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Old 23 April 2005, 16:51   #1
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Should I wear a life jacket? - John Kennett

Should I wear a life jacket?
by John Kennett

Penzance, Cornwall. The bodies of two fishermen who drowned after their boat capsized in heavy seas on Sunday were found washed ashore today. Although their boat was well equipped, neither man was wearing a life jacket at the time of the accident.

A 26 year old man lost his life when he was thrown from an 18 ft. powerboat. The boat was travelling at high speed when it became airborne after hitting a wave and the victim struck his head as he was thrown from the boat. His body was recovered 45 minutes later. He was not wearing a life jacket.

Sound familiar? Every year we hear news reports like this. So often the victims are users of small boats, and haven't been wearing life jackets.

The US Coast Guard boating statistics for 1998 report a total of 574 deaths by drowning. Of these, just 65 victims were wearing life jackets and 509 were not. As statistics go, these are pretty conclusive.

The answer to "Should I wear a life jacket?" should always be yes. If you are not wearing a life jacket, it's not going to save your life. By their nature RIBs are fast craft, and when accidents happen they happen suddenly. You are unlikely to have the luxury of time to put on a life jacket when things start to go wrong.

Modern life jackets are lightweight and comfortable, (they don't even look too bad either!), so there is no real reason not to wear one. If you get into the habit of always wearing your life jacket when you use your RIB, then you will definitely be wearing it if you ever happen to need it.

So which to choose? There is quite a bewildering range to select from. In the US, life jackets (or Personal Floatation Devices as they are known) are graded by their suitability for different uses. The US Coast Guard has a comprehensive site which gives all the information that you need about selecting the right PFD. For RIB use you're likely to want a Type I PFD which is classified as an "offshore life jacket".

In the EU the requirements for "life jackets" and "buoyancy aids" are defined by European Standards EN393/5/6/9, and must be marked as such. The different models are defined primarily by the amount of floatation they provide. This is expressed in newtons, with 10 newtons providing a floatation force of approximately 1 kilogram. A life jacket will also turn an unconscious person the right way up, keeping the face clear of the water.

50 newton Buoyancy aid EN393
Suitable for sheltered inshore use where help is nearby. Typically used for waterskiing, dinghy sailing, sailboarding. Not self righting.

100 newton Life jacket EN395
Suitable for inshore and coastal use. Self righting within ten seconds in fair conditions. These life jackets were formerly classed as buoyancy aids, and are not the most appropriate for use on RIBs.

150 newton Life jacket EN396
Suitable for coastal and offshore use. Self righting within five seconds, with user wearing foul weather gear. These life jackets are the most common, and are ideal for use on RIBs.

275 newton Life jacket EN399
Designed for extreme conditions and professional use (eg North Sea). Similar performance to 150n life jackets, but with additional buoyancy. There is a limited range available, and would not offer most users a significant benefit over the more common 150n models.

Apart from the amount of buoyancy, there are various options to choose from -- the main choice being inherently buoyant (ie foam filled), or gas operated inflatable.

Inherently buoyant foam filled life jacket

Foam filled life jackets are pretty much fool-proof so long as they are worn correctly. They are very dependable and not easily damaged which is why they are used by RNLI RIB crews.

The downside if this type of life jacket is that they tend to be cumbersome and uncomfortable to wear for long periods. This may mean that in practice they don't get worn - in which case they are of no use at all!

Gas operated life jackets are light and comfortable enough to wear all the time, but must be inflated before they provide buoyancy. These life jackets may be operated manually or automatically.

Manual operation involves pulling a toggle, whilst automatic life jackets are activated on contact with water. Each type has its pros and cons.

Inflatable life jacket

Users of manual life jackets say that they like to have control over when the life jacket activates. This avoids the life jacket being activated prematurely by spray, and would also be a distinct advantage if you were to be trapped under a capsized RIB.

On the other hand, a manually activated life jacket is not going to be much help to you if you are unconscious, or otherwise incapacitated (for instance by cold shock).

My experience is that it takes a lot of water hitting you to set off an automatic life jacket. Rain and even heavy spray won't do it, although stuffing your RIB into the back of a large wave may just about manage! On the off chance that this does happen, it's not the end of the world. Just wear your life jacket inflated until you get the chance to rearm it. It takes about a minute and costs a few pounds.

Some top of the range automatic lifejackets use the newer Hammar activation system which is operated hydrostatically (ie by water pressure) rather than simply by contact with water. One of the advantages of this system is that it is less likely to fire prematurely.

If you find yourself in the water and your automatic life jacket doesn't inflate for some reason, you still have the manual toggle to pull, so you are no worse off than if you had been wearing a manual one to start with.

On balance, my clear choice is an automatic inflatable life jacket. If I come out of my RIB, I want my life jacket to keep me afloat without needing any intervention from me. I believe that the benefits of automatic inflation outweigh any danger of being trapped underneath the boat.

"If you don't like wearing a life jacket, raise your hand !"

The type of life jacket you prefer is your decision.
Whatever you choose, make sure that you wear it,
and wear it all the time.

This single piece of advice is the theme of the Year 2000 North American National Safe Boating Campaign: "Boat Smart from the Start. Wear Your Life Jacket."
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