We asked professional skipper, Bruce Jacobs, of Rubicon 3 expeditions, to test offshore lifejackets.
Deployment – the ultimate test
If the worst happens and a casualty ends up in the water, everything needs to work and the jacket has to be completely intuitive.
First on trial was the Spinlock 170N. Having jumped in, the sprayhood was immediately available, was a great size and was very easy and intuitive to fasten under the bladders. I looked to my right and quickly found the inflation tube, the whistle and the pylon light (an optional extra). The jacket also had the Lume-On system that enables the jacket to glow in the dark. This additional security at night is a huge bonus for the Spinlock and should not be underestimated.
With the deployment complete, the rescue boat came over to pick me up. It was at this point that we realised the lifting strop was nowhere to be seen. The rescuer will attach a line to the lifting strop and haul the casualty out of the water. It’s vital but the rescuers searched around in the water for a good 30 seconds and ultimately had to give up.
Only when I had clambered in to the boat did we see the very clearly marked, bright red lifting strop hanging down from the jacket. It was clearly meant to be poppered on to the left bladder, where it would be easily visible to any rescuer. We believe that as the jacket inflated, it simply blew off the bladder poppers. From what we saw, this lifting strop could and should be the best system of all three jackets, but when the time came and it had to perform perfectly, the set-up failed.
Spinlock has said it is not aware of this ever having been a problem before, but on our test the set-up failed and without finding that strop any chance of me being successfully rescued was undoubtedly diminished.
A little surprised, we moved on to the Crewsaver. This jacket has a massive 290N of buoyancy, giving vast amounts of flotation, even when wearing heavy clothing. I expected the size of the bladder to be a problem once inflated, but actually found it had little impact on my manoeuvrability or visibility. Again I felt safe and stable. Not only that, it has a very reassuring inflatable chin guard that ensures the wearer’s mouth stays out of the water.
This jacket also had a surprise in store for us however, as I couldn’t deploy the sprayhood properly. It stopped at my chin, barely covering my face. I struggled with it, but couldn’t find any way to secure the bottom of it to the bladder. Eventually I had to resort to holding the hood down over my face. Again, this is a serious issue: in heavy weather a man overboard without a secured sprayhood is in grave danger of inhaling spray leading to possible secondary drowning.
The rescue boat came over and this time the lifting strops were easy to find, poppered to the bladder with bright orange tabs. It would be better to have them clearly marked as such. The wearer may be familiar with the jacket, but a flustered rescuer shouldn’t have to second-guess anything. Having been hauled on to the boat, it became clear that the jacket did in fact have a superb sprayhood – actually the best of the three. It had fantastic visibility, a hoop to keep it off the face and lots of lateral protection.
So why hadn’t it deployed properly? The bladder attachment band and the remainder of the hood was still folded behind my head. I never worked that out in the flat calm and would have had no chance of doing so in a real-life situation. In response, Crewsaver has said the user needs to know to pull out the hood in a particular direction for it to deploy properly, but how would a casualty know this? That hood needed to be there, accessible, straight away – but it wasn’t. It was frustrating as it marred an otherwise superb jacket.
More lifting strop issues
Finally, we tested the Helly Hansen jacket. At only 150N, it felt noticeably smaller when inflated than the other jackets, but no less safe. As with all of them, the light, whistle and inflation tube were immediately accessible. The whistle on the Helly Hansen jacket seemed to make a much louder noise than the others and was our favourite of the three.
I found the sprayhood quickly and pulled it over my head. It had plastic buckles to attach to the bladders. In daylight, this was immediately obvious but I do wonder if I would have worked out the system at night. Simplicity is everything in an emergency situation and the traditional attachment method of a band around the bladders is tried, tested and effective. The sprayhood itself felt a little loose, especially around the sides, and I would have liked a way to tighten it up but the buckles did not allow me to do this.
The rescue boat now came alongside, but once again we could not find the lifting strop. The rescuers could see flashes of red below the surface, but concluded that these were the red thigh straps. There was no way anyone was going to risk attaching a line to them and hauling me up. Eventually, we gave up and it was only back aboard the rescue boat that we finally saw the red lifting strop. It was an identical colour and size to the thigh straps, and positioned directly above them. It was all but impossible to distinguish the lifting strop from the thigh straps in the water. Also, there are no poppered attachment points on the bladder, which means the strop is always likely to sink out of the rescuers’ sight.
Again, the consequences of this in any real-life situation don’t bear thinking about. Helly Hansen states that the sprayhood on its 2017 model will include elastic sides and elastic straps for attaching to the bladder, and that its designers are working on making the lifting strop easier to find.
Ultimately a lifejacket has only two purposes: the harness is there to keep you on board and the remainder of the jacket is there to keep you alive and allow you to be rescued if you do fall in the water. The importance of those two functions working first time, every time, cannot be overstated. They also have to be utterly intuitive to operate for both the casualty and the rescuer. There is little doubt that each of these jackets is a good product and yet, in the cold light of day, not one of the three fully performed to our expectations.
Sprayhoods and lifting strops are critical, but we were unable to deploy both successfully on any of the three jackets. Without doubt, having the casualty and rescuer familiar with the jacket in its inflated state would have reduced the problems, but very few sailors jump in with their lifejackets to find out how they actually work, and how would a rescuer expect to be familiar with all the different models?
To be used on a Rubicon 3 voyage, the Helly Hansen jacket would need improvements to be made. However, the Spinlock and Crewsaver are both very capable lifejackets and the final choice of which to wear came down to personal preference. One of us picked the Spinlock as the winner, the other the Crewsaver. We would very happily have either.
That said, as I floated in those icy cold Icelandic waters, struggling with hoods and trying to find lifting strops, my over-riding thought was that while each of these jackets would surely help keep me alive, a casualty is in a hugely perilous situation in the water. The only genuine approach to a man overboard situation remains, as ever, its prevention in the first place.
Bruce Jacobs is a Yachtmaster Ocean instructor and MCA Master 200. Rubicon 3 runs adventure sailing expeditions, with an emphasis on training and exploring. Routes range from Spitsbergen to Morocco. Find out more at www.rubicon3.co.uk