Sailing Helmets and the Risk of Head Injury

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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 Americas 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 sailingthat 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 well 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 weve 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 Americas 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

“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.”

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

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