You don’t have to have given very much thought to the matter of falling overboard from a yacht to have realised that a lifejacket may not save your life.
You don’t have to have crossed an ocean to have seen the spray tumbling down the face of the waves, and if you have ever swum at the beach you will surely have no difficulty in putting two and two together. Swimming at the beach is not like charging up and down the lanes in a pool; even on a relatively calm day it tends to be very much “wetter”. Swimming in the middle of the sea would obviously be wetter still. Anybody who goes overboard out there is going to have a rather lively time.
Lifejacket tests tend to be conducted on the placid waters of the municipal pool, but perhaps they ought really to take place inside a washing machine.
As a child I always used to reckon that if I fell overboard I would face downwind and keep my mouth shut tight. Unfortunately, this sensible policy might not be enough, and it would certainly not be easy to implement. The natural inclination of a body supported by a lifejacket is to weathercock into the wind, and if a “man overboard” has been knocked out cold by the boom or gets so chilly that he loses consciousness, this is the way that he will face – straight into the wind and waves. If you want to face downwind, you have to fight to stay that way.
Even if he managed to keep himself facing away from the waves, a MOB who had fallen into the Atlantic would have a tough time. If he happened to be in the Tropics and the wind was the average steady force four to five, then the swells would be around one to two metres high. If he went overboard in a force six they would be breaking all around him and over him.
We have never tested our lifejackets in anything approaching these conditions, but even so we have found that bobbing about in the briney can be quite unpleasant, and we reckon that keeping the waves out of your face is at least as important as bags of buoyancy.
With his face to the waves the MOB is just begging to be swamped. The merest wavelet, when it meets the edge of his lifejacket, goes slooshing up the channel between the two lobes and empties into his face. The better auto-inflating lifejackets are constructed in such a way that their lobes overlap, thereby minimising this “channeling”. That, at least, is the theory. In practice, the lobes overlap beautifully while the jacket is sitting on the table, but when the sailor puts it on the gap reappears.
“Why don’t they join up the lobes?” we asked ourselves. “Why don’t they give us one big bladder, instead of two?”
This is the way that the earlier Crewsaver auto-inflating lifejackets were constructed, and we always found them to be perfectly satisfactory. Indeed, Nick owes his life to one of these. (As a matter of interest, the harness was actually more comfortable than the modern sort, and might even have been safer.) Presumably the manufacturers have found that General Public, in his ignorance, prefers a waistcoat style jacket. Waistcoat style jackets are more compact, they look neater, and some people would say that they are easier to don.
It has to be said that whilst a single bladder would put a stop to channelling, it would not prevent the wavelets from leaping right over the lifejacket – and this is what many of them do. They slap into the lower edge of the jacket and continue on up into the victim’s face. After five minutes of this treatment Caesar concluded that if he were given the choice of falling overboard with a lifejacket or with a mask and snorkel he would definitely opt for the snorkel. Perhaps we should all keep them lashed to the collar of our oilskins!
The lifejacket manufacturers’ answer to this problem is a sprayhood which fits over the casualty’s face. We have been meaning, for a very long time, to put these to the test – and last summer we finally got round to it.
A lifejacket sprayhood consists essentially of a piece of transparent polythene. It looks as if it would suffocate the wearer – and, indeed, it would if the manufacturers did not do something to counteract the airtight quality of the plastic. In most cases they counteract the airtightness by the simple expedient of making holes in the polythene.
There are at least four different kinds of sprayhood on the market, each one being marketed by a different manufacturer:
Crewsaver‘s sprayhood is made from very thin, red, nylon cloth, with a large, clear polythene window suitably perforated. When not in use it lives in a little pouch on the lifejacket belt.
Baltic‘s sprayhood is made from a slightly tougher, fluorescent yellow cloth and has a similar polythene window, punctured in a different place. It also incorporates a wire stiffener which keeps the hood away from the wearers face. It is attached to the lifejacket by a toggle, and when not in use it lies in wait inside the cover.
These two sprayhoods are both fastened over the lifejacket bladder by means of elastic loops sewn to their lower edge, but Seago sell a hood which is sufficiently large for the cloth itself to tuck over the lower edge of the bladder.
Finally, Secumar make a sprayhood which looks much like the others but which contains one very important advance. Its waterproof abilities are not marred by any perforations. Instead, the hood is made from breathable “gore-sea” fabric. Unfortunately, so far as we can understand, the Secumar sprayhood only fits onto 275N jackets.
Our experiments thus far have centred upon the Baltic and Crewsaver sprayhoods – and, inevitably, whilst making the comparison between the hoods we also found ourselves comparing the lifejackets themselves.
This is the lifejacket described in our previous test (where we compared the adult and junior sized versions and considered crotch-straps and the self-righting ability of the adult jacket). The Crewfit is emblematic of auto-inflating lifejackets and is popularly conceived as the top model. Whether it is still the most popular jacket in terms of its sales I rather doubt, because the market is now flooded with cheaper “copy-cat” auto-inflatables. The people who trust their lives to these other brands presumably imagine that they are getting something which is just as good. It would be interesting to get hold of a bunch of them, someday, and investigate the differences.
We own various Crewfits. The oldest amongst them is a manually-operated jacket which has just entered its third decade. The newest ones are automatic jackets operated hydrostatically. (For more on the subject of inflation mechanisms, see below.)
Nick and I have been using Crewsaver lifejackets for over twenty years, and we have also bought them for our kids. So why would we want to try something new?
There are various reasons.
For a start, the fact that Crewsaver used to make the best lifejackets does not mean that they still do. Whilst the other leading manufacturers have made various small changes to their auto-inflating jackets in recent years, Crewsaver appear to have been sitting still. Perhaps this is because they have already created the ultimate jacket… but I wanted to know for sure.
A second reason for looking elsewhere lies in the fact that Crewsaver seem to have given up responding to customer enquiries – or, at any rate, they have given up responding to mine! In the past they had in their employ a tremendously helpful fellow called Mervyn – but he has retired, and my letters and e-mails now fall into a vacuum. How can a person know whether a product suits their needs when the manufacturer does not answer questions? I consider customer service to be very important, and when a company fails to answer my questions I invest my money elsewhere.
Various other manufacturers have responded promptly to my enquiries. Amongst them one which stood out was Baltic. Two points which grabbed my attention were the fact that Baltic do not make a child-sized auto-inflating jacket, and the fact that their 275N jackets are not aimed at yachtsmen.
I still have not had the chance to test a 275N jacket, but my experience of testing 150N jackets suggests that twice as much buoyancy would be bad thing in most circumstances. I am fairly sure that Baltic are correct when they say that the big jackets are not suitable for “self-rescue” and that you cannot board a lifejacket whilst wearing one. (Okay, you can let out half of the air – if you are sufficiently compos mentis to do so.)
So far as junior auto-inflating jackets are concerned – I, personally, don’t believe that these jackets are safe for small children. And Baltic appear to hold the same view.
I have a feeling that other manufacturers surely know these things too…. in which case, it appears to me that they are being less than scrupulous in their dealings with the yachting public. This seemed to be reason enough to take a look at what Baltic have to offer – and having looked, I liked what I saw.
Baltic make several auto-inflating lifejackets, most of which appear to be very similar. Their Bluewater lifejacket, in its un-inflated state, looks very like the adult-sized Crewfit. Their other jackets are similar in shape to Crewsaver‘s newer, cheaper auto-inflating jackets.
The Crewfit and Baltic‘s Bluewater are “old-fashioned” jackets, with hard corners. The jacket which we chose to test was the Argus – one of the newer style jackets, with a horseshoe-shaped cover. Since we have not yet worn the Argus for hours at a stretch we are not yet qualified to comment on the relative merits of these different designs – or at any rate not from the point of view of comfort. However, when it comes to comparing the ease with which they can be re-packed I have plenty to say.
Whereas the Baltic Argus, and other horseshoe-shaped jackets, have an air bladder which is entirely separate from their cover, the Crewfit‘s bladder and cover are united. In fact, a casual inspection suggests that the cover forms one side of the bladder, although this is not actually the case: in reality the cover overlies the bladder. The fact that the two are effectively one makes repacking the Crewfit a perfectly straightforward affair. One simply folds the thing in on itself and fastens the velcro which lines the inner edge. Hey Presto – job done in under sixty seconds.
Meanwhile, re-packing the horseshoe-shaped Baltic took half an hour and required two pairs of hands – and there were times when we would have welcomed the assistance of a fifth hand. The chief problem with this jacket is that its cover is fastened with a zip – and the zipper begins its journey from the side on which the oral inflator / deflator is located.
Following the instructions in the manual, we evacuated all of the air, in the usual manner, and began folding the jacket from this same side, gradually closing the zip as we went. When we reached the top, we had to open the zip again and force out some air which had remained trapped in the jacket. And when we reached the opposite side and the last three inches of the zip, we found that there was still more air to be released, and so we had to open the whole thing up yet again!
Put briefly, repacking the round-cornered Baltic Argus is a nightmare, whereas the old-style, hard-cornered Crewfit is something that one could put to bed in one’s sleep. I certainly do not relish the idea of re-packing the Argus annually, for the start of season inspection. Moreover, it seemed to me that every opening and re-packing will shorten the life of the jacket – or at any rate, of the cover. This cover is certainly not so well made as the Crewfit. The cloth adjacent to the zip is not even hemmed, and the frayed ends tend to catch in the zip. Frankly, when one is paying over £120 one expects better workmanship than this.
Automatic gas inflation jackets contain within their mechanism a large, very strong, steel spring with a spike at one end. The spring is kept captive behind a water soluble capsule, but when the capsule dissolves it is released and makes a hole in the CO2 bottle. In the case of the hydrostatically operated automatic jackets, the capsule does not get wet until there is a certain amount of water pressure.
The disadvantage of the straightforward automatic system is that the capsule, being made of paper or salt, often gets damp and inflates the jacket when it is not required to do so. Our Junior Crewfits were fitted with standard automatic capsules, and they self-inflated on four occasions whilst hanging in what seemed to us to be a perfectly dry locker.
The advantage of the hydrostatic system is that the lifejacket will not inflate automatically at a time when it is not required. The disadvantage is that it may not inflate the jacket when you do want it to. For example, if you fall in, landing and remaining on your back, the jacket will probably not inflate, because there will probably be insufficient water-pressure. In order for the jacket to inflate, the capsule must be immersed to a depth of two or even three feet.
Worse still, the bottles on the hydrostatic jackets have been known to come loose, making the jacket inoperable even by hand (although it can still be orally inflated).
The owner of a hydrostatic must check his bottle every time he dons the jacket. And he does. Every time Caesar puts on his jackets he feels through the cloth and ensures that the bottle is still attached.
Because of these drawbacks, and because of the additional expense, very few manufacturers use the hydrostatic inflation mechanism – but we still like it. So far as we are concerned, a jacket which auto-inflates at the wrong time leaves us with no lifejacket. And a lifejacket that you have to check regularly is much better than no lifejacket. (For a further discussion of this subject, see chapter 1 of Kids in the Cockpit.)
The Argus is an automatic jacket which is inflated using a new design of capsule. Baltic assure me that it is much more reliable than the old – and if it is not, I will let you know…
Unlike Crewsaver’s hydrostatic lifejacket, this jacket can be converted to manual usage by removing the capsule.
When the capsule and the CO2 bottle are both in place in the Argus, two little green indicators appear between them, displaying this fact. When the capsule is removed a little red indicator shifts into position below the green one, and when the bottle is also unscrewed, two little red indicators are visible. I must confess that when I first heard about this “gimmick” I was quite sceptical, but it is actually quite a neat idea. Rumour has it that it will eventually become compulsory on all lifejackets, but one hopes that this is not so. Life is already cripplingly over-regulated, and people who want a simple manually operated jacket should not have to pay for all the frills deemed necessary by Nanny.
Compare and Contrast
11 year old Roxanne was the first crew-member to test the Argus. Once again, she is 5kg lighter than the smallest size recommended by the manufacturer – but, once again, the jacket seemed to be perfectly safe and suitable. It supported her head well, and she reckoned that it was marginally more comfortable than the Crewfit. When offered the choice of the two she chose the Argus. The Admiral and the skipper also felt that of the two jackets, this one fitted her best.
Caesar also preferred this jacket – and in his case the preference was radical rather than marginal. The Argus supported his head much better than the Crewfit – a fact which is made manifestly clear by the photographs. The Argus also rolled him onto his back, whereas the Crewfit does not. He also found it easier to swim on his front in the Argus – although I may say that he had no difficulty in swimming on his front in either jacket. The Argus was more comfortable, the single crotch strap being less of a pain.
His final comment says it all: “I feel safer in the Baltic.”
(Interestingly, Caesar was better supported by his own, new, hydrostatic Crewfit than by the twenty year old (manual) Crewfit. Despite the fact that this older jacket still holds air and appears identical in size and shape it is clearly not so good – and it has now been pensioned off.)
Nick found little to choose between the Argus and the Crewfit, but the photographs show that his head is better supported by the Argus.
We tested the two sprayhoods on the jackets for which they were designed, and then we swapped them over – which is a thing that their manufacturers would certainly abhor.
The Baltic sprayhood, being already attached to the back of the jacket, was easiest to put on. None of us had any trouble finding it, and pulling it over the face and attaching the elastic straps is very easy, even in a force four. Clearly, it might not be so easy in a gale – but we will leave that test for another day.
When we hooked it onto the back of the Crewfit we found that the Baltic sprayhood fitted that jacket almost as well as it fits the Argus.
The Crewsaver hood lives in a pouch on the wearer’s belt – and this system is almost as silly as it sounds. There was scarcely a breath of wind on the day when we tested it. We reckoned that if there had been, then the job might have been more or less impossible. Stiffer material and a wire support would help – but then the hood would not fit into the pouch. Why Crewsaver have chosen to use a pouch, instead of the more obvious system employed by Baltic I simply cannot imagine.
Fitting the hood is, of course, only one third of the matter when it comes to testing the worthiness of a sprayhood. We also wanted to know whether the things worked, and we wanted to know whether we would be able to breathe whilst wearing them. In the case of the Baltic, there was ample wet water with which to conduct this experiment. On the second day, when we tested both the Baltic and the Crewsaver, the girls obliged by half-drowning the tester under a barrage of spray. It was a moment which they savoured…
It transpired that both hoods provide a good deal of protection, but that neither is perfect. The Baltic hood is the more comfortable, partly because of the wire support which keeps the polythene window well clear of the wearers face, but also because it is less inclined to steam up.
The Crewsaver hood is rather claustrophobic and is more inclined to fog up – but it keeps the wearer drier. Caesar reckoned that this was not because it was closer to his face but because the Baltic is perforated immediately over the wearer’s mouth. “If it were mine,” said he, “I would stick some tape over those stupid holes.” Exit one able-seaman, poisoned by his own exhalations!
(Note: Caesar objects to this last remark. He spent quite some time swimming on his front, with the breathing holes immersed, and he believes them to be entirely unnecessary.)
A significant amount of water rode up under the edge of the sprayhoods, and we all felt that their performance would be vastly improved if the cloth came down and fitted around the bottom of the jacket, in the style of the Seago hood. Whether this is correct we cannot know – until the Seago hood arrives!
Could Do Better
In conclusion, we felt that these hoods are little more than a sop. The effort expended upon their design lags far, far behind the energy and thought which has gone into the creation of the lifejackets. This is a great shame because, according to our experiments, conducted in very moderate waves, the SPRAYHOOD IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS THE LIFEJACKET.
I have been saying this for some time now – I have said it both in the yachting press and in Kids in the Cockpit – and I am going to keep on saying it until the manufacturers sit up and listen.
The sprayhood should be part of the jacket – it should pop up when the jacket inflates – but it must also be removable, like a visor, in case it is not needed.
About the only good news that I have heard lately of Crewsaver is that they now make a sprayhood for children’s jackets – which is a thing that I first asked them to do some five years ago. Unfortunately, since I cannot find this hood on their website, and since they no longer answer my enquiries, I do not know whether it fits onto all of their junior lifejackets; indeed, I don’t even know whether it really exists! If anybody else out there happens to have any information, please drop us a line using the comments form, below.