It’s daunting to stand at the entrance of a steep, impossible to scout, impossible to portage rapid and think, “boy I wish I had a better helmet.” In the early 1900’s an explosives crew set out to create the Payette railroad line. Years later, yet another demolition team created highway 55 directly across from the railroad. Between those two points lies a river known as the North Fork of the Payette. In the1960’s, a small and growing group of what only can be defined as “loose characters,” soon to be known as “kayakers” began braking their bodies, faces, and skulls on industrial blast rock. Who would have thought? And all of this was done in the pursuit of happy fun times. Yay!
I mean, why would you want to spend money to ensure you've got a solid lid? PHOTO: Richard young
This is a review of the 2013/14 Sweet Protection Rocker line, as tested on many a run throughout South America, Asia, New Zealand, and of course North Fork Blast Rock Payette top to bottoms. And yes, I go upside down more than I would like to admit. No wonder they let me test these things out.
Brain buckets, skid lids, dome pieces, helmets. Call them what you will, but they are an essential piece of every paddler’s kit. With enough resin and glue, just about anyone can hop in the shop and make a helmet to put on the line. The question is though; how do you know which one is going to protect that Grey matter best?
Norwegian made Sweet helmets have been in my gear bag on every paddling adventure since 2009. We have some little issues here and there, but in the end they are what I trust when I’m staring down the pipe of Jacob’s Ladder or watching rock fall from the ever-eroding canyons and cliffs of deep un scoutable Peruvian gorges. Turns out, rocks under the water aren’t the only things that kayak helmets are good for.
Company Background:In 2012 Sweet remodeled, remolded, and revamped the entire whitewater line. They have a slightly different look and a superior list of ingredients in the Crock pot. What paddlers often don’t realize is that high-speed impacts have been in Sweet’s blood before they began tackling whitewater. For nearly 15 years ,Sweet has been dealing with crashes at speeds that would send even Marty McFly back into the future. Doc Brown would approve. Working with skiing and mountain biking helmets as well as whitewater, has opened the door to a plethora of impact testing and impact material options.
To the untrained eye, it might seem like new models in the Sweet line are simply plasticized instead of carbon fiber like Sweet’s older models. Some assume and associate that with lowering production cost and increasing profit margins. However, Sweet is using a proprietary polymer carbon fiber injected molding process that allows them to pick and choose with precision what areas they want to make more elastic or more rigid. Elasticity, it turns out, is needed in high impact collisions.
While grandpa was in the shop huffing liquid fiberglass and epoxy trying to make helmets that are harder than the rocks they were hitting, what he couldn’t have known back then is that carbon fiber and glass are stiff and do not dissipate impact well. They also catastrophically melt down after enough hits. Therefore, that big hit following a carped roll is transferred with much more impact to the skull inside of the helmet = head trauma. I have met my fare share of paddlers that can’t afford to lose many more brain cells. “Going to Church” can be hard on your head.
It’s not like helmet makers aren’t thankful for grandpa’s time in the shop sacrificing brain cells to chemical fumes though. Sweet is still using ole grand pappy’s epoxy fume induced squiggle notes that he made while grandma was making meatloaf, inundating them with hard science and combining them with what is now resulting in 20-30% improved performance when compared to helmets from just 2 years ago. They can tweak down to the fiber where and what direction the helmet needs to absorb most impact. Helmets from back in the day were made with a bit more guess work. It may not be the flux capacitor or grandma’s meatloaf, but it’s close enough to rocket science to boggle the average human.
The materials and Occi-grip fitting technology is also keeping the helmets super light without compromising safety, function, and fit. In laymen terms, the changes are advancements not $ savers. All one has to do to see this is look at the steady retail price of the company’s brain buckets ($219-Half Cut)($349-Full Face). Ouch!
For the average dirt bag kayaker it will cost at least one pinky finger. The upside of that though is that when you take a shot to the skull, hopefully you’ll retain dexterity in the rest of your remaining digits and limbs. And FYI, a full face costs less than a new set of teeth on one side of your face!
Major Difference between old full face and new full face?:
The dental bill reducing feature, also known as a face guard, is less sharp and more meld-able on the newer models. It absorbs and dissipates hits more effectively than older models. This reduces torque on the neck in the event of full frontal geological survey. All of cosmetic trims on the jaw guard and helmet have been updated and improved as well, where in the past they seemed to delaminate.
Warranty/ Customer Service:
The boys and girls at Sweet continue to grow as a brand in the states. To compete with other manufacturers, not only do they make some of the best product, but they also offer great customer service and warranties on any manufacturing issues. With that being said, when you flip over, carp 3 rolls and crack your helmet on nasty blast rock, I very much doubt that you will get much sympathy if you call asking for a new helmet. It might be worth a shot though. The fact that you can make that call is a testament to the hard work and research that the crew puts into their product. If nothing else, you still have 9 digits left to choose from when selecting your next helmet.
Pros:What I like most about these helmets is the level of coverage that they give. Many helmets don’t fit snuggly over the frontal lobe/ forehead, or offer decent coverage for the cervical spine. The Rocker Line and Wanderer offer both. Both of which come with fit pads and the cervically located, padded Occi-Grip tightener. These are emplaced in the hopes of helping find the perfect fit and prevent the classic “is it ok if my helmet rolls up over my eyes?” scenario. (Ps-The answer to that one is, no.) There is also a comfy rubberized strip sewn under the chinstrap to reduce unwanted razor burn.
Issues?Availability/ slow turn around: This past season, even if you had the cash and pinky finger in hand, it seemed that you had to know someone on the Norwegian black market or bribe your local kayak store-front boy to get a hand on a Sweet. While revamping the helmet line, the Norwegian based company just revamped its production facility as well; a major endeavor for sure. To ensure product quality, they took their time, did a little shaking and baking and ended up sending the States a proper product instead of shooting out subpar helmets and crossing their fingers hoping for the best. Slow is safe and safe is fast-a kayaking mantra to live by.
Price: At over $200 it’s difficult to stomach the price, especially when compared to other cheaper helmets on the market. I will say only this, one will never regret quality, especially when things hit the fan. That goes for any piece of paddling equipment, especially helmets.Cons:
With all pieces of gear I have my issues. Sweet has done away with the Rocker Full Cuts as of last season, which replaces the hard plastic ear covers with removable fabric. Personally, I don’t like the ear-muff style pads blocking noise while I’m paddling, so I remove them, except in cold weather. This exposes my ear drums to big shots when taking tsunami sized waves sideways. I keep an ear dropper of “swimmers ear solution” in my gear bag now just in case. With that said, it’s probably wise to wear ear plugs if you are going to be paddling often, especially in cold water.
If you like a visor on your helmet, the Rockers offer the option. However, the plastic piece that allows wearers to adjust the angle of the brim has broken on me more than once. This leaves the brim a bit floppy for my liking. Most fanatic Rocker wearers end up removing the visor, or if you have the style and panache of white water legend Mick Hopkinson, glue a foam visor on and be done with it. On second thought, nobody besides Mick Hopkinson has the style and panache of Mick Hopkinson. It's also difficult to wear sunglasses with the helmets. Not a problem if your from the Pacific NorthWest where it's always overcast.
In Closing:There is a reason we are starting to see Sweet make a big push into the realm of class IV-V kayaking protection in the states. Yes, we all know they are super stylish, but more importantly, they are arguably one of the safest and best helmets on the market.In my opinion, there are a small number of great helmet makers out there with solid results when it comes to high impact ratings. Sweet is one of them. They have been doing their homework for over 15 years in high impact sports and it shows. Whether I’m bar brawling, carping rolls on shallow runs, or fighting off packs of bloodthirsty saber tooth wolves, I am always happy to be wearing a Rocker.