the bridge, then quietly excused himself out the bridge door to heave half-digested pasta over the side.

A little throwback to the dive vessel here — it was always slightly amusing when someone on the sundeck chundered over the side and it slid down the floor-to-ceiling windows on the main deck. Lovely!

A close friend of mine has been a yacht chef for a few years and suffers awfully from seasickness. Her first yacht didn’t move much, so she was able to remain undetected and vomit-free. However, the next vessel was not so staid. The voice note I received following the first day of her Atlantic crossing was one for the books. She was so seasick, she cried, that she had to keep retreating to the walk-in freezer to cool herself down until she eventually threw up in a Ziploc bag over the sink. Ah, yachting. So glamorous.

But what to feed the masses when all the not-so-metaphoric vomit hits the fan? Firstly, avoid fish at all costs. Fish pie served on the first day of an Atlantic crossing will possibly make you the least popular chef in the world. Better to avoid anything seafood-related to be safe. Stick with the comfort foods: baked potatoes, pasta, garlic bread, and plain rice. Take the simple route and nourish with carbs. Sure, there’s not many veggies on that list, but doesn’t there ALWAYS seem to be carrots in one’s puke? I’ll leave it there.


Seasickness Remedy

This recipe is more of a guide and will hopefully save your ass should the nausea hit. Any soup (ideally tomato, tinned Heinz, or Campbell’s is perfectly acceptable), a platter of sliced cheese and ham, and basket of sliced bread with the toastie maker on standby, is the answer. And, if all else fails, the crew can survive on cereal and yogurt. Bon chance!

This article originally ran in the January 2022 issue of Dockwalk.


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