What Makes the Ultimate Life Jacket?

Mariners Develop Many Skills in STCW Training
Mariners Take Part in Safety Training as Part of STCW Courses. USCG

Your main floatation gear is our focus right now and for most of us this is a SOLAS compliant vest also called a USCG Type 1. There are float coats and suspenders along with plenty of other floatation and buoyancy devices but these ideas generally focus on a controlled overboard situation.

In an evacuation you may enter a lifeboat or may escape directly into the water for recovery if the situation is dire.

The gear on your floatation equipment will vary according to your area of operation, crew requirements, and personal preferences. Some items listed here may be prohibited by ship or national policy so check with your boson or safety officer.

Visibility  

Visibility in the water is the second most important aspect of floatation gear after buoyancy. Bright colors allow parts of the vest above water to be seen more easily. The challenge is that the majority of the vest is often submerged, and the part above the water is obscured by the head of the victim if they are facing the rescuers.

All authorities recommend that anyone overboard takes an active role in signaling rescue assets.

Unpowered objects include signals mirrors or an old CD-Rom which can signal surface and air searchers by sighting the object through the center hole and reflecting the sun. Dye markers are effective but two or three should be carried in high current areas.

Extra reflective patches above the collar of the vest are a cheap improvement; just avoid covering too much high visibility orange since the patches are sea grey.

Smoke markers are generally too large for personal gear but self-deploying aerial and hand flare create some day smoke and come in small packages.

Three to five flares isn’t overdoing it if you have the space and buoyancy reserves.

Powered LED marker lights and strobes are the best choices for visibility since strobes are daylight visible and unsurpassed for locating overboard victims at night. These things are expensive and still out of reach for many of the world’s sailors. My ultimate vest would have two strobes, one solid light, and three aerial flares.

Audible Signals

In poor visibility situations you will need some sort of loud signaling device. This is commonly a whistle that will work while wet, attached to a lanyard. All equipment should have lanyards to avoid dropping it with numb hands.

Electric and compressed gas powered horns are a possibility but are not as good as a whistle since it never runs out of power. The self-compressing gas horns which use a built-in pump to pressurize the power source are light weight and a good fit for your ultimate floatation gear if you operate in fog or mist regularly.    

Survival Gear

Items on this part of your list will be the most specific to your area of operation and physical condition. Sun protection is a high priority in all climates. A bright, packable head covering and some heavy zinc oxide sunscreen will be good enough for most people.

Food and water may seem extravagant and a problem to switch out or store. You never know if you will have just eaten or have missed several meals due to danger or weather. Heat and cold proof snacks packed in two layers of waterproofing will be very welcome if they are needed. Cold weather sailors should pack as many calories as possible into their survival suits.

Water is available in plastic pouches and is essential if you are going to eat. Immersion in water will keep you from noticing sweat due to exertion. If you are now floating free of your vessel it is likely you have exerted yourself recently and have had no time to re-hydrate.

Beacons

If you can afford an EPRIB or AIS beacon then add it to your gear. This is by far the best way to be located quickly. One day the technology will be built into active floatation gear but until that day you need to build your own survival system.