There's no getting away from it, boats are getting faster; Flying Phantom, NACRA 17, F50 and foiling moths and kiteboards are some examples. Since the introduction of the 49er into the Olympics and the exponential increase in foiling, developments in dinghy and multihull design have greatly enhanced performance, but with speed comes the potential for increased risk.
Although the majority of us do not sail the fastest foilers at the high-performance end of the sailing spectrum there is still an element of risk involved in our sport, even if you are sailing a traditional dinghy in normal conditions.
The use of helmets or other forms of head protection in sport has become common place; cricketers, rugby players, cyclists, skiers, kayakers, horse riders and F1 drivers all wear them. However, these helmets are specifically designed and tested according to the likely impacts for the sport, so for example, a rugby scrum cap is not intended to be worn by a cyclist or kayaker and vice versa.
From the outset it is important to stress that there is currently no specific standard for a sailing helmet and therefore those that sailors use are simply deemed suitable for sailing as a secondary function to their primary use. For that reason, we all need to be aware of the risks associated with the use of equipment which has not been specifically designed and tested for its secondary purpose.
Most dinghy sailors have had first-hand experience of being tapped on the head at least once by the boom and it may not always be from your own boat. Anywhere where racing takes place in close-quarters such as starting lines or mark roundings are areas of the course where you are just as vulnerable to being hit by another boat’s boom as you are from your own. But the circumstances are unimportant. Every time you hit your head, you are doing damage - it’s just a matter of how much. On faster more modern vessels such as those using foils an impact to the head may come in the form of being catapulted into a part of the vessel due to a rapid deceleration, for example during a pitchpole.
A bang on the head may well make you think seriously about wearing protective gear. So the question is: are you wearing protective head gear whilst sailing and should you be?
There are a number of risks that you need to think about when considering whether or not a helmet is for you. Factors such as experience, familiarity with the boat and equipment, complexity of the boat’s systems, weather conditions and the type of sailing you are doing are all important in assessing the impact of each risk. At the lower end, the risk associated with high deceleration forces, capsize, collision and falling off in traditional sailing dinghies travelling at less than 12 knots are arguably less that 49er type skiffs which in turn are less that the latest America's Cup boats.
Crucially, a helmet may greatly reduce the risk of blunt trauma head injury such as a fractured skull, but it is not going to prevent concussion caused by your brain coming to a sudden stop against the inside of your skull and so far, no-one has invented a helmet that will prevent concussion. Furthermore, if you use a helmet that is inappropriate for sailing (see what to avoid further down) you may expose yourself to injury in other unintended ways which negate the perceived benefits of wearing it in the first place.
If you think about it, the speed you are sailing at is not the real issue, it’s the forces caused by deceleration when you suddenly stop such as simply falling in – it happens! Water acts as an outstanding brake and if you do go over the side, the drag forces on a helmet may considerably increase the chances of damaging your neck. The weight of the wrong helmet may cause whiplash injury if you come to a sudden stop against a part of the boat that has capsized.
In case of inversion, there is a possibility that a helmet could increase the risk of entrapment or disorientation experienced by a sailor. Dinghy sailors mostly wear buoyancy aids that do not support the neck and head when unconscious in the water. An unconscious sailor may be more prone to floating face down and the added weight of a sailing helmet will not help.
The shape of the helmet may reduce visibility and affect situational awareness increasing the chances of an accident.
In all cases, we encourage sailors to think carefully about the potential risk factors associated with their particular sport and to consider whether head protection is either needed or indeed is appropriate for that activity. Under certain conditions, you may decide that you are not experienced enough and that the best thing to do is not to participate on a particular day. Event organisers may also impose limitations on going afloat and both of these are perfectly valid risk mitigation methods.
There are a number of standards that provide a useful guide to what might be suitable for sailing. The three main ones are given below and if you do decide that a helmet for sailing is your thing then you should look for one that at least conforms to one of these standards.
BS EN 1385:2012 - Helmets for canoeing and white water sports
This standard specifies requirements and test methods for helmets for canoeing and white water sports. The levels of protection offered by this standard recognise that most fatalities in canoeing and white water sports result from drowning after concussion and not from brain damage. The standard applies to helmets with and without holes in the shell. However, it does not provide performance requirements for visors, chin-guards or face-guards.
BS EN 1078:2012 - Helmets for pedal cyclists and for users of skateboards and roller skates
This standard specifies requirements and test methods for helmets worn by users of pedal cycles, skateboards and roller skates. The standard does not specify the precise extent of head coverage that is to be protected, it simply states that the helmet shall give protection to the forehead, rear, sides, temples and crown of the head. Cycling helmets should be light, well ventilated, easy to don and doff, usable with spectacles and not interfere with the user’s ability to hear traffic noise.
BS EN 1077:2007 - Helmets for alpine skiers and snowboarders
This standard specifies performance requirements and tests for two classes of helmets for alpine skiers, snowboarders and for similar groups, including children and participants in competitions. The standard comprises two different classes of protection, Class A helmets offer comparatively more protection. Class B helmets offer greater ventilation and better hearing, but protect a smaller area of the head and give a lesser degree of protection from penetration. Helmets designed for alpine skiers and snowboarders should be light, easy to don and doff, usable with spectacles, durable and not significantly interfere with the user's ability to hear.
BS EN 1385:2012
BS EN 1078:2012
BS EN 1077:2007
|Helmet profile||√||Not specified||√|
|Field of vision||X||√||√|
|Retention system (1)||√||√||√|
|Resistance to penetration||X||X||√|
|Ventilation||√||X (2)||X (2)|
Table 1: Performance tests conducted under each standard
1. Includes strength, chin strap, fastening and release, adjustment, effectiveness.
2. Ventilation is required but minimum cross-sectional area is not specified.
So you have thought about it, considered the pros and cons and decided to buy a helmet; the next question is: what should you be looking for?
We have already mentioned that there is no specific standard for sailing helmets but there are three types for canoeing, cycling and skiing that are certified to European Normative Standards or ENs which are also available as British Standards Institute (BSI) standards.
These standards specify requirements that cover many of the factors that need to be considered for use as a sailing helmet and they may be a reasonable choice dependent on the level you sail at. However, you should be aware that each of these three helmet standards are designed specifically to protect a person from the most likely injuries that may occur in that particular sport, not sailing.
If you decide to wear a helmet while you are sailing there will be an element of compromise and it is worth considering the following factors all of which will affect the suitability of the helmet for the purpose you intend to use it, but be aware that the none of the standards include tests for all of these factors and so you really need to try out a number of helmets before you buy one.
Helmet profile: the helmet must cover all necessary parts of the head: pay particular attention to protection from side and frontal impact; it is worth noting that the cycling helmet standard does not specify head coverage only that the helmet shall give protection to the forehead, rear, sides, temples and crown of the head.
Field of vision: the helmet design must not interfere with the user’s field of vision. If you wear glasses make sure the helmet does not interfere with their fit. Kayaking and skiing helmets specify that there must be no obstruction in the field of vision bounded by angles of 105° to either side horizontally, 25° upwards and 45° downwards.
Impact protection: in effect this is a test of the helmet’s shock absorbing capacity. In the factory this is tested with a specialised instrument that measures the forces at impact from a 1.5 metre drop onto a solid surface simulating a kerb stone.
Retention system: the retention system (straps and adjustment devices) must do two things: it must be strong enough to keep the helmet on your head and it must keep the helmet securely in the correct position. The strength of the retention system must be such that its dynamic extension under load does not exceed 35mm. Make sure that the chin strap is at least 15mm wide. A fastening device and means of adjustment are just as important and should be easy to use, even with cold wet fingers.
Resistance to penetration: not all helmets are tested for their resistance to penetration. This might be important to you if the cause of deceleration is a collision or breakage which could result in sharp edges appearing from nowhere.
Hearing: although hearing is mentioned in all three standards there are no tests specified for what is required. Cycle helmets are probably best in this respect because it is intended that you should be able to hear traffic noise but this is something you will need to assess for yourself.
Weight: none of the standards is helpful here as they only state that helmets “should have low weight”. More helpfully this is recorded on the helmet marking and is something to point you in the right direction but ultimately this is a matter personal preference and situation and something that you will have to judge for yourself by trying the helmet on.
Buoyancy: only helmets designed and tested for watersports specify that they should be buoyant after being immersed in water. Clearly the buoyancy provided is not going to overcome the weight of your head but it is not going to aggravate the situation for anyone who finds themselves unconscious in the water.
Durability: helmets that have been tested should not exhibit any damage that could result in significant injury to the wearer, however this requirement is only specified in the standards for cycle and skiing helmets.
Comfort: not surprisingly, the standards are silent on comfort although many are fitted with padding to improve their comfort, but ultimately what might be perfectly acceptable to one wearer might drive another to distraction. Again, this is a matter of personal preference and situation and you will have to judge for yourself by trying the helmet on. If a helmet is uncomfortable then it’s not the right helmet for you as you will probably not wear it.
Ventilation: as yet there is no method for measuring the ventilating capacity of a helmet and therefore the standards do not specify requirements for ventilation or heat transmission. This is something that you will need to assess when trying on a helmet.
Drainage: none of the standards specify requirements for drainage. A skiing helmet is likely to have smaller ventilation holes to prevent penetration by ski poles, etc. which may in turn affect its ability to drain quickly.
Marking: helmets that comply with a standard must be marked with the number of the standard, the trademark of the manufacturer, size, weight and date of manufacture. Ski helmets will also be marked with either class A or class B. Look carefully for these marks and beware of cheap imports that may be available online.
User information: helmets that conform to a standard must be supplied with user information for maintenance, cleaning and storage, what accessories are suitable if any (visors etc.) and fitting instructions.
The most obvious helmet to avoid is a motor cycle helmet. Whilst they conform to rigid safety and impact testing, they are not designed to be submerged in water and therefore drainage may well be an issue. In addition they have impact absorbing liners and comfort padding that may absorb water in the event of submersion making them very heavy which in turn could cause neck injury.
Martial arts helmets tend to be open head, i.e. they have little or no protection on top of the skull and are therefore unsuitable.
Boxing helmets are only intended to provide full face protection for the forehead, ears, chin and cheekbones. In addition they tend to have lace-up and rip-tab fastenings and are made from multi-layered, pre-formed foam that may absorb water if submerged.
The horse riding helmet standard EN1384 was withdrawn back in 2016. In the UK this has been replaced by BSI – PAS 015. PAS stands for “Product Approval Specification” and was developed in response to concerns of how long it was taking to develop what would become the up-to-date EN1384 standard.
Rugby scrum caps are intended to protect the ears and are designed so that the chin strap will give way in the event of a hard pull. The thickness of the foam padding must be less than 1 cm and they are unlikely therefore to provide adequate protection against a boom strike.
Industrial safety helmets have deliberately breakable chinstraps to avoid strangulation. They also have much smaller ventilation holes to avoid penetration by falling objects such as bits of metal, chisels and screwdrivers and for that reason may not drain adequately.
The best helmet is a good fit, comfortable, affordable and serviceable.
Fit and comfort
No matter how well a helmet is built, if it doesn’t fit well, it is not fit for purpose. Not only will it be uncomfortable, but you may well compromise the helmet’s protective capability by wearing it incorrectly, in fact, it can even become dangerous. If you are involved in a high-speed ejection, you do not want the helmet ending up off the back of your head, with the strap strangling you around your neck.
It is also important to ensure that the retention system prevents the helmet from slipping back to expose your forehead and that it keeps the helmet firmly secured in place and in the correct position.
To achieve the performance of which the helmet is capable, and to ensure stability on the head, it needs to be as close fitting as possible consistent with comfort. The helmet needs to be securely fastened, and any chin strap should be under tension at all times.
Try to resist the impulse to buy something just because it’s cheap. For most of us, budget will be a consideration but there are often very good reasons why some helmets cost more than others and in the end the extra cost of getting something that actually does what it is intended to do may well prevent a life changing experience when used in anger. Hopefully that will never happen.
Inspection and replacement
The standards make it clear that the protection given by a helmet depends on the circumstances of the accident and wearing a helmet does not always prevent death or long term disability.
A proportion of the energy of an impact is absorbed by the helmet, thereby reducing the force of the blow sustained by the head to prevent blunt trauma. The structure of the helmet may be damaged in absorbing this energy and any helmet that sustains a severe blow needs to be replaced even if damage is not apparent.
It's wise to inspect your helmet for damage regularly:
A helmet failing any of these tests should be replaced.