Monday, June 4, 2012

Hard Hats

Is sailing crawling along the path of becoming a helmet sport?

Many of us have an immediate, perhaps visceral, negative reaction to the idea that sailing has risks significant enough to warrant the wearing of helmets.  We who have been sailing helmetless for thirty years have a natural suspicion about the idea.  Have we been living on the edge of danger for all these years, and have we been oblivious to the inherent risks of our sport?  Or, are we just close minded about new ways of thinking?

“Concuss”, to injure by concussion, is now a common word in the vocabulary of high school sailors on my team.  When I was a kid in a bike accident that I can’t recall and that accounted for a whole week I don’t remember, I “got” a concussion.  Nothing concussed me, and I did not concuss myself.  There were no verbs.  No connection between an action and a result.

Now, probably as a result of new findings about America’s favorite gladiator-like sport, football, everyone knows a lot about concussions and the acts of “concussing”.  As a coach, I’m annually required to earn a certificate from CDCI showing that I am knowledgeable about concussions and their treatments. I must file a report of every clonk on the head received by one of my students.

On my team, we had one sailor concuss himself in the fall and two skippers concuss their crews in the spring.  Two years ago, we had a full “call the paramedics and go to the hospital” concussion.  In all cases, kids were out of school for a while and out of sailing for weeks.  The first concussed student returned wearing a snowboarding helmet.  It turns out that people are more susceptible to long term injury with each successive concussion and especially susceptible to injury if a new concussion occurs before the first is totally healed.  Concerns over this are now so significant that I bought a helmet for returning concussed sailors to wear for at least a week after they resume sailing.  And over the last few years, I have seen a few kids in high level events sporting helmets.  They were all kinds of helmets - snowboarding helmets, bicycle helmets, hockey helmets, and skateboard helmets.  I bought a kayak helmet, figuring that a watersport helmet would be a better idea.

I have no idea what type it is, but I think this red one is the coolest.

I remained suspicious that pilot error accounted for our team’s injuries, and that proficient sailors have miniscule risk of injury. Then there was the day at Cabarete when the wind completely died but the waves remained at 4 to 6 feet.  I repeatedly failed to duck as I bobbed in the waves and my boom jumped to and fro. I took several shots to the side of the head.  I was shocked that I experienced concussion symptoms the next morning and had to skip a day of sailing.  Pilot error again, but this time I was the pilot.

And then there is the Lynn Shore incident.  Her very serious clonk may have been pilot error, but not hers, and it may have just been a result of a congested racing situation where all the sailors involved were very competent.

Combining the availability of a helmet and substantial anecdotal evidence that helmets might be helpful, I thought I would try one out.  My initial assumptions were that the helmet would be too hot, generally uncomfortable, make it harder to get under the boom while tacking, and look silly.  (My wife says I look silly in all hats, so not much to lose there.)  The first try was a solo session in wind of 7 – 12 MPH.  The helmet was quite comfy in all respects.  Because of the chin strap and good fit, it stayed in place – a nice change from the baseball hat that I fidget with and sometimes have to rescue after a blow off.  Surprisingly, although the helmet had no bill, it protruded just enough to close the gap above my sunglasses and keep out glare.  And my tacks were no worse or concussive than usual.

Yesterday, I raced wearing the helmet in wind of 12 – 20MPH.  Comfy again.  I even tested it with an inadvertent, but quite substantial shot from the boom.  (Pilot error remains a problem.)  The clonk hurt a little even with the helmet, but I would have seen stars without it.

I’m still concerned that I can’t look like a cool Laser sailor if I wear a helmet.  I will look like a nervous novice or an old guy afraid to die on his Laser.  My friends won’t think more or less of me one way or the other, but my old, sun faded baseball hat and snappy sailing attire might be fooling some strangers into thinking I look like a decent sailor.

All things considered, I don’t want to decide if sailing is sufficiently dangerous to be a helmet sport.  (Let everyone decide for themselves.)  I just want a good hat – one that is comfortable, stays on my head, keeps out the sun, and sheds some rain.  I’m surprised that helmets seem to be pretty good hats by this definition.  As long as they are good hats in all other respects except appearance, they will become more popular.  We will evolve our definitions of “cool” and helmets will be designed to look more “cool.”  Maybe we will individualize them like skateboarders do.  The sport will gradually become safer even without many of us making a philosophical commitment to safety.

It’s pretty “cool” that the right hat can mitigate the consequences of pilot error, so if I going to wear a hat, it might be a hard one. 


  1. You are a leader in the sport, Sir, and are setting a great example. Others will follow, mark my words.

  2. You looked very handsome in your helmet the other day. To bad it didn't keep you from capsizing. My goal this season is to never capsize downwind. I'm optimistic!

  3. My hat of choice is unique (especially in appearance) in that it stays on my head and allows me to see the masthead without causing a pain in my neck.

  4. I’m still concerned that I can’t look like a cool Laser sailor if I wear a helmet. I will look like a nervous novice or an old guy afraid to die on his Laser. hi very nice blog and so cool products and so nice information.

    Hard hats