Lifejackets - safety at sea

Wednesday, July 30, 2014
We all know that lifejackets are essential pieces of equipment on boats – allowing wearers to keep afloat if they somehow end up in the water, saving them from drowning.
Flotation devices help people who can’t swim, but also those who can, by allowing them to remain still to conserve energy and delay the onset of hypothermia. They are a vital part of our lives on the sea. The first kind of flotation device made was the cork vest credited to Captain Ward in the United Kingdom in 1854.
But the life jackets that were the ancestors of those we know today, with buoyant material sewn inside sealed pockets, were invented here in New Zealand.
Orpheus Newman was born in St Helier, Jersey in 1863. She was named after the ship HMS Orpheus which was wrecked on the Manukau Bar earlier that year, and on which her older brother was believed to have died along with many others.
Although it was later discovered that her brother had survived the wreck, as a child Orpheus was haunted by the idea of drowning. She finally overcame this affliction as a 10 year old on the long journey to New Zealand with her family in 1873.

However, drowning remained a theme in her life, as In 1912 Orpheus’ other brother drowned while fishing near Dunedin where the family had settled.

In this same year Titanic sank causing the deaths of more than 1,500 people, after which the British Board of Trade issued a competition throughout the Empire for the design of a new flotation device more effective than the cork vests.

Over 6 years, with the feedback of the Board of Trade, Orpheus developed lifejackets she called 'Salvus' ('safe'). They were made of canvas, with the sealed pockets filled with kapok for buoyancy. Kapok is the fluff from inside the seed pods of a kapok tree – moisture resistant and buoyant. The vests she designed were easy to put on over the head, and more cushioning than cork for landing in water from a height.

From 1918 these lifejackets were adopted by the British Navy, English and New Zealand ferries, and the Union Steam Ship Company fleet, and were used worldwide.  (newspaper article)

They were superseded however when a lifejacket made of synthetic materials and with head support was designed during World War II.

Since then many different lifejacket designs have been created and they are an essential, and compulsory, part of our lives and leisure on the sea.

On display at the New Zealand Maritime Museum is the Emirates Team New Zealand sailing uniform helmet and lifejacket worn by Richard Meacham on the AC72 in the 34th America's Cup, San Fancisco 2013. (right)

Cork life jacket. The Popular Science  Monthly (1887)
Modern copy of Orpheus Newman's kapok lifejacket