Helmets and Sailing: Is It Time?

Published on August 2nd, 2015

by Richard P. Sullivan MD, FAAP
My grandfather would often say, “He doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain”, when referring to someone without a lot of common sense. But in sailing, a lack of common sense can mean a lot more than getting rained on.

To assist the common sense in the sport, Sailing Instructions often require the use of PFDs, but following incidents this past weekend, I am wondering if we need to also consider mandating the use of helmets.

The USA Junior Olympic Sailing Festival, a series of events hosted throughout the country, provide a great opportunity for youths of various abilities to be coached in their class and race against their peers. During the event being hosted in Rochester, NY, one of the days on Lake Ontario had 15-20 knot winds and 2-4 foot waves. Our safety plan was well thought out to rescue anyone that needed assistance, which on this day included sending three sailors to the hospital with head injuries.

The boom of a 420 caught one sailor in the head with a glancing blow during a tack, another sailor was thrown from the boat during a pitchpole capsize and hit the mast with their head, with another hitting their head on the hull after capsizing.

Having dealt with head injuries in pediatric practice for 35 years, we have seen how biking helmets have proven their value. Since 1975, bike deaths have decreased by 26% with an 88% reduction of head injuries since 1989. Both of these statistics attributable to increased use of bike helmets during that time period. Considering the extreme forces which can occur during a bike accident, a helmet should have an excellent chance for injury prevention when sailing.

I hear from the college coaches of those sailors who have to sit out and miss events after getting hit in practice, a result of following the mandated five day return-to-play protocol recommended for “Closed Head Injuries” (aka, Concussion). Perhaps as a result, I am also starting to see college sailors wearing helmets, with 2015 College Sailor of the Year Nevin Snow regularly wearing a helmet after having incurred an injury.

As 10% of sailing injuries (25% of serious injuries) involve head injuries, I feel a good case can be made for mandating helmets at events where head injuries are more likely to occur, such as in rough weather, high winds, younger inexperienced sailors, and high-level events where boats are more likely to make contact.

We are already seeing the regular use of helmets on high performance boats, so the example is already getting set by elite sailors, making it easier to implement in other sectors of the sport.

Gath helmets (hardshell with closed cell foam liner) can be purchased at APS for $109 and is better investment than a $500 ambulance ride followed by a $1500 hospital bill, to say nothing of the down time from school and activities as well as parent’s peace of mind.

Editor’s note: Richard is also a US Sailing Judge and Umpire.

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