Wearing a sailing helmet may be beneficial in reducing the risk of blunt trauma head injury in a high performance environment but for the less experienced, it could lead to a greater chance of injury if the hazards are not understood.
Safety equipment has evolved over time to deliver optimal performance. ISO standards have been developed to ensure equipment performs as it should, but that is not true for all equipment and we all need to be aware of the dangers of using equipment which has not been specifically designed and tested for a specific purpose.
The use of helmets in sport is common place; cricketers, rugby players, cyclists, skiers, kayakers and F1 drivers all wear them. However, crucially, these helmets are specifically designed and tested according to the impacts of different types of sports, so a rugby cap is not intended to be worn by a cyclist or kayaker.
America’s Cup sailors don crash helmets, in addition to body armour and oxygen, to protect them from high speed capsizes. However, each competing boat is also followed closely by chase boats carrying scuba divers, doctors and support personnel to provide immediate assistance in case of capsize.
At the moment there is no specific standard for sailing helmets. If you use a helmet that is inappropriate you may expose yourself to injury in other ways that detract from the original purpose of wearing it in the first place. In case of inversion, there is a possibility that a helmet could increase the risk of entrapment or increase any disorientation experienced by a sailor in trying to free themselves. Dinghy sailors mostly wear buoyancy aids that do not support the neck and head when unconscious in the water. An unconscious sailor in the water may be more prone to floating face down.
Whilst a helmet may not reduce visibility, it may impinge on the situational awareness of the sailor and could subsequently add to an increased risk of an accident. There also is potential for neck strain if there is a sudden deceleration of the boat even without an impact; whiplash could be exaggerated by the weight of the helmet.
More research is required on this rapidly evolving issue within our sport. However, as with any aspect of boating it is important that if you feel a helmet may be appropriate for the boating you are doing you should first assess what it is that you are trying to achieve, whether the intended helmet is fit for purpose and what other measures may be appropriate either instead of or as well as a helmet. Boom heights, the potential speed of the craft and conditions in which you will be sailing are examples of factors you need to consider.
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