For the best part of 35 years since I first learnt to strap planks of shaped fibreglass to my feet and throw myself down ever steeper and steeper mountainsides, I didn’t wear a helmet. In fact, back in the day, I used to ski in a wooly jumper and jeans with a smile on my face and the occasional bobble hat. I guess life was simpler in those days. More carefree. But back then on the French and Swiss slopes, someone wearing a helmet was a bit odd. A bit keen. A bit too pro. It wasn’t the done thing for slow skiers like me.

©Ricardo Pinto for SailGP.

Today you’re the odd one out on the slopes without one. So as a family we bought three this year and I’m rather thankful that I did. A monstrous crash whilst going in a straight line at stupid speeds trying to keep up with the Hurricane – never try and keep up with a 14 year old – saw my head whip-bang on the sheet ice and I was rather grateful for the protection my POC gave me. I will never ski again without a helmet.

And the other evening, in big breeze and standing waves, I was busy frightening myself in the Laser with more vang tension than a supertanker’s mooring line, gybing like a rank amateur and I found myself thinking: ‘why on earth haven’t I got a helmet on?’ Looking around the fleet and I wasn’t alone. Nobody was wearing one and we’re all of a certain age, a certain generation, the generation that doesn’t wear helmets. But look around and they are everywhere. The pros in SailGP and the Cup simply wouldn’t go afloat without one. And in the junior fleets you see them all over the place perhaps, you might think, due to protective parents but I’ll counter that – my son wouldn’t even think about going afloat without one. It’s now a habit and as habits go, it’s a good one.

©Ricardo Pinto for SailGP

The whole debate weighed on my mind until I slapped the card down and bought a natty Zhik one last week. I’ve crossed the lexicon. I am wearing a helmet from now on and I am long past the age where I give a damn about what people think.

That aluminium boom on the Laser is a vicious thing when bent like a banana in 25 knots and I think I’ve played roulette with it for far too long. We’ve had a couple of comings together – mainly in the light stuff (still hurt) but to date I’ve respected its anger in the breeze. On reflection, I think I’ve just been lucky. I don’t want to play that game any longer. I’m folding. I’m retired. I’m out.

©Sailing Energy

Perhaps it’s a case of getting older and more responsible but wearing a helmet to sail should really be something that we all think about and shouldn’t be embarrassed to use. The problem is that there’s a whole section of our sport that grew up without them – guilty as charged – and resolutely refuses to wear or even consider one. That dogma needs to change and I wonder whether it will take stipulations by clubs, shrouded by insurance policy diktats for racing, that will be the trigger and driver to greater adoption?

And I note in the Olympics now that helmets have crept in. The iQFOilers, Nacras and Kitefoils all wear them and it’s only really the water-shifters like the Laser, 470 Mixed and 49ers that don’t. What a signal it would be from World Sailing if helmets were mandatory at Olympic level across all classes. And what about keelboats? My all-time hero, Peter Cunningham was recently spotted wearing a helmet down at the Bacardi Cup regatta whilst steering his J70 to a top ten finish and I admire that. Peter’s a sensible man. I’m more than happy to follow in his wake and take his lead.

©Martina Orsini – Bacardi Cup Regatta

The downside of head injuries can be extreme. I’ve been reading a truly moving book by Rugby World Cup winner, Steve Thompson, called ‘Unforgettable’ that shows the compounding impact that repeated knocks to the head have caused him. I appreciate that we in sailing are perhaps nowhere near the relentless hits that an elite front-row forward in one of the toughest sports on the planet has to endure but it’s an eye-opener.

And furthermore, the sorry tales from soccer of early-stage dementia caused by heading the ball are coming more and more to public prominence with many campaigning to stop children heading the ball completely. I think that’s a good thing. Quite what can be done about rugby, other than banning it completely, is another matter altogether.

©Ricardo Pinto for SailGP

But in sailing we have it in our power to do something that doesn’t affect the ability for us to do the sport or our own performance but is eminently sensible. Helmet technology and the materials they now use are sublime. You hardly know it’s there and as insurance policies go, it’s probably the single best purchase you can make. The feeling of wind and spray in the hair is all well and good, and is perhaps the reason why many dinghy sailors go, but measured against the risks, particularly in stronger breezes and it’s a sensation I can happily live without.

I suspect that sailing will take time to go fully helmeted, it’s coming but it’s not there yet, but rather like skiing, it’s the stigma of perception that stops mass adoption. Make it mandatory and everything changes. It’s worth thinking about at club level no matter what you sail.

I’m in.

2 thoughts on “Helmets?

  1. Thanks – this is a great wake up for us aging weekend warriors. I still recall a Laser gybe gone wrong as a youth (1983 and full rigs in those days) and finishing a race with blood all over my sailing cap from a big head knock. Having recently learnt to ski – with a helmet, and now turning 55 and getting another Laser/ILCA, I’m off to the shop this weekend for a sailing helmet. Will I wear it in 5 knots, who knows? 15 – definitely.

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