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Immersion suits reconsidered

Apr 27, 2018

A highly effective safety choice for surviving an emergency

Many think an immersion suit is only needed in very cold water, but even warm mid-latitude water can be deadly over time.

Many think an immersion suit is only needed in very cold water, but even warm mid-latitude water can be deadly over time.

Courtesy Mustang Survival

When provisioning for a circumnavigation in late 2006, Nat Warren-White did something a little unusual. He packed immersion suits for himself and his wife, Betsy.

Warren-White, of South Freeport, Maine, recalled lousy fall weather ahead of their 2006 departure aboard Bahati, a Montevideo 43. Bringing the suits along helped put Betsy at ease — especially during the first leg in colder water between Maine and Norfolk, Va.

“We had a good life raft on board, but given the weather conditions we were having it seemed like a smart move to have them on board,” he said in a recent interview.

Immersion suits are mandated for commercial mariners and fishermen working in cooler climates. But they are not widely used by sailors, including bluewater veterans. It should be stated that even tropical water, considered warm at 80° F, will eventually cause a person immersed in it to suffer the effects of exposure, given the roughly 18.6-degree difference between the water and a healthy body temperature.

Online sailing pack lists typically do not include immersion suits, which take up critical space on a sailboat and can cost several hundred dollars apiece. Other non-required safety equipment also tends to take precedent, including life rafts, emergency beacons and modern communications gear such as satphones.

Hard data is hard to come by, but likely fewer than 10 percent of sailors keep immersion suits on board.

“For our 1995-96 Cape Horn and Antarctic and 2001 Svalbard expeditions, we carried survival suits for all, but because of the space they took up did not retain them for our 2007 and most recent Svalbard and Arctic trips,” said John Neal of Mahina Expeditions, which offers sail-training expeditions in the high latitudes and the tropics.

“Few private sailboats headed to high latitudes carry them because of bulk and cost,” he added.

Proven their worth
That said, there are signs of a changing tide around immersion suits, which have proven their worth countless times around the world. The Salty Dawg Sailing Association is considering amending its pack list of “highly recommended” and “recommended” equipment. In the future, these lists available online to members and nonmembers could include immersion suits.

“We are reviewing that issue and with the improved affordability of these in recent years and the safety benefit added, we may add that to our recommended equipment lists in the future,” said Julie Palm, a spokesperson for the Salty Dawg association, whose members include offshore sailors.

An immersion suit from Stearns.

Courtesy Stearns

Unlike some lighter-weight foam worksuits designed to be worn constantly, immersion suits are used as a last resort before abandoning ship. They are typically made from neoprene and provide full hand, foot and face protection. In addition to reflective paneling, these suits can be equipped with lights, harnesses, personal locator beacons and other equipment to assist during rescue situations.

Reducing shock and hypothermia
“They are meant to be donned quickly and they are meant to reduce exposure and shock from cold water. That shock can cause involuntary inhalation of water, causing someone to drown quickly,” said Wendell Uglene, manager of research and technology for Mustang Survival, based outside Vancouver, B.C.

Their second duty is to delay the onset of hypothermia. He said international rules require suits to prevent hypothermia for at least six hours in near freezing water. Finally, they also offer buoyancy, helping keep someone afloat while conserving energy.

Hypothermia occurs when body temperature falls below 95 degrees, and it sets in faster in colder water. Symptoms can include slurred speech, drowsiness, shallow breathing and loss of consciousness. Lower body temperatures also affect heart and respiratory function and eventually lead to death.

U.S. regulations require commercial ships working north of 32 degrees latitude to carry immersion suits for crewmembers. Commercial fishermen working north of 32 degrees, in offshore waters colder than 59 degrees or in the Western Pacific Ocean north of Point Reyes, Calif., also must have immersion suits.

There are no such requirements for sailboats and other recreational vessels, which helps explain why so few sailors keep them on board.

“It’s definitely driven by regs,” said Tim Virgin, a technician for Liferaft Services in York, Maine, which sells Imperial immersion suits. “We have to spend a lot more time attempting to sell to the recreational sailor.”

What should you know when considering an immersion suit? For one thing, size matters. Although fit varies by manufacturer, most offer a universal size as well as suits designed for children, smaller adults and oversized people. Suits can be loose fitting but not too big, which can potentially hinder mobility or reduce overall effectiveness in the water.

“Sizing is important, but not crucial,” said Jeff Gayer, manager, government and industrial for Stearns, which makes a wide range of dry suits, worksuits and immersion suits. “Obviously you don’t want a person size small in an oversized suit.”

Suits also can be too small. Two men aboard the freighter Exito went down with the ship near Dutch Harbor, Alaska, at night on Dec. 6, 2016. Investigators learned the two victims, who refused to abandon ship with three others, could not fully zip their immersion suits.

Courtesy Mustang Survival

Some sailors roll and stow their immersion suits, while others hang them in a locker. When rolled, they are roughly the size of a packed sleeping bag and they weigh about 10 pounds.

Wherever they are on board, they should be accessible in an emergency.

Users also should practice putting them on. “They are cumbersome, and require practice to don correctly,” said Bruce Brown, of Bruce Brown and Associates, a California company that offers training to commercial and recreational mariners. “Gloves restrict the ability to do much in the way of grabbing very much of anything, untying lines, undoing shackles or snaps or releasing latches.”

There are also maintenance requirements that can vary by suit manufacturer. In general, they should be inspected manually each year. Commercial users must be inspected every three years by a certified facility — which is a good idea for recreational users, too.

“You don’t want them exposed to gasoline or wet all the time, you don’t want to stack stuff on them so they get compressed and bend the zippers,” said Uglene, the Mustang Survival engineer. “You should inspect them at least annually, but more is great. That inspection really means take it out and try it on.”

“Storage really can affect the life of suits, but with materials these days, they have long lives,” he added. “You can get decades out of a well-maintained suit.”

Warren-White bought the immersion suits for the circumnavigation aboard Bahati from an online auction site. He and his wife practiced putting them on before their trip and fortunately never had to use them.

The couple also decided not to bring them along for most of the circumnavigation, which they completed in 2011. He recalled selling them to another couple planning a voyage to Canada, where immersion suits seemed essential.

Throughout the voyage, Warren-White said they didn’t really regret giving the suits away. “We probably never saw conditions that made us worry about cold water in the same way (as early in the voyage). Not that any water can’t get too cold after being in it for a while.”

That said, he remains convinced of their value. “It makes more sense to have them if you’re going to spend a lot of time in really cold water and in areas where you might not get easily rescued,” he said. “If you needed them, you’d be happy you had them.”

Casey Conley is the editor of American Tugboat Review.

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