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post #1 of Old 07-12-2001 Thread Starter
John Rousmaniere
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Should Sailors Wear Helmets?

The more extreme the event, it would seem, the more apropos the use of helmets. At least one crew in The Race (seen here on board Team Adventure) was a believer.
Recently, Scuttlebutt, an online newsletter concerned mostly with sailboat racing, ran a controversial opinion piece by a singlehanded sailor named Jack Boye on the subject of head injuries and the sailing helmets that sailors might—or, he feels, should—wear in order to avoid them. Boye told of a singlehander injured aboard his small offshore racing boat during a hard blow in the English Channel. The boom whacked the fellow so hard that, in a deep and confused daze, he sent a Mayday, canceled it when a Royal Air Force helicopter arrived, and, as the helicopter returned to its base, finally woke up to his precarious situation and called back the helicopter to take him off. Boye seized this opportunity to urge race organizers to require crews to wear helmets. Many of Scuttlebutt’s readers erupted with outrage at what they felt was a threat to their freedom. And some letter writers were especially perturbed that Boye himself sells safety equipment, including sailing helmets.

Head injuries can happen on any boat, and can be extremely serious. In a recent column, I told how Gary Fischer, a neurosurgeon in Boston, has tracked 16 boom-related fatalities over the past dozen years. Still, I read the heated Scuttlebutt debate with mixed feelings. I have been active in boating safety as a writer and instructor for many years, yet am dubious about the effectiveness of making rules that address relatively narrow, albeit often important, concerns.

The first problem with rules is the question regarding who should write them. The Coast Guard regulates safety for all boats in the US, of course, and in addition to meeting its requirements racing boats must satisfy the safety rules of the US SAILING (the national governing body of the sport), of their classes, of specific races, or (if they compete under handicap or rating rules like PHRF and IMS) of the Offshore Racing Council’s Special Regulations, which may be altered by national governing bodies. (A terrific guide for equipping cruising boats can be found in Safety Regulations for Offshore Sailing, published by US SAILING at a price of $7.50 that only hints at the booklet’s value.)

Despite this sailor's upbeat outlook, skull safety on board remains a serious issue.
My main worry about depending on regulations to solve relatively narrow problems is not with the complexity of overlapping agencies or even with the involvement of individuals who have a personal stake in the matter. In any issue, the people who are most knowledgeable are those who have invested their own energy, time, hopes, and assets in it. Anybody concerned about education, for example, would talk to professional teachers (though not necessarily give them the last word on the subject).

Rather, I worry that well-intentioned rules about narrow problems may be unclear, unenforceable, and a distraction from much more important issues. For example, imagine that a regulatory body is debating whether to require owners to apply non-skid tape to all hatch covers. If that sounds far-fetched, remember how slick a hatch cover can become in spray or rain, and recall the time when you once slipped on one, bruised your ego (or worse), and resolved never to step on a hatch cover again. If an argument can be made that more boats should have fewer slippery surfaces, then in this day and age an argument can be made for writing a rule requiring non-skid.

"A good test for any new rule is whether a reasonable person would enforce it or protest a competitor for violating it."

O.K., so let’s write a rule about skid-proofing a hatch cover. One question comes up immediately: How much tape is sufficient? And if we regulate slippery hatch covers, aren’t we obliged to regulate decks with worn non-skid, not to mention those pesky spinnaker poles and jib-sheet tracks? Assuming that such a rule can finally be drafted, we’re left with the biggest question: Will it be enforced? A good test for any new rule is whether a reasonable person would enforce it or protest a competitor for violating it. After the Newport to Bermuda Race last year, a competitor whose lifelines had four inches of slack was protested and penalized two hours. Would you protest someone because (a) their lifelines are slack, or (b) there's no non-skid tape on their forward hatch? While the two violations would be equally clear in the rule book and equally visible on inspection, the first concerns the minute-to-minute safety of the entire crew (if a lifeline is to provide the service that the name suggests, it must be taut) while the second seems a special case more suitable as an advisory than as a rule. Somehow I can’t imagine the same committee penalizing a boat two hours for not having a few inches of non-skid tape on a hatch cover.

Everybody has a special safety concern or two (or more). I often catch myself griping, "There ought to be a law!" about one irritation or another. A good friend once suffered a major internal injury when he fell through an open hatch that somebody had carelessly left covered by a sail. Some boats don't carry enough sail ties or Crescent wrenches. In rough weather, guys pee over the transom standing up without being hooked on. Shipmates don’t carry flashlights or knives. And so on. My anxieties know no end. Should we write rules banning hatches, mandating sail ties and wrenches, or threatening disqualification to any boat on a which a crew member is seen on the afterdeck facing aft for more than, say, 20 seconds? Should we have pre-race inspections for personal flashlights? I don’t think so.

Two items of safety gear should be mandatory for sailors says the author—life jackets and safety harnesses.

Because the sea is inherently a dangerous place, race organizers and sponsors have an ethical obligation to the community that they have formed to encourage safe sailing and safe boats. They do this by writing enforceable rules, by issuing advisories, and by making inspections. Because many racing sailors tend to be focused on high performance, the race organizer must feel free to make sure that they also carry storm trysails, life rafts, flares, EPIRBs, and other boat-oriented safety gear as well as personal safety gear. I am one of a large number of people who are sure that two types of personal safety equipment should be mandatory—safety harnesses because they keep people out of the water, and life jackets because they keep people afloat if they fall into the water.

Of all the accidents that can occur around boats, only one is a constant threat and always presents a high chance of death. That is falling overboard. Several years ago, when US SAILING began to require racers to wear personal flotation devices at the start and finish of races, there was a hue and cry about Big Brother, the end of personal freedom, and so on. Yet it was impressive to see how many crews not only observed that simple rule, but wore their PFDs throughout races, and even during long intervals before the next starting sequence. In that case, a fundamental rule about the most dangerous of circumstances was in rhythm with popular inclination.

What that good rule accomplished was to help transform inclination into normal practice. Yet in the Age of Handwringing that we are currently living through, there is abroad a tinkering state of mind that mistakes tiny matters for big ones, and perfection for practicality. The simplicity of safety harnesses and PFDs seems to be behind us. Instead of concentrating on making boats more stable and seakindly, easier to reef and heave-to, and more comfortable to live in, we seem to be distracted by debates about helmets and non-skid. One product of this state of mind that I’ll have to cope with soon, when sailing in England in August, is the elaborate safety harness that has been mandated by the Royal Ocean Racing Club, apparently with the aim of anticipating every conceivable situation. With its two tethers and crotch strap, it looks like an apparatus created for one of Harry Houdini’s famous escapes and feels as heavy and awkward as the chains that weigh down Jacob Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Helmets do have their proponents. Solo sailor Ellen MacArthur says she wouldn't be without one for trips up the mast in rough seas. One stint aloft on Kingfisher was enough to teach her that.

So what about those helmets? If people want to wear them, they should feel free to do so without criticism from the libertarian wing. I’m a skier, and after poor Sonny Bono hit his head against a tree and died, every time I got on a chair lift there was a small voice saying, "You ought to wear a helmet." I resisted the voice for a year or two until I saw a violent but fortunately not injury-causing collision between a snowboarder and a skier on a runoff at the bottom of a slope. I promptly went over to the ski shop and bought myself a helmet that I now wear all the time on the slopes. My remaining years are too important to me to be distracted by small, nagging voices, or to be cut off by an encounter with a pine branch.

I don’t wear that helmet on a boat—but I do rig preventers, and I am the first to volunteer to keep an eye on that damned boom. No rule could make me more alert in that department than I already am.

Suggested Reading:

Offshore Perils by John Rousmaniere

Deadly Serious About Booms by John Rousmaniere

The Human Factor by John Rousmaniere


Buying Guide: Personal Flotation Devices

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