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Crewsaver 2015 Lifejackets

60 years of Crewsaver, 30 years of Crewfit, and the 'beautiful art' of simplification

by Mark Jardine on 18 Oct 18 October 2017
Crewsaver lifejackets: 1959 - 2000s © Mark Jardine / YachtsandYachting.com

Crewsaver has come a long way since the original hand-welded, orally inflated lifejackets and buoyancy bags sixty years ago. Along the way they've introduced automatic inflation, dual chambers and then in 1984 Crewfit came along, which was the first waistcoat shaped design, and has evolved into the 3D moulded design in the ErgoFit range that we see today.

We spoke to Design Manager Nigel Parkes about the big changes that have taken place and the constant push for improved performance from a lifejacket when you need it most.

Mark Jardine: What are the most important attributes in the design of a lifejacket?

Nigel Parkes: Turning performance is the prime attribute of a lifejacket and second to that, if not equal, is the height of your mouth above the surface of the water. Doing both of those jobs extremely well is actually counter-intuitive; by just improving turning performance you can actually reduce surface height, so the 3D nature of a modern ErgoFit lifejacket is aiming to follow the contours of a person's body to maximise lift and providing the buoyancy in exactly the right place for turning i.e optimising both of these two.

Mark: As a lifejacket user, the vast majority of the time you're not thinking about what it's actually going to do when you're in the water, you're thinking about how comfortable it is when you're not using it as a lifejacket. Is the comfort just a by-product of the 3D design?

Nigel: It depends who you ask! If you ask one of the lifejacket designers, then all they're concentrating on is performance. If you're a customer who is trying a lifejacket on then comfort is crucial. We spend a lot of time concentrating on what's on the inside and sometimes, secondary to the safety, is the consideration for comfort, and that's one of the things that has really changed in the ErgoFit design. We've bolted more and more features onto lifejackets - we've got bigger cylinders, automatic mechanisms and we're now fitting AIS* - but then we need to also consider comfort. The revolution for us, when we came to the 3D design, was considering comfort at exactly the same level of importance as the main two major characteristics.

Mark: You mentioned the new features on lifejackets, which explains why there are now such a wide range available. Is this range purely so that you can provide a suitable solution for every sector of the market?

Nigel: There are different requirements for different user sets, however nearly all the features are viable for all users, such as the hood which, in my opinion, you should have. Try looking up into a showerhead and see how disconcerting it is, and how difficult it is to keep your face clear of the water and you'll glimpse how difficult it would be to breathe on the water during a storm. With a hood you're in your own little microclimate and you're protected, and that's the whole point.

A light as well – maybe you're a day sailor, but if you are unfortunate enough to have an accident then there's a distinct possibility that day will turn to night, and a light is a vital piece of kit that attracts attention. The modern-day addition to a light is a PLB** of some sort. The PLB will help the rescue services pinpoint you - with the light doing its job close by at night, so we're adding whistles, lights, hoods and more accessories into these products which effectively make them bulkier. When we're going about designing a product we're always considering these things and how we can pack them away to be as minimal as possible.

Mark: Do you do this by making the features you add smaller and lighter, so you can create a lifejacket less bulky than a previous generation's product, but with more technology?

Nigel: Absolutely. In the same way as with offshore clothing you previously would have had a very thick fabric which wasn't particularly flexible, comfortable or breathable, technology has given us the opportunity to make products lighter and increase wearability.

Mark: In competitive sailing much of the change that is happening on boats has seen soft shackles introduced instead of metal ones and on modern lifejackets you now have webbing straps instead of a large hook. Is this something where the change is continually ongoing?

Nigel: I love that attribute of design. I love the fact that you can go back to the raw basics of what a product needs to do. New technology is allowing us to go back to the essentials of what we want that product to carry out and that way you simplify things; simplification is a beautiful art as far as we're concerned.

Mark: It's been 60 years that Crewsaver have been making lifejackets, and there has been an evolution from beginning to now with the range. Is it that heritage that means you can take a look back, as well as looking forwards, and see what turns have been made, what ideas have been tried, and how they can be improved?

Nigel: The heritage and brand-values are extremely important to us. The heritage ensures that we follow that belief all the way through the design process and the priority is all about the performance and safety, combining it now with comfort and fashion. The heritage and the knowledge that has been put into our designs underpins all that we do.

Mark: At the end of the day, you can have all the bells and whistles on a lifejacket, but it has a canister which needs regular checking and the lifejacket itself needs servicing. If you don't get it checked what can happen?

Nigel: Effectively you can render the product useless. It is essential that you have all the components on a lifejacket regularly checked. Servicing is paramount and will focus on all the parts which could fail and it's vital that you take it to a professional.

Mark: Crewsaver have already been raising awareness of servicing with the #LifejacketSafe campaign highlighted throughout 2017. Is this Crewsaver trying to make sure all lifejacket users, whether they're using an old product or the latest design, are using their lifejacket safely?

Nigel: The service is all about making sure the product is fit for purpose and ready for another year's use. The technology has moved on to such an extent that what was designed 20 years ago does not perform to the same level as one that is designed today. Equally, plastic components will begin to fail after a 12 to 15 year period and they shouldn't be used after this. The service is there to isolate these, highlight the issues and change out the parts as required. The standards that are associated with lifejackets have moved on as well – it isn't just the design of the product, it's the understanding of the standards that define the levels that the products have to comply with - and that is a continuous process ensuring that the products are as safe as we can possibly make them. To rely on something which was designed in the early '80s to a particular standard is missing the point in comparison to what is available today.

Mark: Do you see integration with technology such as AIS as the real forefront of lifejacket design at the moment?

Nigel: That's a big question! There are a number of things going on; firstly the product needs to keep you safe and secondly you need to be found in order to be rescued. They are the two absolutely vital parts of these products today, and the advent of electronic solutions and beacons mean that you can be found faster. The sea is a treacherous place and anything that can help you be rescued quicker has the potential to save your life.

Mark: It's fascinating to see the development of the Crewsaver lifejacket range and watch the developments unfold at the moment. Many thanks for your time Nigel.

Nigel: Great to have you here today and thank you too!

Find out more about the Crewsaver lifejacket range, as well as servicing information, at www.crewsaver.com

* AIS – The Automatic Identification System is an automatic tracking system used on ships and by vessel traffic services. In search and rescue AIS can provide additional information and enhance awareness of available resources, even if the AIS range is limited to VHF radio range.

** PLB - Personal Locator Beacons belong to a family of distress beacons that are run using the Cospas-Sarsat system, which is an international organisation whose mission is provides accurate, timely, and reliable distress alert and location data to help search and rescue authorities assist persons in distress. Once a PLB unit is bought, there are no subscription fees, but you must register the PLB with the Marine Coastguard Agency and maintain accurate registration and emergency details.

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