Designing the Perfect Lifejacket: A Journey of Reminiscences

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The design of lifejackets is a complex task that requires meeting various criteria. Lifejackets must be easy to put on, support the weight and shape of an average-sized person in water, and float the right way up with air passages out of the sea. They must also be designed to allow someone wearing it to jump into the sea without injury and not lose buoyancy in the presence of oil. These requirements make lifejacket design a challenging task, which is why their appearance has changed very rarely over the years.

In the late 1960s, the International Maritime Consultancy Organization (IMO) was working on new criteria for lifejackets. This was prompted by the deficiencies found in existing designs, such as their inability to perform well in the presence of oil. The process of creating new criteria was not without complexity, as shipowners were concerned about the cost of replacing the old lifejackets. Even the suggestion of attaching a small plastic whistle to the jacket caused a director of a liner company to react angrily, fearing that passengers would steal them. Eventually, the basic criteria for lifejacket design were settled, and member nations were tasked with translating them into actual designs.

To test the various lifejacket designs, the sub-committee on Life Saving Appliances organized a “talent competition” at a swimming pool in North London. Civil servants from the Civil Service Swimming Club volunteered to subject each lifejacket to tests, including low leaps into the water from the poolside and more rigorous jumps from the high board. The sub-committee chairman acted as the sole arbiter, giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on his assessment of each device. The variety of devices entered into the competition was surprising, and some failed spectacularly, eliciting cheers from the audience.

Ultimately, the new lifejackets were approved, but they presented challenges for some shipowners. For example, the bulky new lifejackets did not fit under the seats in passenger lounges. In one case, the owner of a high-speed hydrofoil had to argue for an exception, as raising the seats to accommodate the new jackets would have caused discomfort for tall passengers. This compromise was seen as a success by the owner.

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