The History of the Life Jacket: Part One

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 29, 2005

National Safe Boating week ended yesterday highlighting the importance of life jackets as its major theme for 2005. Since I’m a nautical history fan I asked myself, &uot;What really is the history of this marvelous device that have been saving lives for nearly 152 years. How did it finally develop to the type of design and material we have today?

Life jackets (or personnel floatation devices) initially came to the forefront in 1852 when Congress passed a requirement for the devices to be onboard steamships, which were a primary mode of transportation. Prior to this law, life jackets were made of blocks of wood and/or corks and used by fishermen and merchant seaman in the North Atlantic. These didn’t work that well.

According to &uot;the forerunner of the modern lifejacket to Captain Ward, who in 1854 created a cork vest to be worn by lifeboat crews for both weather protection and buoyancy.&uot;

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The Boat Washington Web site ( described that although kapok was a good advancement it was not without &uot;issues&uot;.

&uot;First distributed in 1902, kapok was then prohibited in 1904 because it was found to be flammable and tended to lose buoyancy rapidly under the compression that typically occurred while being stored. However, developers did not turn their backs on the material, and it was once again approved in 1918.

Two years later, balsa wood was approved for use in life preservers because of its light weight, excellent buoyancy and life span. Meanwhile, cork was still in wide use because of its high buoyancy retention and the fact that it did not readily burn or deteriorate. In 1920, a regulation was passed that mandated that five percent of all shipboard kapok life preservers must be able to support a &uot;downward gravitational pull of 20 pounds for two hours.&uot; The vests that did not pass the buoyancy test were condemned.

More changes occurred in 1928, after the horrific sinking of the P/V Vestris (UK). Several people unnecessarily lost their lives during this event. The world reacted by convening the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea. During the convention many eye-witnesses described that many of the people they found dead were floating their face down in the water. This again resulted in more advances.

In 1940 the United States Coast Guard became directly involved in life jackets through the passage of the Motorboat Act. According to the Boat Washington Web site, &uot;The Coast Guard recommended that life preservers designed for use on recreational vessels be able to support a person for shorter periods of time than required for ocean-going vessels and not be so bulky that people would not wear them. The Coast Guard developed a life jacket with lower buoyancy requirements and lesser performance that was intended for emergency use on recreational vessels.

World War II gave rise to extensive life jacket development, including inflatables, for use by submariners and sailors. The arrival of the &uot;modern&uot; inflatables opened the door for continued research and development in the post-war years. Boating safety specialists and the business community worked to adapt military advances in life preservers to the civilian market.&uot;

Boat Washington continues, &uot;by 1964, the Coast Guard determined that recreational boaters’ needs still were not being met by life jackets, so the service developed a standard for &uot;special purpose&uot; devices to offer minimum restriction while still accommodating boaters’ specific needs.&uot;

More changes occurred in life jackets in the 1960’s. At that time synthetic foams were brought into the main stream and the foam lifejacket invented.

These ensured that the life jackets were more flexible.

More changes occurred in the development of the life jacket.

In 1979, the Coast Guard published a notice in the Federal Register proposing an amendment to the service’s rules for the use of inflatable life jackets. In 1985 the Coast Guard followed up on this action by proposing more requirements for approving inflatable life jackets and additional requirements concerning their place onboard recreational boats.

The life jacket: a very important piece of nautical history that in 2005 continues to save lives. Until next week…Boat Safe… and Boat Smart!

Joe DiRenzo is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard and lives in Suffolk. He can be reached at