Inflatable life jackets are designed for single use and once inflated a number of components need to be replaced to ensure continued use. It is vital that you know how to do this properly if, for example, your lifejacket has been inflated for whatever reason when on voyage and there is no other option. But the question is that although replacement (rearming) kits are available, should you be servicing your lifejacket as a matter of routine or is it a job that is best left to an approved service station that is qualified to service your particular lifejacket?
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) publishes extensive advice on its policy with regards to lifesaving appliance (LSA) servicing requirements in two Marine Guidance Notes (MGN). MGN 548 (M+F) provides guidance on inflatable SOLAS certificated LSA and MGN 553 (M+F) on non-SOLAS certificated LSA. If you are operating under SOLAS then it is a legal requirement that lifejacket servicing must be carried out annually by a service station that has been approved by the manufacturer and has been assessed as acceptable by the MCA.
Where non-SOLAS inflatable lifejackets are accepted by the MCA for use on small commercial vessels (including training and bareboat charter craft) then they are required to be serviced in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions within one month either side of the next service date. In between, they should be examined annually. As far as is reasonable and practicable, visual examinations should be carried out weekly by the owner to determine whether they are safe to use.
So what about non-commercial use? It is a simple fact that if you are a private recreational boater there is no legal requirement to get your lifejacket serviced and there is plenty of advice on how to do it on the internet. However, your lifejacket is an important piece of lifesaving safety equipment and there are some servicing procedures that are best not 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 in a service station, then more than likely the lifejacket will not work as intended and it will be condemned. This is why many lifejacket manufacturers recommend that their products are professionally serviced at an approved service station.
It is important that you understand how your lifejacket works and how to use its features 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 and any ‘lifed’ parts are in date. If you are concerned, get it looked at.
There are three types of inflatable lifejackets – manual, automatic and hydrostatic. Both the automatic and hydrostatic inflator mechanisms rely on a water sensitive element to activate them but differ in operation. All lifejackets have a manual inflation cord but a manually inflated lifejacket relies on the cord being pulled in order for it to inflate - a disadvantage if you are not conscious.
Automatic and hydrostatic lifejacket inflator mechanisms have a small water sensitive cartridge or bobbin which holds back a powerful spring. When the cartridge/bobbin comes into contact with the water it dissolves rapidly, releasing the spring which pushes the firing pin into the gas bottle, releasing the gas and inflating the lifejacket.
The hydrostatic lifejacket inflation system has a hydrostatic valve that protects the water sensitive element until the inflator is approximately 10cm underwater 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 regularly. In fact, the international standards body responsible for lifejacket standards have addressed Cylinder Seal Indication (CSI) on all inflatable lifejackets and several 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 principal reason that rearming kits are sold is so that you can 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 they weigh at least as much as the weight marked on them, they should be ok.
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 at the manufacturer recommended interval by an approved service station.
RNLI lifejacket clinics have found that more than 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.
For more information about staying safe on the water visit the RYA Safety hub page.