The Tragedy That Created The Modern Life Jacket

The Tragedy That Created The Modern Life Jacket

The vast majority of watersports either require by rule or common sense the wearing of a life jacket, and the best place to buy one is from a trusted specialist of watersports and inflatable equipment.

Most people who take part in sports on the water or take commercial flights have used or had access to a life jacket and there are many options available depending on the type of activity you are doing.

However, as with many other safety rules and devices created or becoming widespread due to tragedy, one ill-fated voyage was the impetus for the widespread adoption of life jackets to keep people safe at sea.

The Early History Of The Life Jacket

For as long as people have sailed and worked at sea, there has been a need to help save the lives of people who are knocked or fall overboard into conditions that make it difficult if not impossible to swim out.

As early as 1802, proposals were published for rudimentary flotation devices filled with cork and as early as 1804 life jackets made of cork were being sold in magazines.

By 1806, Francis Daniel had showcased in a rather unusual way the value of an inflatable life preserver, so even in the early parts of the 19th century, life jackets were available, but were not provided as standard to people either working or boarding boats.

The Last Voyage Of HMS Birkenhead

That would change in the years following the events of 26th February 1852.

The HMS Birkenhead had set off from Simon’s Bay, near Cape Town in South Africa with between 630 and 643 people aboard on their way to Algoa Bay on the other side of the infamous Cape of Good Hope, closely following the coast to make better time.

Eight hours into the journey the Birkenhead struck a rock and began to sink. With not enough lifeboats available for everyone, women and children were taken on the boats whilst most of the remaining passengers, mostly soldiers and sailors, stayed on deck.

In the end, less than 200 people survived, but whilst the story is mostly discussed in the context of establishing the Birkenhead drill that women and children are the first to be rescued when abandoning ship, it also has another significant legacy.

According to an account by Ensign Luxas of the 73rd Regiment of Foot, a soldier named Cornet Bond owned his own life jacket and after helping to rescue two young children and get them safely onto a lifeboat he was said to get ashore relatively easily, even meeting up with his horse that had swum to shore as well.

Two years later, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and its Inspector of Lifeboats Captain John Ross Ward, created the first modern life vest out of cork and assigned it to lifeboat crews to help keep them safe and give them the ability to rescue others.

Since then, life jackets have become more specialised, more flexible and more affordable, meaning that anyone on the water whether travelling for business or engaging in recreational activities will be much safer than they were before that final, fateful voyage of the HMS Birkenhead.