If you find yourself in the water a lifejacket could save your life, but only if it works. Salt water is a harsh environment and lifejackets cannot be expected to last forever, particularly if they are not looked after.
If you have laid your boat up for the winter or have finished boating for the season, dig out your lifejackets and inspect them for wear and tear.
Whatever type you use, it deserves basic maintenance to ensure that it will do what you expect it to do and to keep it working properly.
The time to find out that the CO2 bottle has worked loose and will not inflate the lifejacket is not when you accidentally fall in.
Simple checks that you can do
If it has been sometime since you last looked at your lifejacket now is a good time to give it the once over. There are some simple checks that you can do yourself and can be done more regularly dependant on how hard you have been working your lifejacket, but if you are not confident that you can do these then you can leave that to a service centre.
At the very least you should make a visual check for wear and tear:
- Look at the bits inside, particularly where the bladder ( the inflatable bit) is folded and forms 'peaks'.
- Check the webbing for signs of fraying and make sure that the stitching is sound.
- Inspect all fastenings to ensure that they work properly and are not broken. Unless fastenings function properly, you will not be able to adjust the fit of the lifejacket properly, this is critical if it is to perform properly in the water.
- Make sure that you have the crotch straps, you know how fit them and above all how to use them. Crotch straps make a significant difference in a seaway.
Check the CO2 bottle
Check that the CO2 bottle is:
- Present and full (you can do this by weighing the cylinder). The minimum gross weight is engraved on the bottle. To be sure that the bottle is full, it needs to be within 2 grams when weighed on an accurate scale. If not, or if it has obviously been used fit a replacement of the correct size immediately.
- Free from corrosion as corroded cylinders can abrade and damage the bladder.
- If the lifejacket is automatic and is activated by water, check the bobbin assembly (this crumbles and releases the firing pin when it gets wet); a replacement will be needed if it has been activated or is out of date.
Treat your lifejacket well
If the manufacturer provides folding instructions it is worth opening the lifejacket and wiping it down with fresh water if it has spent the season in a salty environment.
When not in use store your lifejacket in a dry well aired place on a non-metallic hanger. It is worth inflating it a little - just enough to remove the folds - with a bike pump or similar. Do not use your breath to avoid a build-up of moisture.
Buoyancy aids should be checked for damage, rinsed off in fresh water and stored on non-metallic hangers in a cool dry place. Do not place heavy objects on buoyancy aids as this will compress the buoyant filling and reduce their effectiveness.
It is highly recommended that you get your lifejacket checked regularly in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions; this may well be every year and a decent service centre will carry out a full inflation test for leakage.
Look after your lifejacket so that it is fit to look after you
You can read more information on lifejacket care on the RNLI website
Stuart Carruthers, RYA Cruising Manager