When you inspect your inflatable lifejackets, hope you don’t find any surprises.
They say you should never take anything for granted in life, and I reckon that applies to lifejackets too. While exhuming my inflatable lifejackets— one manually actuated, one auto-inflating—from their basement crypt last spring, it struck me that I had never once inspected them or serviced them since they were new—and that, I realized guiltily, was many years ago.
It was obviously past time. It’s easy enough to inspect a lifejacket; you basically just open it up, blow it up using the inflator tube on the left-hand chamber, and check it over for obvious signs of damage—chafed seams, punctures, cuts. If it’s dirty or salty, sponge it down with warm soapy water, rinse it and let it dry overnight, still fully inflated. If it leaks, throw it away and buy a new one.
You also need to check out the inflation mechanism. On a manually activated lifejacket, a yank on the pull tab attached to the trigger pierces a CO2 canister and releases its contents into the air chambers. On an auto-inflating jacket, a water-activated bobbin releases a spring to puncture the canister. Depending on the maker—most inflatables will have Halkey-Roberts, Hammar or Secumar inflators—this bobbin will be either a plastic-encased substance or smooth-surfaced “pill” that dissolves in contact with water.
If the jacket is kept or worn in humid or damp environments, these bobbins should be inspected regularly for signs of deterioration—Halkey-Roberts suggests replacing bobbins at least every three years. This schedule is the subject of some debate, given any thrifty sailor’s natural reluctance to replace something that appears to be in perfect condition.
Because my 2007 auto-inflating jacket had been kept dry belowdecks and only worn occasionally, the bobbin looked just fine, so I decided to leave it alone. You can buy re-arming kits for older SOSpender/West Marine jackets like mine for between $15 (manual) and $30 (auto) depending on where you shop. They include a new gas cylinder, a small green retaining pin and, if it’s an auto kit, a bobbin. If you just want to replace the bobbin, expect to pay around $10 each.
The design of inflating mechanisms has changed over the years so make sure you look at the serial number before ordering online. I had assumed my two SOSpenders lifejackets would accept the same CO2 canisters, only to find that the auto-inflator took a 3/8in thread and the manual jacket a 1/2in thread. Annoying, but good to know before you order spares.
The latest word in lifejacket tech is Hammar’s hydrostatic inflator, which relies on water pressure to trigger inflation. If you’ve ever had your lifejacket inflate in a heavy rain or in a damp locker, you’ll know this is a good idea. On the other hand, re-arming kits for these run around $70—yet another reason not to fall overboard. Speaking of which, when I unfolded my manual lifejacket for inspection I discovered an empty space where the CO2 canister was meant to be—this on the lifejacket I wear most frequently, being no fan of auto-inflating jackets. Then I recalled that years ago an overzealous TSA agent confiscated said cylinder at Logan Airport; I had forgotten to replace it and, since the jacket was weighed down with strobe lights and flashlights, had not noticed it was lighter than it should be. I’d been wearing it for years without realizing. Now there’s another reason for frequent inspections.
HELLY HANSEN, hellyhansen.com
JAMESTOWN DISTRIBUTORS, jamestowndistributors.com
LANDFALL NAVAGATION, landfallnavigations.com
MUSTANG SURVIVAL, mustangsurvival.com
WEST MARINE, westmarine.com