The importance of carrying enough survival suits for every member of the crew has long been recognized by some ship operators. Steve Carmel, vice president of Maersk Line Ltd., said, “It is our longstanding policy to have a survival suit for everyone allowed by the certificate to be onboard. We also carry any additional suits as needed to ensure a safe working environment.”
Last year’s grounding of Selendang Ayu in Alaska highlighted the need for every crewmember to have an immersion suit available. Six of the 26 crewmembers aboard the bulk carrier died when a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter evacuating them crashed into the sea. The men who died were wearing only life jackets and street clothes. The members of the helicopter crew were wearing immersions suits, and all three were rescued safely.
Martin Lee of Mustang Survival, Richmond, British Columbia, a manufacturer of immersion suits, sees the new regulations as a positive step in protecting lives at sea. He emphasized the importance of training to ensure that mariners know how to use them when an emergency occurs. He stressed the importance of trying the suit out and getting comfortable donning it.
Like any other piece of survival equipment, knowing how to use it is critical. Thomas Grace, an instructor for Northeast Maritime Institute in Fairhaven, Mass., teaches survival skills as part of the institute’s training for mariners fulfilling the requirements of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. “The requirements say that a crewman must be able to put on the suit in less than two minutes, but I try to get them to do it in less than a minute,” Grace said. Familiarity with the suit is also important because most suits are clumsy to walk in and take some getting used to.
In addition to the conventional neoprene suits, a new generation of suits is now available. The new suits are based on the so-called “dry suits” used in the commercial diving industry and afford much greater flexibility for the wearer. Whites Manufacturing, Saanichton, British Columbia, makes a Survival Dry immersion suit that is 100 percent dry, according to the company president, Frank White. The suit can be donned in less than two minutes and has stretch panels and molded boots for greater security on deck.
Because the suit is trimmer and flexible “you can actually work in it,” White said.
White is currently working on a new suit patented by Bob Duncan of Sequim, Wash. Duncan’s Breathe4Life suit takes the dry suit concept one step further by using the wearer’s own breath to warm the suit. In recent in-water tests, Duncan’s suit maintained a person’s normal core temperature for more than 24 hours.
The IMO and manufacturers stress the importance of maintaining the suits in proper condition. The IMO requires monthly onboard checks of immersion suits — visual inspections of the suit to check for tears, bad seams and improperly operating zippers. Inflatable head supports and/or buoyancy rings also need to be checked for proper operation. Whistles, strobes, buddy lines and other devices attached to the suit, including the storage bag, would also be subject to periodic checks.
Although the IMO has not suggested any retirement criteria for immersion suits, they do require an inspection by the manufacturer or their designated service provider every three years. Kari Guddal of Imperial International in Seattle recommends that the customers service the suits two years after manufacture, followed by four years, and yearly after that. If properly cared for, she said, some suits will stay in service for as long as 12 years.
With the compliance date just a year away, manufacturers are gearing up to satisfy the demand for suits, but there are some concerns that a shortage of materials needed to make the suits may develop. Guddal is concerned about supplies of neoprene, and especially zippers. She said that there are only a few manufacturers in the world that produce the specialized type of zipper used on these suits.
Her company makes suits that are built to satisfy a number of national standards, including those of the United States, Russia, Canada and the European Union.