25 June 2018

The evolution of lifesaving kit

Through driving rain and gale-force winds, our lifeboat crews have been launching in the toughest conditions for more than 190 years.

To do this, they’ve relied on specialist clothing to protect them against the elements. From the first oilskins and cork lifejackets to today’s breathable new all-weather gear, we’ve continually pushed the limits of modern technology in the name of saving lives, and coming home safely.

Here, we explore the long lifesaving legacy of the kit hanging inside our crews’ lockers.

Headgear

The evolution of headgear: Top, L-R: Sou'wester hats, bump caps. Bottom, L-R: Lazer helmets, Gecko helmets
The evolution of headgear: Top, L-R: Sou'wester hats, bump caps. Bottom, L-R: Lazer helmets, Gecko helmets

1800s–1900s: Knitted caps and sou’wester hats

Long before the invention of protective hard hats, RNLI crews focused on being warm and dry while launching oar-powered lifeboats. Bright red woollen caps were worn either on their own, or under black sou’wester hats. The sou’westers were waterproof, with a long back flap to protect the neck from spray.

1930s: Knitted scarf-helmets

Is it a helmet? Is it a scarf? It’s both! In 1936, a band of volunteer knitters produced over 1,500 hybrid designs for lifeboat crews.

1960s: Bump caps

The introduction of the 13-knot steel Waveney class lifeboat necessitated a move towards hard-wearing headgear to prevent crews banging their heads at high speeds.

1970s: Lazer motorcycle helmets with visors

The early 1970s saw another new lifeboat – the B class Atlantic 21 – usher in another change. A visor was press-studded into a motorcycle helmet from manufacturer Lazer. With it, volunteers could race to the rescue, knowing their eyes were protected from spray that would otherwise have felt like horizontal hail.

1990s–present: Gecko helmets

Faster lifeboats and improved communication technology saw us move towards more purpose-built headgear in the 1990s, with the Mark 1 Gecko. Now in its 10th iteration, the modern Gecko helmet is a sleek, lightweight, robust visored headpiece with the facility to add torches, cameras, and comms equipment. Compulsory for all inshore lifeboat crews, the Gecko is the current standard in marine safety helmets.

Lifejackets

The evolution of RNLI lifejackets: Top, L-R: Cork lifejackets, Kapok lifejackets. Bottom, L-R: Beaufort lifejackets, Crewsaver inshore and all-weather lifejackets, modern lifejackets
The evolution of RNLI lifejackets: Top, L-R: Cork lifejackets, Kapok lifejackets. Bottom, L-R: Beaufort lifejackets, Crewsaver inshore and all-weather lifejackets, modern lifejackets

1850s: Cork lifejackets

Early lifesavers typically wore lifebelts filled with ballast. But in 1854, RNLI Inspector Captain Ward invented our first lifejacket by sewing strips of cork onto a canvas vest. It caught on fully in 1861 after the Whitby lifeboat disaster, when the lifeboat capsized and Henry Freeman emerged as the sole survivor. He was the only crew member wearing Ward’s invention.

1900s: Kapok lifejackets

A fibre of the silk-cotton tree, kapok is three times more buoyant than cork and doesn’t absorb water. Kapok lifejackets were initially bulky and uncomfortable, but we refined the design until crews were happy leaving the cork lifejacket behind. One of our most enduring innovations, RNLI crews used this lifejacket for almost 70 years.

1970s: Beaufort lifejackets

The foam-based Beaufort lifejacket upped the buoyancy level, allowing a crew member to also support the person being rescued. Its design ensured volunteers would float face-up in the water, even if unconscious. And being bright orange, it was far more visible in the water.

1990s: Crewsaver inshore and all-weather lifejackets

The early 1990s saw the introduction of separate lifejackets for different lifesaving disciplines. The bulkier gear of all-weather lifeboat crews meant they needed a more compact lifejacket, which inflated automatically on hitting the water using a built-in gas canister. Inshore crews, who enter the water much more frequently, got a bigger lifejacket with built-in buoyancy.

2014: Modern lifejackets

Our current lifejackets also come in all-weather and inshore flavours. Both have lights, flare pockets, spray hoods, whistles, and safety lines, while offering our volunteers easy movement onboard and in the water. Once inflated, they keep the wearer’s head clear of the water.

Outer layers

The evolution of outer layers: Top L-R: Orange foul-weather clothing, yellow all-weather gear. Bottom L-R: Musto kit, Typhoon drysuits, Helly Hansen rescue storm gear
The evolution of outer layers: Top L-R: Orange foul-weather clothing, yellow all-weather gear. Bottom L-R: Musto kit, Typhoon drysuits, Helly Hansen rescue storm gear

1824: Blue woollen ganseys and dark trousers

Our first lifeboat crews wore traditional fishermen’s ganseys and woollen trousers. Later jumpers had ‘RNLI’ or the crew position (for example, ‘Coxswain’) knitted into the chest.

1850s–1900s: Black, then yellow, oilskins

In 1854 our crews moved to waterproof oilskins, which would be a mainstay in many forms for over a century. Initially black, these changed in 1904 to our signature bright yellow for higher visibility. The long yellow coat also had ‘RNLI’ printed on the sleeve, allowing people to identify their rescuers at a glance.

1970s: Orange foul-weather clothing and one-piece rubber drysuits

While oilskins kept water out, they also kept condensation in, while giving the bodies inside little room to breathe. With overlapping trousers and jacket, our orange gear was roomier, allowing air to circulate as our volunteers went about their business onboard the lifeboat.

Meanwhile, 1977 saw the introduction of the first RNLI one-piece drysuit. Made from rubber, it was designed for inshore lifeboat crews to slip on swiftly, before setting off, and allowing them to move about much more freely.

1980s: Back to yellow

The 1980s saw the lessons learned with our orange all-weather gear transfer over to a new, brighter, and easier-to-spot yellow kit tested at the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine.

1990s: Musto all-weather kit

1990 saw our most significant leap in lifeboat kit since the transition from woollies to waterproofs as we signed a deal with Musto. Lighter and with better ventilation courtesy of early breathable materials, the Musto jacket and salopettes made movement freer, and tricky actions like crossing to casualty vessels easier than ever for all-weather lifeboat crews.

2000s: Typhoon breathable drysuits

Designed to be used with a thermal undersuit known as a woolly bear, these drysuits from marine specialist Typhoon formed part of our first fully breathable clothing system. They were issued to our new lifeboat crews on the Thames. A refined version is now used by coastal inshore lifeboat crews.

2018: Helly Hansen rescue storm gear

Like Typhoon’s gear, the words ‘breathable layers’ underpin the design of our latest all-weather lifeboat gear from Helly Hansen. The outer layers of this new kit system are designed to be lighter, trimmer, and more versatile – keeping water out while allowing sweat to breathe through the material.

Large smartphone-friendly pockets allow coxswains to take calls directly from the coastguard. Reinforced hems and replaceable straps ensure the salopettes are more robust and last longer. And the introduction of female-specific gear with a drop seat zip ensures the growing number of female crew can save lives in comfort – without the inconvenience of having to remove everything when nature calls on a long shout.

Under layers

The evolution of under layers. Left: A fishermen's ganseys in the 1800s. Bottom: Designs for Helly Hansen marino base layers in 2018
The evolution of under layers. Left: A fishermen's ganseys in the 1800s. Bottom: Designs for Helly Hansen marino base layers in 2018

1800s: Fishermen’s ganseys

After 1854 RNLI volunteers continued to wear woolly fishermen’s jumpers underneath their long waterproof coats to stay as warm at possible as sea.

1940s: Woollen comforts

During the war years, an army of knitters banded together to produce woollen gloves, hats, helmets, scarves, mittens, jerseys, socks and stockings for our volunteer crews, helping them carry on saving lives.

2000s: Woolly bear thermal undersuit

Issued alongside the Typhoon drysuit, the woolly bear keeps inshore lifeboat crews at the optimum temperature by passing sweat through the fabric, while the drysuit worn outside it keeps external moisture at bay. The woolly bear has a zip-up neck, and elasticated wrist and ankle bands for a snug fit.

2018: Helly Hansen merino tops and pants

The magic of our new Helly Hansen breathable kit system really is in the under layers – including, for the first time ever at the RNLI, garments designed especially for female crew members.

The base and mid layers hug the skin, keeping the wearer warm and allowing moisture to breathe through the fabric – ensuring our volunteers will never again get clammy in changing conditions on longer shouts.

Across locations that range from nearer the Arctic in Shetland, to nearer the Mediterranean in the Channel Islands, our crews can now pick the right layers to keep themselves comfortable and focus on what matters: saving lives at sea, and then heading home to their loved ones.

Own a piece of lifesaving history

So what becomes of older kit when a new iteration is introduced? We recycle materials where we can – one exciting example is Since 1824, our accessories range. There are overnight bags, wallets and washbags, all made from decommissioned RNLI lifejackets. Browse the Since 1824 range at shop.RNLI.org.