Lifejackets on the inland waterways

If you happen to see a Castaway Canal Boats handover taking place on the Kennet and Avon near Bath you will probably notice one thing above all else.

If you happen to see a Castaway Canal Boats handover taking place on the Kennet and Avon near Bath you will probably notice one thing above all else.

You will probably notice it because it�s a sight traditionally rarely seen around our inland waterways � everyone will be wearing lifejackets.

Unlike in coastal environments, where not seeing a lifejacket is highly unusual nowadays, buoyancy aids have never been part of inland waterways culture.

Yet amongst people who work on our rivers and canals, and at RYA Training Centres, where lifejackets are now compulsory, buoyancy is slowly creeping into people�s consciousness. Increasing numbers of hire companies, including Castaway, are also cottoning on to the fact that wearing lifejackets in certain situations around inland waterways perhaps shouldn�t be as alien a concept as it always has been.

The reasoning for not wearing lifejackets on the waterways is well worn � that waterways are generally shallow and someone falling in can either walk or swim to the side, and lifejackets are traditionally bulky and unflattering.

However, as Ali Selby-Nicholls, Chief Instructor at Castaway Canal Boats and RYA Inland Waterways trainer, explains when people hear the pros to donning buoyancy they often realise the cons are outweighed and reach for a lifejacket.

�Popular opinion is that on average canals are about 4ft deep, but often that�s just the shallowest parts, and even then you have no idea about what debris or depth of mud there is that you can get caught up in beneath the surface. We do see that happen. Many children also wouldn�t be able to stand up in 4ft of water.

�At locks there is 40,000 gallons of water gushing through a very small area and it�s an incredibly unstable and risky environment.�

Cold Water Shock is also a real danger in water below 15�C. The sudden exposure of the head and body to cold water can cause a number of involuntary reactions, such as sudden increase in heart and blood pressure that may result in cardiac arrest, even for people in good health.

Due to an involuntary gasping reflex, cold water shock causes you inhale as you go under the water, the effects drastically reduce your ability to hold your breath underwater, from a minute or so to less than 10 seconds.

Ali continues: �If a person suffers Cold Water Shock or has sustained a head injury and lost consciousness falling into the water, they aren�t going to be able to swim or walk anywhere. In all these scenarios a lifejacket would help someone stay upright, keep their head out of the water and buy some extra time in rescuing them.�

The latest RYA guidelines suggest two situations during which people should certainly consider wearing lifejackets:

  1. transferring to and from the bank
  2. during lock and tunnel operations.

The perfect scenario would be for lifejackets to become as commonplace as on coastal waters although the RYA concedes that is some way off.

What the RYA is hoping is that as more and more canal and river-based professionals, lockkeepers and hire companies start to recognise the value of wearing lifejackets, then their increased visibility around the waterways will remove the �shock� factor and lifejackets will gradually start to be embraced as the norm.

Couple that with the fact people will start to realise lifejackets are no longer the huge, bright orange abominations so readily ridiculed for years, and there is actually a wide, diverse range of buoyancy aids that are comfortable, come in many different colours and promote manoeuvrability, we may slowly start to witness a culture shift.

As Ali concludes: �People don�t need lifejackets with lights, whistles, face masks, crotch straps or anything like that, just a simple specification, good quality buoyancy aid, that doesn�t have to be expensive. We�re not looking to go offshore racing!

�For me getting more hire companies on board will be a big step in influencing others to wear lifejackets more often. The only way we are going to affect a culture is by others leading by example. The early signs have been very encouraging, but there is a lot of work still to be done.�

Want an idea of what lifejackets are on the market?

Here are just some:

Spinlock Deckvest LITE (RRP �139.94 inc VAT) - an ultra lightweight, low profile design lifejacket. It features automatic inflation but easily converts to �manual only� firing with a Manual Conversion Kit. Available in five colours.

Spinlock Deckvest LITE

Baltic Winner (RRP from �62.95 depending on spec inc VAT) - a comfortable and stylish inflatable lifejacket with automatic or manual inflation. It has a longer lasting Zip instead of Velcro closure and is available in various colours.

Baltic Winner

Crewsaver Crewfit 150N (RRP from �99.95 depending on spec inc VAT) � a compact and comfortable everyday use lifejacket. Available in red or navy, fitted with UML MK5 standard automatic, Hammar hydrostatic or manual firing mechanisms.

Crewsaver Crewfit 150N