Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Blood on the Decks

Carol Anne at Five O'Clock Somewhere recounts a scary incident she experienced while sailing this weekend in which she and one of her crew ended up in the emergency room with head injuries.

It's an aspect of our sport that is not often discussed. But we all know that a whack on the head from a boom is not uncommon. I vividly remember one occasion in the early 90's when racing my Laser at Devon YC on Long Island. A gybe in 25 knots - boom caught my head - a capsize - a recovery. No big deal I thought. But when I put my hand up to rub the sore spot on my head through my cap, my hand came away covered in blood which was soaking through the cap at a prodigious rate.

Then there was the case of Herve Aubry, a Mini boat skipper participating in a qualifying race for the 2001 Mini Transat race. After sending a MAYDAY an RAF Sea King helicopter was sent to pick him up. When it arrived at the yacht the skipper refused to be evacuated. He claimed that he had been hit on the head by his boom which caused him to become disoriented and had mistakenly sent the MAYDAY. The RAF helicopter returned to base just in time to be sent back to the Mini boat by a second MAYDAY call. The mini skipper this time abandoned his yacht and was picked up from the stormy English Channel......Disoriented? I should think so.

What's to be done? In an article on SailNet, John Rousmaniere discusses the question Should Sailors Wear Helmets? and cites a Boston neuro-surgeon who has tracked sixteen boom related fatalities in a dozen years. Yikes.

I'm not advocating compulsory wearing of helmets for sailors. We all love the feelings of freedom and independence that sailing brings us. But in a sport that appeals to similar types of folk - skiing - we do see more and more participants of all ages wearing helmets since Sonny Bono hit his head on a tree in a skiing accident and died. Skiers, climbers, cyclists, skateboarders ... the list goes on. Outdoors enthusiasts who now recognize that, at least in certain circumstances, wearing a helmet is just plain common sense.

What do you think? Will helmets ever be commonplace on sailing boats? In what situation does it makes sense to wear a helmet? Are helmets only for those who think their skull isn't very thick. Or do you think that it is only people with thick skulls who are stupid enough (like me) to hit their head on the boom?


EVK4 said...

When I was young, if a kid were to wear a helmet while biking, we would have unceremoniously taken him out behind the gym and kicked his ass. Now, if my daughter looks at her bike, I expect a helmet on her head.

In my early 20s, the only thing on my head while snowboarding was a crazy-cap, now I wear a helmet to keep my insurance premiums down.

I don't think I'd wear a helmet sailing. But I have been considering it for Friday night races (for the rail crew mostly). On a normal Saturday daysail, it would be very rare for an accidental gybe or a mis-step during a gybe, but on Friday nights with 25 knot winds, 4 foot chop, and a lot more hectic communication, I think it makes sense.

Me? I'd be standing in the cozy confines of the cockpit with a brandy snifter in my hand and 8 inches of boom clearance above my noggin, but those poor saps scrambling from rail to rail?

Anonymous said...

I guess a lot of it depends on the boat you're sailing on. Some boats have a high enough boom to avoid needing a helmet, and others, a helmet is probably just a good precaution.

Also, if your boat, not a racing setup, has a boom brake or preventer, then it is a moot point.

Carol Anne said...

Even after getting clocked, I still probably wouldn't wear a helmet under most circumstances. I certainly wouldn't want to see a rule that forces it. But it would probably be a good idea to have one available for when conditions get really, really rough -- like during storms in the Southern Ocean during round-the-world races.

I would have to agree with Rousmaniere that requiring PFDs and safety harnesses is good. But even PFDs have their problems -- before I got my inflatable one, conventional PFDs restricted my movements so much that, for example, I couldn't operate the outboard motor. I wouldn't be able to race at all without my inflatable.

Perhaps if helmets could be made lighter and more comfortable (and possibly more fashionable, as I've seen with skiing helmets), more sailors would be willing to wear them.

As for me, I'm definitely going to be a lot more aware of that boom from now on.

Anonymous said...

No way! Has anyone read "The Humanoids" by Jack Williamson?
In the far future humankind has created robots "To Serve and Obey, And Guard Men from Harm." The robots take this directive to the extreme and do not allow humans to participate in any potentially harmful activity. Skiing, sailing, swimming, etc.

Anonymous said...

A retired lady I know who sails a topper never fails to go out wearing a canoeing helmet.

I didn't hit my head on a boom this weekend but I did nearly drown myself whilst on the trapese!

Claire (England)

Litoralis said...

It would probably be a good idea to wear a helmet it some conditions. The most popular type of helmet for sailing is probably this one originally made for surfing:

Anonymous said...

The point of neorosurgeon Dr. Garry Fischer's observations about helmets is not whether they should be worn but that on any but the smallest boats they won't do any good at stopping a concussion or other serious damage by a boom to a head or neck. That's how dangerous a flying boom is. The trick is to keep the boom from swining across using preventers.

John Rousmaniere

Anonymous said...

I have been hit by an MC Scow boom on the side of my head and it was painful to chew for at least a week. Three months later I had a bicycle accident where I hit the side of my head on a curb. I cracked by skull, bone fragments were in my skull, and cut an artery to my brain. This required emergency surgery cutting part of my skull, removing it and then the surgeon made repairs. By history half of people with this type of injury dies, the other half are screwed up for life, but I was lucky to have survived pretty much OK. I wear a helmet on boats that have booms that can hit you when the wind is up high, and eye protection to as shots of water can really damage your eyes. If the wind isn't crazy, I don't. Helmets are a good idea as I know what can happen. Good Sailing to ALL!

Unknown said...

I once heard a sailing physician say 78% of sailboat fatalities are boom-related. He also said they had clocked the end of a jibing boom at 100 mph. Anyone who has cruised for more than a season has had or seen close calls, or (as I) felt the wind from a boom whistling by. Listen to Rousmaniere! If you are off the wind, rig a preventer...every time!

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