For many sailors in the northern hemisphere winter is the off-season, which means it’s a great time inspect safety gear. Personal floatation devices (lifejackets) and throwable rescue aids (Lifeslings, horseshoe buoys) that incorporate materials that degrade over time deserve particularly close attention.
A few years back we received a letter from a reader describing the deterioration of the webbing beckets on their Lifesling. These are the loops of webbing that attach to the rescue retrieval line. The Lifesling appeared to be particularly old and was likely stored without a case and fully exposed to UV during part of its life. The original Lifesling was sold with storage bags that were notorious for falling apart, so the deterioration was no surprise. Fortunately, the new Lifesling2 is much improved over the original version.
We have a Lifesling2 aboard one PS test boat that’s nearly 20 years old; while the original case it’s always stored in has been doctored over time and is now on its last legs, the Lifesling2 float, webbing beckets, and polypropylene float line are in pristine condition.
Developed by The Sailing Foundation, Lifeslings have been in production for almost 40 years. The original Lifesling pre-dated its US Coast Guard certification, so the materials may not meet the current standards, which stipulate the types of materials suitable for construction. Over time, even the designated materials are susceptible to environment factors—UV rays, extreme cold, acid rain, biological growth, etc.
Even new safety equipment that meets USCG standards deserves close inspection. Probably the most startling failure we’ve experienced in safety equipment was a newly bought child’s safety harness with a polypropylene safety tether that immediately broke under very little load. The cause appeared to be UV exposure, and since the tether was new, we could only surmise that the device had been part of a window display, or had somehow been exposed to UV for a prolonged period before purchase.
Current Lifeslings, approved as Type IV (throwable) or Type V (special use) flotation devices, use the same polypropylene webbing commonly used on personal flotation devices (PFDs) and have all been tested to meet the webbing requirements for USCG-approved PFDs, according to the Lifesling’s distributor West Marine. This includes a minimum strength and resistance to weathering.
Polypropylene webbing’s UV resistance and longevity can vary greatly; some studies have shown that it can lose 20 to 75 percent of its strength per year. Nylon webbing, which the current Lifesling2 uses, loses about 10 percent of its strength per year. Polyester webbing loses only about 5 percent of its strength per year, which would seem to make it an even better choice of material. Fortunately, the Lifesling2 is designed so that the beckets are not exposed to UV when it’s stored properly in a good-condition bag or rigid case.
The Lifesling owners manual does not offer a timeframe for regular maintenance, inspection, or replacement, and the device’s longevity would be dependent upon a number of factors, including how it is stored, how often it’s used, and the environmental conditions where it’s stored. Hence the need for regular inspection, just as you would a PFD, and regular drills to determine whether the Lifesling can still handle the load of lifting crew.
Throwable Rescue Aid Recommendations
- Inspect Lifeslings of any age for UV damage (beckets, stitching, webbing tether, poly float line, horeshoe float); animal damage (the poly line makes a nice chew toy for squirrels and mice); or potential weak spots. Any degradation requires that the whole device be replaced.
- Load test the Lifesling regularly, especially if yours is an older model or if you plan to take it offshore.
- Pay close attention to the health of the storage bag or case. The bags’ Velcro closure often allows a gap in the top that can leave the float exposed to UV; consider replacing the Velcro with a closure that does not have a gap. OEM replacement bags ($50) are not high-quality or durable, in our opinion; Sunbrella bags ($80) are a better choice; rigid cases ($220) are the most durable option and are recommended for offshore use.
- Unpack and repack the Lifesling annually. Be sure that all critical parts are protected from the sun. For a good how-to on packing the Lifesling properly, visit http://theboatgalley.com/is-your-lifesling-ready-for-use-are-you-sure/.For more on safety equipment selection, inspection, and use, our ebook MOB Prevention and Recovery offers a comprehensive study.