Why Wear a Helmet for Watersports?

Water Based Sports vs Land Based Sports

The use of helmets in land-based sports is much more prolific than in water sports, probably because the perception of water-based sports is that they are safer than their land-based counterparts. But does the water really provide a softer landing? The scientific answer to that question is not necessarily; it depends on the speed at which you are travelling and the position of your body at the point that you hit it. Realistically, an unplanned high-speed impact into water is likely to cause just as much damage as the same impact with concrete; so there really shouldn’t be a perceived difference between the risks of head trauma in land and water-based sports.

Furthermore, there are other safety considerations to make in relation to watersports accidents beginning with the sobering truth that the outcome of any accident in water has the potential to be much more serious because a head injury or concussion in water could result in drowning. It is also worth noting that there are additional risks associated with being in water where potential hazards might lurking beneath the surface, out of sight.

Why Protect your Head?

Head injuries are dangerous because they can affect the brain in a multitude of ways. A traumatic brain injury (TBI) refers to damage to the brain caused by an external physical force such as a collision, being struck by a falling object, or a fall. The brain is made up of extremely delicate soft tissue which floats in fluid within the skull. When there is sudden speeding up or slowing down, such as in a collision or fall, the brain can move around violently inside the rigid skull, resulting in injury.

While immediate and diagnosable brain injuries like TBI are most commonly associated with sporting accidents, there is another condition that can be caused by regular exposure to minor head traumas that is much less understood. Known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) or ‘Boxers Brain’, this is a degenerative brain disease that is found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma, where symptoms can appear many years after the traumas have taken place. In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells and causing symptoms that can affect a patient’s mood and behaviour. Some common changes observed include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia. As the disease progresses, some patients may experience problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia.

To indicate how widespread this problem could be, a 2015 study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine sifted through a decade’s worth of data generated by emergency-room visits in the U.S. and found that concussion diagnoses are on the rise in sports like surfing, skating, skiing, and mountain biking; over 3,000 surfing-related concussions were reported in the study, but those figures are almost certainly low, since many people who suffer a concussion while surfing never seek professional help. The following articles examine a couple of real-life case studies of athletes who developed CTE following repeated head injury: –

Article in Surfer Magazine about surfers and CTE

Article in Stab Mag about surfing and head trauma

Article in Outside Magazine about extreme sports and CTE

Documentary on the BBC about CTE and football; Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me

How a Helmet Protects Your Head

A helmet is designed to keep expected impacts for a given activity within the range of human brain tolerance, by preventing objects from penetrating the shell and absorbing impact energy. The energy absorption properties tend to be within a layer of crushable foam lining the helmet and when exposed to an external force this foam part of the helmet crushes as the impact energy is absorbed.

This may often mean that following a collision parts of the helmet will show visible damage while the wearer escapes injury. Even when no damage is visible to a helmet following a significant impact, it is advisable to replace the helmet anyway as the internal structures may be compromised – and for this reason, you should never buy a second-hand helmet.

What is Meant by ‘Fit for Purpose’?

Helmets are designed with a specific activity in mind allowing for the design of the helmet to take into account and protect against a range of ‘likely impacts’ for that activity. Take whitewater kayaking for example; EN 1385 is the widely recognised helmet standard for whitewater sports and it is primarily designed to protect the wearer from hitting their head on rocks when travelling at speeds up to 11 mph, the highest recorded speed of whitewater flow. In contrast, a powerboat user might be travelling at speeds similar to that of a motorcycle user, 70 mph or more, so they will require significantly more impact protection from their helmet. The next section goes into more detail about what impact forces helmets are subjected to in a testing environment to mimic the ‘likely impacts’ for a range of different activities.

Fit for purpose goes beyond simply selecting an appropriate level of protection for your head, you’ll also want to know that your helmet is suitable for the intended environment in other ways – so for example, a marine helmet shouldn’t degrade following saltwater exposure and it shouldn’t become negatively buoyant when wet – and a motorcycle helmet shouldn’t be too heavy or it might injure the wearers neck when travelling at speed. Fit for purpose is about having a helmet that is optimized to perform in its intended environment.

Safety Certifications Explained

The British Standards Institute (BSI) have over the years developed a range of standards to certify helmets to be fit for a number of purposes; marine safety helmets (PAS 028), industrial safety helmets (EN 397), motorcycle helmets (BS 6658), alpine skiers helmets (EN 1077), mountaineering helmets (EN 12492) and white-water sports helmets (EN 1385).

These certifications require the helmets approved by them to pass a range of controlled tests that mimic the likely impacts that they need to protect the user from. The standards were, however, not developed in sync with one another and as a result, the testing measures and performance requirements vary between standards. It is possible to compare one test across the board and it is the most significant test because it measures the impact absorption quality of the helmet, mimicked by a falling headform in a ‘drop test’. The graph below shows the impact energy in Joules that each of these types of helmets are required to protect the wearer from in order to meet the standard: –

Gecko Head Gear

Gecko Head Gear were pioneers in developing the BSI marine safety helmet standard PAS 028, in collaboration with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), Metropolitan Police Service and Ministry of Defence Police; because all these organisations had identified a need for a marine appropriate helmet standard for users of fast motorised watercraft.

The PAS standard combines the maximum level of head protection (as provided by mountaineering equipment helmets) with the marine appropriate features of the white-water sports helmet such as positive buoyancy and rust resistant parts.

Besides the consultees of PAS 028, numerous organisations worldwide now use Gecko Head Gear’s PAS 028 certified helmets including the British Navy, the Royal Air Force, Gibraltar Police, the German Navy, the German Coastguard, Hong Kong Police and Fire Services, the Canadian Coastguard, the French Coastguard and the Australian Navy. In fact, in 2014 a government backed ruling was passed in Germany that allowed their coastguard and rescue organisations to make repeat purchases of their Gecko Head Gear without putting the purchase back out to tender because they recognised that there was no comparable safety accreditation or product elsewhere in the market. For more on this story read our ‘A Client Case Study’ blog

What the Pros Say:

Al Mennie, Big Wave Surfer

“A Gecko fiberglass helmet saved me in a wipe out on a 40 foot wave at Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. This resulted in a visit to the local A&E with a concussion, without the helmet who knows what may have happened..”

Al also gives an interview for a French blog on surf protection, click here to read it.

Corky Kirkham, Wave Windsurfer

“I’ve been wearing Gecko Head Gear for some 12 years. The helmet gives insane protection from volcanic rocks here on Fuerteventura, plus I take regular knocks from my mast boom and other bits while trying new manoeuvres. The lids also protect from UV rays when sailing for long hours in hot places. Super strong, super light and the new inflatable lining is super comfortable!”

Al MacKinnon, Professional Surf Photographer

“As a surf photographer, I’m pretty exposed to environmental risks such as impacts from surfboards and hitting shallow reef. It was only after I’d had a couple of serious accidents myself that I started using a Gecko surf helmet, spurred on by the realisation that had my head taken the impact in the two recent incidents, I probably wouldn’t be here today. Now I wouldn’t go out in big surf without a quality lid!”

Sunus Ocean Racing, Powerboat Race Team

“As a boating professional, I use a variety of kit for many hours at sea, much of the time spent in harsh environments or high-speed operation. With my line of work, I have used different helmets from Motorsport “Race” full face helmets to Kayak style watersport protection. I rely on my Gecko Head Gear as to me it provides the most comfort and safety while at sea for long hours of operation. The protection from the elements is second to none for an open face long visor helmet and with the inflatable liner internally, it creates a warm and tailored fit. I use the integrated Gecko headset unit which creates perfect volume with no wind noise from the boom microphone, allowing clear communications between crew, even at speeds in excess of 60 knots. It is much lighter than other brands resulting in less fatigue in a high-speed arena and ease of movement when on deck.”

Gecko Head Gear have been manufacturing PAS 028 certified marine safety helmets from our production facility in Bude, UK for over twenty years. Discover a full range of marine safety and watersports helmets in the online store at shop.geckoheadgear.com. Choose from our stock products, or design your own helmet from scratch with our personalised helmet options!

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