Thoughts on Spinlock Lifejacket “Failure” and Crotch Straps in General

275H Inflated Bladder Front Left

In the last few months several people have written to me asking my opinion on the loss of Uncontrollable Urge and the subsequent death of a crew member wearing a Spinlock Deckvest.

I would strongly recommend that everyone read the US Sailing report, but the summary is that the boat ended up on an exposed lee shore after a rudder failure while racing, and as the six crew struggled to make the shore through the breaking surf, four out of the five Spinlock lifevests worn repositioned so that the flotation chamber pulled over the wearer’s head to one side of the body. The one vest from another manufacturer (Sterns SOSpenders) did not fail in this way.

As many of you know, Phyllis and I have long been big time fans and users of the Spinlock lifevest/harness, so this issue is of more than academic interest to us.

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Keith Jones

Hi John,

As you know I purchased a Crewsaver Ergofit vest, and have used it for one multi-day offshore trip thus far. I was very pleased with how it fit (even the crotch straps) and it was very comfortable.

My vest has a SINGLE attachment point – as do all of their offshore series that use a metal buckle rather than plastic. My wife’s coastal version has the double loops with plastic buckle. No issues with fit though they are the same size – with the Deckvest I wear a medium and she a small.

While the bladder attachment point issue was of concern to me, the other improvements to the Crewsaver Ergofit system are what sold me on their product.

Both products are great improvements from what used to be available. I personally have witnessed many older vests failing under test and encourage everyone to at least manually inflate their vest and leave it overnight.

Thanks for addressing this issue and I look forward to seeing your review of the other products out there. I hope that you chime in on the Hammar and UM autoinflators or straight manual system as well.

Keith

Keith Jones

Hi John, I’ve tried to put you in touch with the mfg. via email, hopefully he can address your questions more fully. Crewsaver is made by Survitec in the UK who make a broad range of survival equipment. Deckvests are made by Spinlock who primarily make deck hardware.

All the best,

Keith

Anne-Marie

We have cut the thigh straps off the crotch strap of our Spinlock vests. The straps around the thighs were cumbersome to attach and were most often in the way. Our vests now have one single crotch strap, that is easily and quickly fastened with only one extra buckle.

Eric S.

I owe the Deckvest and have been using it with the additional leg loops, for me more comfortable than the crotch strap option. (When first purchased I had to email the UK office of Spinlock to get help in fitting the additional buckles, almost lost in the elaborate packaging of the vest) It is not onerous to snap the buckles together and undo them when removing the vest. After a day in the vest, yes, it’s a relief to get out of the rig, but I think a small price to pay for peace of mind.

Colin Speedie

Hi John

as I think you’re aware, we have the same Spinlock deck vests, and I’d agree that they are the best of the bunch, and easily the most comfortable and with the best harness attachment, BUT:
The crotch straps are uncomfortable (possibly unavoidably) and the clips are hopelessly poor – I doubt they’d stay clipped in a real emergency. As a result Lou has removed hers.
But depute that criticism, they are still better made than any others I’ve seen. In my commercial days we had to have all of our lifejackets inspected every season – some of the standard type failed within six weeks of purchase, as the bladders had been scrunched up to fit at build and had developed hard points that almost immediately chafed through by rubbing on the inside of the outer sheath. I had six out of eleven brand new lifejackets failed….

The manufacturer eventually replaced them, but after much quibbling, to whit they said that it was our fault as they were ‘not intended for constant use’ – you might just as well remove ‘constant’, in my view.

Another reason why I’m pro harnesses and very dubious about lifejackets.

Kind regards

Colin

Colin Speedie

Hi John

I notice on reviewing this that I made a mistake – I use the thigh straps, not the crotch straps, and it’s the clips on the thigh straps that I don’t rate – maybe they’r better on the crotch straps.

Best wishes

Colin

Marc Dacey

Timely this is for us because my wife and I just bought a pair of Spinlock 5D 170N lifevests at a reasonable (for Spinlock) boat show price. Reasonable possibly because they are bringing in a four-point attachment for the bladder, but that’s neither here nor there.

I first saw a Spinlock during a 2009 Atlantic delivery during which a PFD was needed on deck…even in the cockpit…a good nine out of the 11-day passage, and of course, with tethers leaving the cockpit or while alone on watch at night. My wife and I are advocates of the concept that the PFD that is worn is the one that is useful, and we bought Spinlock on the basis of comfort to that end. We have also been impressed with the integral spray hood, accepting that in rough seas it is possible to drown while afloat without one, particularly if injured. It’s too early (the Spinlocks are still in their packages, it being January in Toronto) to say if the crotch/thigh loops will be used, but the ability to use the Spinlocks as integral harnesses also impressed us, even though we aren’t kidding ourselves that said loops would do more than keep the bladder down if we fell off. Having actually fallen off a boat and had a PFD shoot me to the surface like an act at Seaworld, I can vouch that this can be an issue!

Like you, John and Phyllis, we have been persuaded that Spinlock is the best option for us, because we are most likely to wear it, even in the pilothouse. At the same time, I would still keep a kayak-style vest for rowing a tender alone, because of what I feel is the greater danger in such a situation of getting flipped or swamped and perhaps beaned by whatever I was transporting.

Stedem Wood

It seems this discussion revolves around choices of safety and comfort in different situations.

Normally, 99.?% of the time, it’s afforded safety, comfort, wearability and tether weighed against an unforeseen immediate event. Those criteria will always be a compromise and are worthy of this discussion. Uncontrollable Urge’s accident took about two hours to develope.

This is couch-comfort hindsight, But once it got to the point where you’re going to charge the vest and unhook, as described in the accident report cited, I’d want to be in a no-compromise, full Type-One life vest. Uncontrollable Urge’s equipment list includes six of them. (You may need a harness that would fit under the vest. )

The surprise of an immediate event was over when the boat’s rudder broke. There were several decision points where changing vests wouldn’t have put anyone in immediate perile and the added safety of a proper life vest, certainly by the time you were looking at a surf line, would have trumped any other discussion.

Ken Gillstrom

I am not only a big time fan of the Deckvest, I have gone into the water and have been recovered dozens of times (as COB demos) using the Deckvest, it has always performed properly and never failed as per the report description. We are a teaching boat and all crew use the Deckvest exclusively, no exceptions. The first thing we do with students is show them how to properly fit the Deckvest, including crotch straps. I do notice however that crew tend to change that proper fit, so the vest fits loose or they neglect to wear the crotch straps. We need to keep on their case all the time. This may be what happened in this instance, improper fit allowing the vest to slide around while inflated. We will continue to use the Deckvest without hesitation.
Ken Gillstrom
s/v Voyageur 10.10

Whitall Stokes

Regarding crotch straps, there was an incident where one of our experienced PSSA member’s boat sailed right up on the beach one windy afternoon with no one aboard. His tether was found attached to the boat, his harness attached to the tether in the closed position. His body was found 3 days later.

While we will never know the details, from the data I have surmised that he was launched over the side and was either immediately jerked out of his harness or perhaps intentionally slipped out after a struggle, trying not to drown after being dragged alongside. Another guess is that he was wearing bulky clothing and the harness was not snugged up.

Before this incident, I wore an old style inflatable without crotch straps. After this incident, I bought a Deckvest and always put on both crotchstraps. I don’t find it particularly difficult or time consuming to do so. I also make sure the vest is snug. Well worth the peace of mind while on deck.

I’ve had the old style humorously auto-inflate after getting a large douse from a wave – twice. I don’t know why but it’s always funny when it happens. While I’ve not had it happen with the Deckvest, I do carry a spare cartridge in case I have need to repack out there.

Regarding Uncontrollable Urge, yeah, the Deckvest is probably not good to wear in surf, but elsewhere I suspect it functions as intended. I’m with Stedem’s brilliant observation. I also have a big old Type I lifejacket aboard with mirror, whistle, and light attached.

Whitall

Yes, having the waist strap snug is definitely more important. I want the vest in place for use of my arms in a tough situation. Along with that is wearing clothing/FWG that is not too bulky. Easier to do in warmer weather. Tempting to go into chest/waist ratios, but I won’t go there.

The engineering of the crotch straps I’ve not looked into. The arrest load angles would have to be taken into account, which gives me a bit of comfort. I will keep wearing the straps.

Simon Fraser

It is probably fanciful to expect the flimsy crotch straps on PFD harnesses to do the job of taking the full load of a human decelerating. Have a look at the variety of thought and engineering that goes into climbing harnesses that are designed for the job. Perhaps we could just buy one of these off the shelf, and twin it with the Spinlock upper body harness.
However not many of us would bother with the extra inconvenience of assembly, and it aint much good in the locker.

Marc Dacey

I think that would depend on situation and experience. Our steel sailboat has both pipe gunwhales and rails, with pipe stanchions and 1/4″ steel wire between rail and gunwhale. My wife and young teen son could conceivably fit, in the case of a failed tether/jackline, between wire and gunwhale, whereas I would not, unless launched bodily off the boat with enough force to snap a tether, which would probably kill me.

So deckwork involving clipping on on our boat would suggest that it is the lighter, more compact crew who should make crotch/thigh straps obligatory for the purposes of retrieval. Your boat and mileage will vary.

David

Recently a member of a pacific crossing forum (pacific puddle jump) put together a little survey, proposing that members test their inflatable harness/lifejackets by inflation, then fill out the survey with their results. Approaching 100 boats tested theirs and then filled out the survey. About 18% failed, some older units, some quite new. I think that inflatable lifejackets are best viewed as John suggests, really as tether harnesses, which happen to have the extra benefit of maybe keeping you afloat if Murphy’s law doesn’t rule as you hit the water. But if you are falling towards the water Murphy is fairly well in charge already. I just don’t trust something that gets that much movement to be reliable in holding air. Seems like false security. We use old-school lifejackets, and appreciate the protection around our rib cages when it gets bouncy. But as many have said, the best lifejacket is one that gets worn. If any lifejacket becomes too cumbersome to wear, better to switch to a good non-inflating tether harness than will be worn comfortably all the time, with staying on the boat the priority.

Marc Dacey

While I concur entirely, John, it is sometimes difficult with some models of PFD to get (or to transport) the ideal air cartridge. Add to that the difficulty of keeping them packed in luggage (on one flight back from a delivery, I got waived through with an “armed” PFD, only to be told to throw out the cylinder on the connecting flight).

If you know a good way to obtain ahead of time replacement bobbins and cylinders when in foreign waters that doesn’t cost more than the PFD, I would be interested to hear of it.

Reuben

Following Spinlocks advice on how to test it I put it on and jumped in the pool. It promptly inflated, the noise wasn’t too scary and it held air. The problem was that it quickly rode up to the level of my ears and I couldn’t turn my head nor lift my arms. Swimming was out of the question. So while I was floating just fine, I could do nothing to help myself
Since then I always wear the crotch straps

Bill Koppe

In doing a in pool safety course I and the crew found the crotch straps to be a must or the vest rode up no matter how tightly it was adjusted. The riding up was helped considerably by the wet weather jacket being a loose fit ie the jacket and harness rode up together. What we found was the Musto flotation jackets ( no longer made ) were a much better alternative with all the benefits of a full type 1 but far more comfortable . It also had as much flotation as the PFD

Larry Caillouet

John, have you examined the Helly Hansen Inflatable Racing Life Jacket? It is EN ISO 12402-3 certified, but not yet US Coast Guard approved. Like the Spinlock it has a spray hood, a tether loop, and a light. It has stow away leg loops and a knife pocket. It looks more like the altnative PFD you pictured than the Spinlock.

Larry Caillouet

I use a Spinlock, but my wife likes her HH. Your point about HH being primarily an apparel company is good, but that may be why the HH seems to have a more comfortable fit than the Spinlock. What are the other things that are not as good as the Spinlock?

By the way, the HH has rather poor product support in the USA. American retail outlets and even the national Cuctomer Support are amazingly ignorant about it. No one could help me get a rearm kit for it. Finally I discovered that it uses the same cartridge and UML firing mechanism as Spinlock

Ivan Minchev

Hi John,
Thank you for the article!
I have 3 Spinlock from the last year, when I become a sailor 🙂
All the time I wish to test them (not by emergency, for sure), but I am not sure that after that will be possible to use them again? Like a parachute?
I will be very thankful for your comments!

Best regards,
IvanM

Ivan Minchev

Thank you John!
It was very important and informative for me!

Ivan

Allan Fraser

John

My UK-based online chandlery has just brought the TeamO BackTow Lifejacket to my attention. There’s a video of it in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSC8EasVhfg.

Interested to have your thoughts and those of other AAC readers on the product in general and the back tow feature in particular.

Thank you

Allan

Allan Fraser

Sounds good John – I look forward to it. Allan