Sailing Helmets and the Risk of Head Injury

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 12:56PM - Comments: (9)

A swinging boom isn't the only skull-knocker aboard a cruising sailboat. More than a few sailors have whacked their head while passing through the companionway. The risks multiply on small, high-performance boats that hit double digit speeds.

Should sailors wear helmets? As we gain greater awareness of the risks of long-term brain injury linked to concussions in various sports, it is only natural that sailors would reexamine the risks associated with sailing. After all, one of the first things we learn upon boarding a sailboat is to avoid a boom-strike to the head. Today we are seeing helmets being required in extreme events at the highest level, such as the America’s Cup, and the gear is common among sailors on high speed small craft like foiling catamarans. In fact, World Sailing, the world governing body, is considering introducing helmet requirements to some of these small boat classes, including beach catamarans and some dinghies.

To put things into proper context, here is the type of sailing that is seeing the greatest surge in helmet use, foiling cats that in a matter of seconds can jump from zero to double digits speeds (and—more dangerously—from double digit speeds to zero). Needless to say, these boats is not your grandpa's Westsail 32, which even in bumpy seas poses no more threat to your pumpkin than an airport escalator (although anyone called to deck in a tropical squall on even the most stable cruiser would be wise to watch their head). 

In the upcoming issue of Practical Sailor we’ll examine this risk and take a look at the various options available to sailors. Presently, there are few dedicated sailing helmets on the market, and from what we’ve seen there is room for improvement—especially with regards to helmets that a cruising sailor might want to use.

But before you dive into our sailing helmet report in the July 2019 issue of Practical Sailor, it is worth reviewing what US Sailing, the governing body on competitive sailing in the U.S, and the source of guidance for youth sailing around the country, has to say on the topic. It is also a good time to review the symptoms of a concussion, indicators that your boom-wack deserves a follow-up exam by a specialist. 

Statement from the US Sailing Sports Medicine Committee:

"US Sailing has been collecting and reviewing data and information on severe brain injuries in competitive and recreational sailing. Similar to modern American football and other sports at risk for impact to the head, this topic has been a growing concern for sailing that requires an educated approach. The routine use of helmets in sailing has been in question for years and now, due to the increasing frequency of such injuries, there has been a building movement to provide more education and resources on helmet use.

"There are two subjective categories to consider regarding head injuries:

Traumatic Brain Injury

"Traumatic brain injury [TBI] is a more severe condition, beyond what would be considered a concussion. As a tragic example, Andrew “Bart” Simpson died of severe head and neck injuries in the wreckage of Team Artemis’ capsized 72-foot catamaran in May of 2013. Prior to that, the first America’s Cup training death was Martin Wizner, who was a Spanish sailor struck in the head by a piece of equipment that broke loose while sailing with the Spanish Challenge in Valencia, Spain in 1999. The Cruising Club of America Fleet Surgeon lists at least nine deaths in racing venues caused by blunt trauma to the head during accidental jibes.
These and increasingly numerous other reports are reason enough to consider the usage of helmets in competitive racing programs for crew positions that are at risk for blows to the head. Helmet use for sailors who are new to the sport and do not yet have the awareness of the rigging and equipment should also be encouraged.


"Concussion (or closed head injuries) diagnosis is on the rise and the identification and treatment is evolving. They are caused by changes in the brain (white matter) when the skull is suddenly rotated due to an acceleration/deceleration effect within the skull, and can occur in small boat and dinghy racing where aggressive jibing and tacking is taught and widely practiced. They can even occur from accidental and unexpected strikes to the head in calm cruising conditions. Concussions in American football and boxing have been shown to be associated with delayed onset dementia, and the type of changes seen within the brain associated with symptoms of concussion are similar to the distribution of changes seen in brains of Alzheimer patients (3). The permanent damage resulting from one concussion is not known and cannot be assumed to be negligible. Concussions are being taken seriously in football, soccer, and hockey, and numerous other sports. They should be taken seriously in scholastic and collegiate sailing.

Word of Caution

"A word of caution now needs to be clear to all persons who consider using helmets while sailing. There is no data to confirm that helmets will prevent concussions. Helmets have been shown to reduce the incidence and severity of facial and skull fractures, contusions and lacerations, but not concussions. (4, 5) Concussions seem to occur more easily in pre-teen and teens.  We also need to be aware that wearing a helmet makes the head a “larger” target and could possibly lead to more head strikes.

"Therefore, it is the position of the Sports Medicine Committee of US Sailing that helmets should be considered and encouraged but not mandated for aggressive competitive sailing, crew positions at increased risk for strikes to the head, and sailors who are learning the sport and thus unfamiliar with the position and movement of rigging and equipment.

"In the rare case that a concussion or head injury occurs, treatment thereof and the evaluation for a return to activity should be conducted by a trained specialist.

"US Sailing strives to maintain the freedom of open competition and participation at all levels of the sport while making recommendations that follow the currently available data regarding safe practices. Awareness of injury risk prevention and general safety planning for all sailing events has been and will remain a priority for this organization. In the future, we will revise our recommendations as needed as the data evolves and distribute these to our members and the world of sailing in as timely a fashion as possible. Communication is paramount regarding collection of information in all sailing injuries and we will continue to improve our ability to communicate and collect this data through the assistance of our volunteers and partners."

Comments (9)

On our roundtrip voyage from Washington to Hawaii I had one crew member suffer a couple of blows to his head while in the cabin due to turbulent waters and he is a 30 year retired navy veteran with many years at sea, no one is immune. On that same voyage I was thrown from the navigation seat across the cabin 2-3 times and once across the cockpit landing onto my back against a primary winch; this required physical therapy upon returning home. While I am not for more regulations I do think it is the Captain's call when/if such protective measures are required. So, as silly as this may sound to some, my next offshore passage will include a rugby helmet and a seat belt installed at the navigation station.

~ ~ _/) ~ ~ MJH

Posted by: MJH | May 30, 2019 6:06 PM    Report this comment

What kind of helmet is suitable for sailors? I have never seen a helmet advertised specifically for sailing. Searching West Marine for "sailing helmet" turns up no suitable products.

Posted by: Boston Barry | May 30, 2019 4:57 PM    Report this comment

The introductory text has been edited to clarify the type of sailing in which helmets are gaining wide acceptance. Also to clarify, the views regarding the helmet requirements are those of the US Sailing Sports Medicine Committee and have been italicized to more clearly indicate the source. -- DN

Posted by: sailordn | May 30, 2019 3:23 PM    Report this comment

I realize that the speeds are slower, but in states that have gotten rid of helmet laws for motorcycle riders (like PA), deaths by head injuries rose by 66%. Indian Larry died hitting his head at less than 10 MPH. I'm all for personal freedom, but just because there is no law doesn't make it smart to ride without a helmet. Sailing is no different. Expect the unexpected. If I'm in rough weather, I put on a Kayak helmet while sailing. I have had too many close calls, sometimes from flying objects when I used to sail a lot. I wear a life jacket in rough weather or when single handing as well. I might not look "cool", but its just common sense. When you research what causes death and injury in boating, there are easy ways to beat the odds.

Posted by: hsi88 | May 30, 2019 3:21 PM    Report this comment

Accidental jibe - I've been a sailing instructor since '71 and can't tell you how many times I have to go over basic PREVENTER set up with even experienced crew! Helmets will block sound reception and wind direction -> two key factors I teach in my "situational awareness" sessions!
Let's start with the BASICS and keep that helmet for the sports that have shown its worth a soft sport like sailing, when adequacy trained for needs no helmet, as I see the current facts.

Posted by: RonSasiela | May 30, 2019 12:58 PM    Report this comment

While I wholeheartedly agree that helmets should NOT be mandated, I have been looking at adding the Gath Retractable Visor to my foul weather kit. As one who has been knocked out once or thrice, bike accidents (no helmet) and martial arts, I've taken a few big mellon hits while sailing, and none from boom-to-brain-bucket contact.

Posted by: JBWrites - | May 30, 2019 11:42 AM    Report this comment

You gotta be kidding. What's next? Seat belts and never go on the foredeck because it's too dangerous? Cut me a break. This isn't motorcycle riding in I-95 with insane drivers, texting, distracted, drivers, blabbing on cellphones and all within one to three meters of one another traveling at 65+ miles per hour.

Posted by: Lakota44 | May 30, 2019 11:20 AM    Report this comment

I concur with the previous comment. Even "giving the impression" that helmets provide a significant safety benefit to sailing is something to be avoided. Incompetent skippers are a proven threat to all boaters, yet we require no licensing. Lack of helmets is proven to have no statistical relevance, yet we have so-called experts recommending the practice. It seems that not wearing life jackets, however, remains an insane habit of most recreational sailors..

It would help if Practical Sailor articles would give us some better perspective on such issues rather than just passing on provocative press releases. Aren't there editorial team meetings that can bring up some of these comments before publishing?

Posted by: CaptainFaris | May 30, 2019 11:06 AM    Report this comment


Two cited examples from the past (20) years to try to lay grounds on why people should wear a helmet? The article says nine deaths but gives no context or time frame. If helmets are instituted will it be tracked how many deaths are caused because of the helmets, I don't even think that's possible. Of those nine deaths (over what time period) would helmets have saved any of them??? Has anyone even looked at number of hours sailors sail (or sub-categorize competitive sailing) vs. the number of hours a blunt force trauma to the head where a helmet would have made a difference. I can bet you it's less than one in a million hours and from my experience in quality from the automotive braking industry that is more than acceptable (your car brakes are less reliable than that).

So why not just side on the side that says you will get struck by lighting eventually so wear a lighting rod? As I alluded to before 1) helmets can present an added danger, 2) inefficiencies do result in waste, 3) precedent set to people who don't know will want to start requiring it for pleasure cruisers.

Repugnant leadership by whomever proposes this nonsense

Posted by: ssplis | May 30, 2019 10:12 AM    Report this comment

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