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Lifeboat Crew Equipment - Then and Now

Protective clothing

Yellow Coat

For nearly 200 years lifeboat crews up and down the country have had to launch their boats in the worst of weathers. To face the toughest conditions they have always needed the right clothing. The helmsman here is wearing yellow oilskins, a kapok lifejacket and a sou’wester.

Cork Lifejackets

cork lifejackets

When you’re out at sea it is always best to wear a lifejacket. The first lifejacket used by the RNLI was the cork lifejacket invented in 1854 by the RNLI Inspector Captain Ward. This was the first ever lifejacket issued to lifeboat crews in Sheringham.

The lifejacket invented by Captain Ward was made of narrow strips of cork, circular in shape. When fitted together they were sewn into a strong canvas vest. They were hard wearing, flexible and floated well, and the crews liked them.

Why do you think that the lifejackets had to be flexible? In the 19th century the lifeboat crews had to be able to move comfortably when both launching and rowing the lifeboat. Take a look at this photograph. All the lifeboat crew are wearing cork lifejackets.

Kapok Lifejackets

cork lifejackets

By the beginning of the 20th Century Kapok was used to replace the old cork lifejackets. Kapok is a fine, cotton-like material which is used for stuffing cushions and toys.

Kapok is a natural substance and comes from gigantic tropical trees. The fibres are hollow and oily - which makes them light and nonabsorbent to water. The kapok life jackets were made of canvas pockets which were then filled with kapok.

cork lifejackets

These new life jackets had a supporting force that was stronger by 3½ times to that of cork.

But, at the beginning there were many problems in designing the kapok lifejacket, and many lifeboat crews would not wear them, saying ‘they would rather drown rather than wear them’. RNLI crews used kapok lifejackets for 70 years once the design was sorted out.

 

 

Lifeboatmen wearing kapok lifejackets by the J C Madge


Today's lifejackets

modern lifejackets

By the 1990s separate lifejackets for different lifesaving disciplines were introduced. The bulkier gear of allweather lifeboat crews meant they needed a more compact lifejacket, which inflated automatically on hitting the water using a built-in gas canister. Inshore crews, who enter the water much more frequently, got a bigger lifejacket with built-in buoyancy.They have lights, flare pockets, spray hoods, whistles, and safety lines and are flexible. When they are inflated, they keep the wearer’s head clear of the water.

Outer Layers

man in gansey

Apart from oilskins (waterproof coats and trousers), sou’westers (waterproof hats) and long leather boots early lifeboat crews in Sheringham wore ganseys. These woolly fishermen’s jumpers kept crews warm and dry.

 

man in gansey

Click to return to the Lifeboats introduction page