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Life Jacket Update

CCA Safety Moment

Chuck Hawley, San Francisco Station

Most of the US Sailing Safety at Sea Moderators are Cruising Club members, and they have a unique opportunity to observe a wide variety of inflatable life jackets in action, since jumping into a pool (or the ocean) with an inflatable life jacket is part of Safety at Sea course curriculum. At a recent weekend course in Alameda, I witnessed 110 sailors jumping into a pool, of whom approximately 100 of them had on inflatable iife jackets. Of those, about 10% failed to inflate.

There have been two sailing fatalities in the last year related to apparent life jacket failures. I say “apparent” because in each case, the life jacket has either been thrown away or destroyed. We do know that in Jon Santarelli’s case, his pressure-activated Hammar inflator did not automatically inflate even after a lengthy period of submersion. In the case of Rick Srigley, who was apparently wearing a manually-activated inflatable, we are unsure whether the ripcord was ever pulled or what the condition of the CO2 cylinder was.

Several members of the CCA Safety and Seamanship Committee and the US Sailing Safety at Sea Committee have participated in the panels investigating these incidents. A key goal is to determine why the life jackets failed to perform the function that is required of any life jacket, which is to provide buoyancy for a sufficient period of time so that the wearer can be rescued or can self-rescue.

After analyzing dozens of life jackets that have failed to inflate, I have the following advice on how to reduce the chance that your life jacket doesn’t inflate:

  1. Perform a daily check on the life jacket every time it is worn. For modern life jackets with single-point indicators, ensure that the indicator is green. For older life jackets without a single point indicator, ensure that the CO2 cylinder has not been punctured and is screwed in tightly. In all cases, make sure the ripcord is available on the outside of the shroud, or enclosure.
  2. Perform a semi-annual or annual inspection of the life jacket according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This is relatively simple to do, but you have to orally inflate the life jacket and let it sit for 8 hours or so to insure that it does not have a leak. If it does have a leak, contact the manufacturer for advice on what to do.
  3. If you have a pressure-sensitive Hammar hydrostatic inflator, all of the air must be removed from the inside of the bladder. A small amount of residual air will trick the inflator to “think” that it’s either not immersed, or that it’s already been activated. Life jackets that use the Hammar inflators should be repacked on a flat surface so that all of the air can be forced out through the oral inflation tube. Actually sucking the last bit of air out of the bladder is advised.
  4. Also, if you use a life jacket with a Hammar inflator, remember that it has to be immersed at least four inches for pressure activation. Some people enter the water with a lot of trapped air in their clothing, especially with one-piece suits, and the life jacket never immerses deeply enough to activate.
  5. Finally, drill your crew and yourself on the habit of pulling the manual inflation ripcord even if you have a water-activated model. Know which side of your life jacket has the rip-cord, and which side has the oral inflation tube. Know how to get into the shroud so you can orally inflate the life jacket if necessary. It’s not always obvious, especially on borrowed gear

Finally, if you’ve had good service from a life jacket that dates from the Clinton Administration, perhaps it’s time to cut it up (don’t sell it) and buy a new model. An offshore sailing life jacket costs around $250 and lasts for a decade or more. Properly maintained, it will serve you well, by inflating when you need it to. There are great videos on how to repack most types of life jackets and how to verify that they are “good to go”. As a skipper, show that you care about the safety of your crew by examining everyone’s life jacket every time you leave the dock.