THE HELMETHelmets are safety wear that protect heads and brains from impact. The forces that are out to get an unprepared kayaker are most obvious around the shoreline. Think rocks—on the water as well as on shore—logs and all kinds of other man-made structures like sea-walls, walkways, etc. If you care to survey the shore more closely next time you launch you will notice all kinds of potential hazards both under in the water and on shore.
There are also floating hazards that include wood, ice and, again, all kinds of man-made junk that is becoming an ever increasing feature of the water environment. Finally, kayaks, kayakers and kayaking gear are also hazards in the surf zone.
Rough water paddlers on Great Lakes are blessed with miles and miles of sandy shorelines. Sand clearly reduce the threat of injury. That safety cushion can get a paddler into complacent thinking and feelings of safety or invulnerability. Furthermore, we don't have any driftwood on the Great Lakes and few paddle out when there is ice to contend with.
Now a helmet--still not established as a fashion statement. That may be changing as safety equipment is being sucked into the black hole of conspicuous consumption. Wherever the fashionability may stand, macho attitude is a powerful force that sands in the way of everybody wearing a helmet in surf. Ironically, those who are attracted to the surf zone in the first place are more macho, on the average, than those who don't venture into conditions where helmet use may be recommended. It does not help that a helmet is a relatively large and not an inexpensive piece of gear that either takes up too much room inside the bulkhead or becomes clunky when stowed on decks.
In summary, at least in my case, when going out into surf I frequently struggle with the question: "Do I really need to wear this awkward contraption today, next to this soft sandy beach?"
THE STORYNOAA reported a relatively benign 4-5' significant wave height for New Buffalo, MI. Significant wave height gives the average of the tallest one third of the waves. The majority of the waves under these conditions would be smaller than the given number. On the other hand, you should expect some waves in these conditions to be as high as twice this number! Waves also get higher as they ride up the shoreline, steepen up and break.
Here's one minute excerpt of what happened in surf zone next to a sandy beach with a break-wall on the down-wind side. Paddler A was rafted up with paddler B who had 'dislocated' his shoulder. During the rescue that preceded the incident A and B drifted into the surf zone. Paddler C came to tow AB raft out of there and away from the break-wall. Unfortunately, with his cockpit already full of water, C capsized right in front of the AB raft. Before C had a chance to surface after a couple of rolls, the front of the raft accelerated and dove under water as its back was picked up by a breaking wave. A and B felt a distinctly dampened impact of the bows on something soft under water. The feeling was unmistakable—the the flooded kayaks hit C's body. C surfaced gasping for air and after about 20 very long seconds was finally able to speak and reassure A and B that he was OK.
In the meantime, being at full mercy of the weather conditions, the ABC trio drifted next to the break-wall. The rocks were down-wind and waves were crashing onto them. A and B decided to tackle the rocks in the water rather than in their kayaks and wet exited. Within seconds of breaking the surface, paddler A looked up only to see paddler C's kayak swinging an arch in the air as the invisible hand of another breaking wave was bringing this heavy sword down. You may have already guessed where this 300 pound mass of fiberglass, water in the cockpit and gear in the bulkheads landed—on paddler A's head.
First, back on shore we found out that paddler C took the brunt of the hit from the sharp bow of the first kayak in the raft on his head.
Second, fortunately, all three kayakers in this scenario were wearing helmets. Last, I would like to leave the reader with a mental exercise: imagine, if you care, how this story might have turned out if the paddlers had decided that a combination of 5' surf and clean sandy beach did not warrant the helmets.