Lifejackets - useless unless worn

Lookout! Issue 26, September 2012

One recent weekend, we saw three high-profile scenarios in play with three different outcomes.

In the first, five men wearing lifejackets were rescued by Navy and Coastguard from their sinking yacht when it hit rocks at Cape Colville, near Great Barrier Island.

That night, two men reported missing from a dinghy in Wellington Harbour were not so fortunate. They were carrying, but not wearing lifejackets, and although only 75 metres off shore, only one of them survived when their dinghy sank and they had to attempt to swim to shore. They were unable to retrieve their stowed lifejackets from the dinghy.

In the third incident, a father and his four-year-old daughter were rescued by onlookers after their kayak capsized and was swept out to sea. Neither was wearing a lifejacket. If there hadn’t been witnesses close by to rescue them, the end result may well have been different.

What is clear is that, while the outcome of any accident is by no means certain, if people suddenly end up in the water and they are wearing a lifejacket, they have a much higher chance of surviving. If lifejackets are carried but not worn, people are often unable to retrieve them when trouble hits. And trouble often happens without warning.

Don’t think “it won’t happen to me”. Lifejackets are lifesavers.

A legal requirement

You must carry a correctly sized, serviceable lifejacket (also known as a personal flotation device or PFD) for each person on board a pleasure boat in New Zealand. This is a legal requirement under maritime rules and regional council bylaws. The requirements apply to all boats, including tenders and larger craft.

Regional council belaws

Check your local regional council bylaws for the requirements that apply in the waters in your part of New Zealand. Some bylaws go further than maritime rules, making the wearing of lifejackets compulsory for all on board small craft.

Skipper responsibility

Maritime rules provide that it is the skipper’s legal responsibility to ensure that lifejackets are worn in situations of heightened risk, such as when crossing a bar, in rough water and during an emergency. Lifejackets must be stored so that they are immediately available in case of a sudden emergency or capsize.

We recommend that people, especially non-swimmers and children, wear lifejackets at all times in boats under 6 metres.

Why wear a lifejacket

Most drownings in boating accidents involve craft under 6 metres. All on board boats under 6 metres should wear a lifejacket, unless the skipper has assessed this is not necessary, due to the low risk at the time (but we recommend that non-swimmers and children wear lifejackets at all times).

Most accidents occur suddenly with no warning. There may be no time to grab a lifejacket unless it is close at hand, and it is extremely difficult or impossible to put on a lifejacket securely in the water.

Some lifejackets provide more than flotation. They allow a person in the water to keep still, thereby conserving energy, which will help to delay the onset of hypothermia. The body loses heat through water three times faster than out of the water. Closed foam-type PFDs also provide thermal protection on cold days and prevention from injury in collisions.

Lifejacket standards

Lifejackets must meet New Zealand Standard (NZS) 5823: 1999, or NZS 5823: 2001, or NZS 5823: 2005 – specification for buoyancy aids and marine safety harnesses and lines – or another national or international standard substantially complying with the New Zealand standards. These include US, Australian, European and ISO standards. If you’re looking at buying a new PFD or lifejacket, there’s now a vast array to choose from on the international market.

The right type of lifejacket

It is important to have the right type of lifejacket. Consider the type of boating you do, the distance from shore you intend to go, and the kind of conditions you are likely to encounter. Your lifejacket retailer should be able to help you choose the type most suited to your needs.

Inflatable lifejackets

These are becoming increasingly popular with boaties, as they are more comfortable than other lifejackets. As well as being very light to wear and less restrictive, they also have considerably more flotation than foam lifejackets, and exceed buoyancy requirements.

Inflatable lifejackets come in manual and automatic variations. Manual inflatables require the wearer to pull a tab to inflate the lifejacket, and automatic lifejackets inflate as soon as they are immersed in water. A ‘pouch’ style inflatable lifejacket is also available.

While inflatable lifejackets have many advantages, they do require regular servicing and users should check them frequently to ensure the gas canister is properly screwed in and not rusted and that the mechanism is serviceable.

Crotch straps

Crotch straps are recommended for lifejackets when they may be used in situations other than very calm water. Even when tightly secured, lifejackets have a tendency to ride up on the wearer if there is any wave action. Crotch straps are mandatory for all childre-nsized lifejackets and in some yacht racing situations.

Storage and maintenance

Store your lifejacket away from the sunlight. Ensure it is dry and clean and away from chemicals. Check your lifejacket before re-use and make sure that it is still the correct size (especially for children).

Inflatable lifejackets need to be checked and serviced regularly. On a boat, they must be stored so that they are immediately available in case of a sudden emergency or capsize.

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