Lifejackets: still need thought

You need to weigh up the pros and cons as to what kind of lifejacket is needed You need to weigh up the pros and cons as to what kind of lifejacket is needed
Industry Database

The lifejacket message is getting there – you only have to look at the figures, writes Stevie Knight. But choosing which type still needs thinking through

“I have seen people getting into a RIB after a Cowes Week party, a bit worse for wear, and there they were, without being prompted, struggling to put their lifejackets on. Even though it did take them quite a bit longer,” says Richard Besse of Ocean Safety.

Mr Besse adds since the awareness campaign, there has been a massive increase in people wearing lifejackets, something that the Casualty Review panel bears out. Of the number of maritime fatalities recorded, 13 would probably or could possibly have been saved had they been wearing a lifejacket or buoyancy aid. This is clearly an improvement over 2007-11 where in 95 cases a life “could probably or possibly have been saved”.

“Now we are actually seeing lifejackets being worn out, it’s something you didn’t see five years ago,” says MD of the company, Charlie Mill. Further, jacket quality is also rising: Mr Besse adds that talking about performance is less important as it use to be as the new ISO12402 standard is more stringent than the old EN requirements: “The whole lifejacket industry has moved on; the individual in the street has started to pay a little more and generally people have started to do the research and ask more questions, which has lead to lifejackets being designed for comfort and constant wear,” he says.

Despite this, there are still issues. Mr Mill says he finds it quite hard to believe that so many people put all their faith in an automatic lifejacket, “because you do need to put some thought into these things”.

“I have a rib and I have spent time on the foredeck – if you wear an automatically inflatable lifejacket in these wet conditions you have a chance it will go off by itself.” Needless to say the foredeck or a moving rib is not a good place to have your balance challenged by a jacket suddenly inflating. However, he points out that he always put his young son in an automatic version.

Mr Besse says the risk of entrapment is a big issue, and bears heavily on the choice between automatic versus manual lifejackets: “The pro’s and cons need to be weighed up. I personally do not wear an automatic lifejacket as for me, entrapment and inadvertent inflation is a higher risk than the lifejacket having to operate automatically.” However, he adds retailers need to help themselves to help customers get it right.

“The chandlers and retailers have to be confident enough to give the message, ‘you have to be responsible for yourself, do your own risk assessment’ and still talk their customers through various scenarios.” He adds, people don’t need to be told what to do, but they do need the information: after all, its why a lot of people go sailing, it’s one of the areas that isn’t yet wrapped up in a lot of rules.

So, is there going to be a perfect answer for a boater? Rarely, say Mr Mill. “We spend a lot of time at the boat shows, explaining that you simply can’t get a one-size-fits-all solution. There will always be times when this or that lifejacket would be better,” he says.

“We have started training our retailers on product awareness courses, a retailer’s staff simply can’t know everything, the product mix is huge, so we are looking to see if we can find product champions in each location.”

But this ‘product awareness training’ isn’t really just about sales, as it crosses boundaries between manufacturers and Ocean Safety has got together with Harken to promote lifesaving equipment use and are doing mini road show around places like sailing clubs. “We are not talking about ‘our’ products, we are talking about products in general,” he says.

“Each lifejacket or safety product has its own quirks, features that are more suitable for this or that kind of use – so there’s very good reason to teach retailers about the variations in the firing mechanisms for example.”

Ocean Safety runs three very short courses for both public and trade, which, Mr Mill is careful to explain, are “not full training” by any means, but they will help people if the worst does happen. “People buy all these things but you’d be surprised at how many make mistakes in using them. Some of it seems obvious – in retrospect - like throwing a liferaft out of the side without making sure you have tied it off to the back of the boat,” says Mr Mill. He adds:

“I also recently saw a sailor that had put his jacket on over his lifejacket. It probably came down to something simple, he wasn’t cold when he put his lifejacket on, so without thinking he put his jacket over the top....However, the material of his jacket would probably be stronger than his ribs, so you can imagine what would happen if it went off,” says Mr Mill.

There’s a Lifejacket Maintenance course which takes a couple of hours: it is obviously not aimed at enabling an approved service, but it does help people to rearm the jackets and know how to keep them in good condition. There’s a Sea Survival Experience course where you see what it’s like to get into a lifeboat and use recovery devices and there’s also a RYA Basic Sea Survival course which takes one day, giving you two hours in the pool, with limited first aid training, plus the basics you need to know like about liferafts and packs like rations, water and signals.

“Training is not about sales,” Mr Mill reiterates, “it’s more fundamental than that. All this means that any eventual sales are informed, not just price point driven.”

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