REMINISCENCES | On designing the ideal lifejacket

REMINISCENCES | On designing the ideal lifejacket

Photo: International Maritime Rescue Federation

I was looking at an image of a ship’s company at boat drill the other day, the crew all wearing their great bulky lifejackets, which clearly do the job they were designed for, but can only be described as cumbersome. You have to stow the wretched things somewhere and there have been endless arguments about whether they should be in people’s cabins or stored close to muster stations on passenger ships. That argument is still going on.

But the criteria for lifejacket design is far from simple to satisfy. They must be easy to put on, and unlike the jackets under the seats of airline passengers, must be simple and free from maintenance requirements. They must support the weight and shape of a “mesomorph” – the average-sized person – in water, while ensuring that they float the right way up, with their air passages out of the sea. They need to be designed so that someone wearing it can jump into the sea from height, without injury and must not lose their buoyancy if the sea has oil floating in it. There is a lot more besides this for life-saving appliance (LSA) designers to bear in mind, which is probably why the appearance of these aids to flotation has changed very rarely.

I was working at the UK Chamber of Shipping in the late 1960s, my first shore job and one that would take me from time to time to the International Maritime Consultancy Organisation (today’s IMO) to sit at the back of the room behind an ICS name badge as an “observer”. The sub-committee on Life Saving Appliances was at that time engaged in producing new criteria for lifejackets after the deficiencies in existing designs had become apparent. The old lifejackets I was used to – soft and squishy and not too bulky – had been found deficient if there was oil in the water and the great brains of the international maritime regulating community were tasked with sorting out this problem.

It was not without complexity as the shipowners who would eventually have to pay for replacements were sensitive to such changes. The mere suggestion that a small plastic whistle for attracting attention be attached to a jacket caused a terrifying outburst of rage from a director of the UK’s biggest liner company. He said it was a ridiculous imposition, as the passengers would steal them, and he demanded that the UK delegation should fiercely object, which probably gives you some indication of why Britain’s maritime decline was so precipitous. I think that he was eventually persuaded that persisting in such a strategy would be something of a PR “own-goal”.

This all went on in the IMCO premises, which were situated in London’s West End (handy for shopping) and behind the scenes, for several sessions, and eventually the basic criteria were roughly settled. It was then up to the member nations to translate this into lifejacket designs, which would be subsequently reviewed by the sub-committee.

“So the performance began, each splashdown being furiously applauded by its supporting delegation, although the aquatic civil servants were commendably neutral as they came up for air.”

Some months later, it was announced that the various jackets that had been provided by the member nations would be “tested” by the sub-committee and the members, along with a cast of national supporters and the lifejackets themselves, adjourned to the Hornsea swimming baths in North London for a sort of “talent competition” to select suitable designs.

There was a festive air to these proceedings, being free from the somewhat formal stuffiness of the conference chamber, as we breathed in the damp and heavily chlorinated atmosphere of the Olympic-sized pool.

The chairman, with the IMCO officials alongside him, sat appropriately in the VIP poolside seats, with the national representatives and observers ranged up and down the various tiers to get the best possible view of the watery competition. I cannot for the life of me recall whether the translators were installed for the day, but it is a long time ago.

The tests, we were told, would be undertaken by volunteers (“You’re for the high jump, Carruthers.”) from the Civil Service Swimming Club, who would subject each lifejacket to a low leap into the water from the poolside, and a more rigorous test from the high board to simulate the height of an ocean-going ship.

So the performance began, each splashdown being furiously applauded by its supporting delegation, although the aquatic civil servants were commendably neutral as they came up for air. The sub-committee chairman appeared to be the sole arbiter of the proceeding, giving the thumbs-up if he approved of the device, and despatching those that failed to impress with an imperious thumbs-down.

“We learned that the new, bulky lifejackets, unlike the older kapok-filled devices they were required to replace, would not fit under the seats in the passenger lounge.”

The sheer variety of devices that had been entered into the event was quite surprising and it took the best part of the afternoon to review them all. Some were more memorable than others.

There was one lifejacket, I recall, which was not unlike the staves of a barrel, with the head of the wearer, a smallish and rather plump civil servant, sticking out the top. He had negotiated the low, poolside leap without too much trouble but then clambered laboriously up to the top board of the diving platform.

He did not look over-confident as he waited for the chairman’s signal to jump. Down he plummeted, to reach the water with a tremendous splash, which revealed, as the water settled, the shredded remains of the lifejacket left pathetically on the surface. There was an enormous cheer as the swimmer, sans LSA, bobbed up from the depths, as the chairman signalled the very obvious failure.

Eventually, I recall, IMCO had pronounced and the Board of Trade had decreed the necessary changes to the LSA aboard British ships. This was not without difficulty as I was required to transmit the problems faced by the owner of the UK’s sole high-speed hydrofoil to the Chief Nautical Surveyor. We learned that the new, bulky lifejackets, unlike the older kapok-filled devices they were required to replace, would not fit under the seats in the passenger lounge.

The Chief Nautical Surveyor, an officer not known for his patience, was unimpressed and suggested that all the owner should do would be to raise the seats sufficiently to accommodate the new jackets. My brief enabled me to explain that that would have the heads of tall passengers jammed against the roof of the cabin, forcing them to undertake the voyage in a crouching position. In a rare compromise from the regulator, this was why Britain’s only commercial hydrofoil was permitted to operate with substandard LSA. It was seen by my employers as a signal success.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing, or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Send your submissions to: [email protected].

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.