Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Incomplete and Non-scientific Guide to Finding Yourself a Sailing Helmet Part 2- Selecting a Sailing Helmet

In view of the colossal failure in manufacturer marketing of sailing helmets, I thought it might be helpful to those with some interest to share what I have learned about available helmets.

The world of helmets is surprisingly large.  There seems to be a helmet for everything – biking, skiing, skateboarding, surfing, windsurfing, hockey, girls’ soccer, kayaking, whitewater rafting, and on and on.  (By the way, when I was young, all of these things were done without helmets.) 

As I started to look around at this multifaceted world, I was lucky to stumble onto some marketing from a kayak helmet manufacturer telling me that their foam padding is wonderful because it does not absorb water.  Foam in other helmets turns into a sponge when wet, and sponges are neither good padding nor comfortable on the head.  Ah ha!  The helmet world is divided, and watersport helmet land is the place to look.

Every kind of helmet I looked at claimed it was rugged and safe.  There is a standard certification, the CE 1385 international standard for headgear for whitewater sports, which indicates if a helmet is safe enough.  They all seem to have it, but one should actually verify.  Mostly I go by the pictures.  If people wear a particular helmet to kayak over waterfalls or surf 40 foot waves, it is good enough for me.  Also, my point of comparison for ruggedness and safety is the baseball hat I have been wearing – a pretty low standard.

Turns out helmet safety is closely related to how well the thing actually stays on the head during impacts.  Helmets that move around aren’t so safe.  One universal in this snug fit concept is that there needs to be support of the occipital lobe, the back of the head a little below the equator.  There are two approaches to this.  One is an adjustable strap and the other is a helmet that extends down behind the head a couple of inches further down than a baseball hat.  The majority of kayak helmets use the first method.  The bowling ball shaped helmets use the latter.

As a laser sailor, I have a very specific need for a low profile helmet.  In any boat with a low boom, there is a tradeoff between seeking protection from a bump and making one’s head bigger and higher to more likely receive that bump.  Minimal distance between the top of my head and the top of the helmet is imperative.  This criterion eliminates many kayak helmets that otherwise appear to be durable and well designed.  The biggest problem is that only a few models are called “low profile”, and even then, the term is undefined.  You are left guessing from pictures that were never intended to show what you are looking for.

A helmet for sailing ought to be comfortable.  It ought to be unobtrusive, lightweight, and not cause overheating or sweating.  Many helmets have holes for ventilation.  For those of us replacing a baseball hat with a helmet, the helmet should have a visor to keep sun out of the eyes.  The internet can show us some of this but determining if a particular helmet is too hot or otherwise uncomfortable requires trying it on and testing it out.

And maybe it matters what the helmet looks like and how it affects our image.  Let’s face it, sailors don’t want to appear dorky.  Since sailing pros are definitely not dorky, I wanted to know what they are wearing.    Part 1 of this blog post covers some of this. So, having determined some of the things a sailing helmet ought to be, I tried a few out.

Shred Ready “Sesh”.  I bought this helmet for kids on my sailing team after a few concussions and weeks of missed sailing time.   It’s a kayak helmet with applicable foam and safety certification.  It is sold in sizes with an adjustable occipital strap to make it secure.  It has no shims, so the fit is not quite perfect, but it is good enough.  It’s lightweight and has a low profile.  The protective foam is covered with a fabric that eliminates the clingy, somewhat sticky feeling of foam.  There are small gaps in the lining that promote air/water flow through the 11 ventilation holes. It’s comfortable and unobtrusive to wear.  In terms of image, it is a skateboard helmet (very round and no visor) adapted to watersports.  Maybe that is a good look for kids.  The price is great, $39, the least expensive helmet I considered.
Predator “Lee”.  This kayak helmet looks like a baseball hat which is apparently a cool look in the adventure kayak world.  Unfortunately, this helmet does not work at all for me.  It is too narrow for my head and even with ample shims, it does not fit right.  Although it was billed as a low profile design, it has a higher profile than any others I tried.  It also feels a bit heavy compared to others.  I had to send this one back.  Price $129.
ProTec “Ace”.  I tried this one on in a local REI store.  They had a grand total of 1 in stock.  Not a big seller.  It is a spherical type with a tight fit all around.  It is sold in several sizes and allows minor adjustments for sizing.  The one I tried was a good fit.  It is low profile and lightweight.  It has 16 ventilation holes and seems like it would do the job.  It does not have a visor of any kind, so it is not right for me, but it is the choice of Emeritus Team New Zealand.  Price $45.  A model with adjustable occipital strap is $65.
Gath “Gedi.”  This is my current favorite, and I wear mine quite often.  Gath helmets are spherical and come from the world of surfing. They seem to be the helmet of choice for surfing, windsurfing, and kiteboarding.  They have the usual foam and safety certification.  They come in several sizes, and the fit is quite snug with three interchangeable wrap around head band pieces to get a good fit.  The “Gedi” weighs less than a pound and its cousin, the “Surf”, weighs even less.  Gath prides itself on being low profile, and they are.  I bought the “Gedi” model because it comes with a removable visor.  It has vent holes at the top, but they are much smaller than those on the “Ace” or the “Sesh”.  I was afraid the snug fitting foam headband and smaller vents would make it too hot, but it was surprisingly comfortable when I wore it in 90 degree weather.  However, when the wind dropped below 5 MPH, it was hot – but isn’t every hat?  I have since tried a sweat resistant headband under the helmet and this feels cooler. The “Gedi” also comes with plugs for the vents when used in cooler months and insertable ear protectors.  Apparently surfers can burst eardrums in a fall, but I currently can’t get my laser to go fast enough to worry about that. In terms of image, I am aware that I am wearing the helmet of AC 45 sailors, but I’m not sure others realize how cool this makes me.
Shred Ready “Supper Scrappy.”  Eric is trying out this model and seems to like it.  It is a baseball hat style, but with a much smaller visor.  In addition to the standard safety certification, Shred Ready uses a different foam that is even better at impact resistance.  I was surprised to discover that it has as low a profile as any I have seen.  It has an occipital strap and shims to get a good fit.  Its baseball hat styling may be less jarring to those not used to seeing sailing helmets.  It looks like another good choice.

Okay.  I have done my best to market helmets that work for sailing, but I’m sure there are more helmets well suited to this purpose.  If there are any manufacturers out there who want an honest opinion and perhaps my invaluable endorsement of their product, you are most welcome to send me a helmet to test drive.


  1. Is there a test to find out if someone might be suffering from concussion after a bang on the head?

  2. Here is a website with a good list of symptoms - and a plethora of information about concussions. As a high school coach I am require to take the CDC online course once a year.
    The surprising thing about the symptoms sometimes is how long it can take before they appear. I had a case where a student was bonked on a Thursday afternoon, did not think it serious enough to report to me, and did not have symptoms until Monday morning. She saw a doctor, was diagnosed with a concussion, and missed two and a half weeks of sailing.

  3. I don't think you put the link in your post but I'm guessing you mean http://www.cdc.gov/concussion/signs_symptoms.html


    Difficulty thinking clearly

    Feeling slowed down

    Feeling tired

    Sleeping more than usual

    I get those symptoms EVERY long regatta I sail. Especially "feeling slowed down."

  4. There is a fairly simple yardstick drop test, I can't seem to find it though. If you're concerned about head injuries you can pay $75 to get a computer test done for a baseline, then when you think you've got one, go in again and retest.

    It's hard because most effective tests use some sort of baseline.

  5. There is a short questionnaire designed by the trauma docs at Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis that can be used for a quick assessment. It's not full proof. I've seen people pass the test and develop symptoms later. But it is good enough to get a quick assessment and decide whether or not to call an ambulance. It's called the "Short Blessed Test". Don't know if it's available online.

  6. "The Short Blessed Test" developed by the ER dept at Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis is a quick way to assess concussion. Don't know if it's available online, but it's only 5 or 6 questions and easy to administer.

  7. Finally there is a helmet designed for the Sailing market: