Look after your lifejacket

Don't underestimate the importance of lifejacket servicing

RYA Cruising Manager, Stuart Carruthers, considers the importance of lifejacket servicing.

I have had some correspondence about the lack of availability and cost of replacement items to enable owners to do their own servicing; particularly replacement rearming kits and parts. It is argued that this makes it difficult for lifejacket owners to do their own servicing. The question is should you be servicing your own lifejacket?

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency publishes extensive advice on lifesaving appliance (LSA) servicing requirements in two Marine Guidance Notes (MGN).  MGN 548 (M+F) provides guidance on inflatable SOLAS LSA and MGN 553 (M+F) on non-SOLAS LSA.  Whilst the guidance is primarily aimed at vessels that operate commercially and at liferaft servicing, it does make it clear that inflatable lifejackets on small commercial vessels (including training and bareboat charter craft) should be serviced at a service station accredited by the manufacturer. In fact on small commercial vessels it is an offence to carry an inflatable lifejacket which is known to be defective, or which has not been serviced at the intervals prescribed by the Regulations.

Most lifejacket manufacturers recommend that their products are serviced annually by service stations that they have approved although some may extend this to two years for privately owned lifejackets. Your lifejacket is an important piece of technical safety equipment and there are some tests that simply cannot be done by a DIYer; the most important of which is the overpressure inflation test where the bladder is over inflated under controlled conditions and temperature and pressure are monitored over a period of time. If it does not pass these tests, then more than likely the lifejacket will not work as intended and it will be condemned.

Check your lifejacket regularly

So what can you do and why are rearming kits and parts available? It is important that you understand how your lifejacket works, how to use its features and how to ensure it performs as intended throughout its working life. This means that you should check your lifejacket regularly throughout the season for signs of damage to the bladder cover, webbing straps, stitching and clips and buckles.  If you are concerned, get it looked at.

There are three inflation methods for gas inflation lifejackets – manual, automatic and hydrostatic. Both the automatic and hydrostatic inflator mechanisms rely on a water sensitive element dissolving rapidly to activate them but differ in activation; it is worth knowing how yours works. Clearly, manually inflated lifejackets are operated by pulling a cord which pushes a firing pin into the CO2 bottle which inflates the lifejacket.

Automatic and hydrostatic lifejackets still have the manual cord, however, automatic inflator mechanisms have a small water sensitive cartridge or bobbin which is what holds back a powerful spring. When the cartridge/bobbin comes into contact with the water it dissolves very rapidly, releasing a spring which pushes the firing pin into the gas bottle.

The most common types of automatic inflator mechanisms are the United Moulders cartridge and the Halkey Roberts bobbin. The UML Automatic Cartridge has an expiry/replace-by date printed on it, the Halkey Roberts bobbin has a date of manufacture printed on it and typically has a three year life when taken off the shelf (provided it is stored correctly) and fitted to an inflator.

The hydrostatic (Hammar) lifejacket inflation system has a hydrostatic valve that protects the water sensitive element until the inflator is approximately 10cm underwater; they have a five year expiry date and are ideal where you are regularly soaked by waves or excessive spray.

Be aware that screw-in CO2 bottles in lifejackets can work themselves loose and are a common cause of failure and should be checked for tightness every month. In fact the international standards body responsible for PFD standards are addressing Cylinder Seal Indication (CSI) on all inflatable lifejackets and a number of manufacturers produce lifejackets with indicators to show the state of the bottle and trigger mechanism.

If a lifejacket is accidentally inflated during the season, and it does happen, you will want to be able to get it ready for use again straight away, particularly if you are on a long voyage. The principle reason that rearming kits are sold is so that you have the ability to rearm your lifejacket if you are, for example, on passage and it inflates for whatever reason so that you are not left without a lifejacket.

Check the CO2 bottle for corrosion. A heavily corroded bottle should be replaced. Also check any areas of material that have been in contact with a rough cylinder – the fabric may have been damaged. CO2 bottles are not “lifed”, they have a weight marked on the side of them and provided they are free from corrosion and provided they weigh at least as much as the weight marked on them they should be ok.

RYA advice

Annual servicing is a requirement for SOLAS approved lifejackets for professional use and a strong recommendation from authorities worldwide for recreational users. The overwhelming advice from the RYA, RNLI and MCA is to get your lifejackets serviced annually by an approved service station.

Recent RNLI lifejacket clinics have found that in excess of 30% of lifejackets brought in for inspection would not have worked in an emergency. Those who have their lifejackets serviced according to the manufacturer's instructions, check them at regular intervals, and have a spare rearming kit available should not have serious concerns.