Helmets [21]

Should They Be On The Safety List?

By Nick Gill

Helmets – the last word in kayaking fashion for dorks, or a sensible way to protect yourself and others?

My observations of South Australian paddlers and heresay concerning Victorian paddlers, leads me to believe that NSW paddlers have a relatively low level of helmet use. This is somewhat surprising, given the obvious attractions of rocky areas and the surf to NSW sea kayakers and Pittarakers (see May 1994 magazine).

My own inclinations and observations have caused me to invest in a kayaking helmet recently. I did this for a number of reasons:

  • I value my life and well-being.
  • I observed a fellow kayaker hit his head when tipped in an area of rocks. Fortunately he was fine but it could have easily gone the other way.
  • I like to surf and there is the potential of hitting the bottom with one’s head, of being hit by one’s own kayak, or of being hit by another’s kayak.
  • In rough seas there is potential to be hit by another kayak. Indeed Larry Gray’s Wild article on his Cape York trip described just such an event, the result being concussion and delays.
  • Paddling on a rocky coast always holds the potential for accident and blows to the head.

True, in a really bad situation a helmet may not save you from serious injury. But in other cases, the wearing of a helmet may turn a potentially life-threatening blow to the head, into a mere bump. It may not be the actual blow that kills a helmetless sea kayaker but the fact that one is groggy or unconscious in deep, possibly turbulent, water. This is particularly the case in sea kayaking where any blow to the head is likely to occur in relatively deep water. Blows are also likely to occur in situations where it will be difficult for others to help an injured kayaker. For example in the surf, or in areas of rocks and breaking waves. A helmet in this situation, if it has kept you conscious and able to act, will mean that others are less likely to have to put themselves at risk to help you. Thinking of oneself as part of a group, with responsibilities towards the group is an important part of my helmet wearing (and buoyancy vest wearing) philosophy. It is an approach to outdoor activities that I picked up in bushwalking, another situation where one’s actions and misfortunes can affect all members of a group.

One might claim that this argument about group responsibility leads to the logical conclusion that one should be extremely cautious and stay well clear of rocks and surf at all times. I think it is more of a question of being sensible about the risks one takes, or conversely, of not being stupid and ill-prepared for activities one intends to undertake. We could all stay at home and watch TV on the weekends, or perhaps go for Sunday drives, instead of paddling. However, a lot of us probably like activities such as sea kayaking because they offer sights, experiences and thrills that one can’t get from the Saturday matinee. To deny ourselves the thrills of sea kayaking, such as surfing and paddling around rocks and cliffs, is self-defeating. Just by going sea kayaking we accept a relatively high level of risk. Having decided to go sea kayaking, however, one can easily act to reduce the chance of accident. I see wearing a helmet as just such an easy act. An easy thing to do that increases safety. Why not wear one?

The helmet I bought is a plastic ‘Ace’ helmet and only cost about forty-five dollars. It’s lightweight and well ventilated. Once it’s on, comfortably over my hat, I hardly notice it. I may not look cool, but I figure I’m a lot safer.

I’d be interested to hear other people’s views on helmet wearing and experiences with different types of helmets.

Since writing this I have had cause to be pleased I was wearing a helmet. I got tipped in shallow water by a breaking surf and knocked my head. Although I was not moving at the time and it was only a small wave, the blow as my head hit the sand was considerable, rendering me momentarily dazed. I rolled up, however, and headed for firm ground for a rest. Without the helmet the blow may have been more serious.