There is another article which is of the utmost importance to the efficient and safe manning of the Life-boat, and that is the Life-belt. Each coxswain is held responsible that every man who goes into his Life-boat, whether on service or exercise, shall have on a Life-belt.
One of the causes of the great loss of life which attended most Life-boat accidents in former times, independently of the boats not possessing the self-righting property, was undoubtedly that their crews were not provided with efficient life-belts.
The cases of accident already referred to under the head of Self-righting, are equally illustrative of the value of good life-belts, for in each case the men were supported by their belts, which were of the greatest service to them for it must be remembered that the majority of our coast boatmen cannot swim, and that even the best swimmers often forfeit their lives, when upset in heavy surfs, through losing their presence of mind. Many cases could be cited, but none more conclusive than that of the Southwold boat before referred to, when three gentlemen without belts were drowned, although one of them was known to be a good swimmer ; whilst fifteen men who had on life-belts, several of whom not being able to swim, were all saved.
Captain Ward, in 1854, designed the Cork Life-belt, which has been since that period adopted by the Institution and many Foreign Life-boat Societies. He observes that the requisite qualities of a Life-boatman’s Life-belt should be –
1. Sufficient extra buoyancy to support a man heavily clothed, with his head and shoulders above the water, or to enable him to support another person besides himself.
2. Perfect flexibility, so as to readily conform to the shape of the wearer.
3. A division into two zones, an upper and lower, so that between the two it may be secured tightly round the waist ; for in no other manner can it be confined sufficiently close and secure round the body without such pressure over the chest and ribs as to materially affect the free action of the lungs, impede the muscular movement of the chest and arms, and thereby diminish the power of endurance of fatigue, which, in rowing-boats, is a matter of vital importance.
4. Strength, durability, and non-liability to injury. The Cork Life-belts of the National Life-boat Institution possess the first two qualities in a greater degree than any other Life-belt, and the third one exclusively. It is of great importance that the Life-boat man should tie his Life-belt securely round him, since its efficiency, and as a consequence his own life, may depend on his care.
To ensure this object it is indispensable –
1st. That the upper back strings of the belts should be drawn tightly over the shoulders, after being crossed behind and be tied carefully and tightly to the front strings on the chest, so as to make it impossible for the belt to drop down over the hips, where it would rather help to drown the wearer than be the means of saving him.
2nd. That the waist strings should be drawn tightly round the body, between the two rows of cork, and then tightly and carefully tied in front; since, unless so tied, the sea, getting under it, may have sufficient force to break the strings, and as when kept closely in contact with the person of the wearer, the warmth of his body will be much longer retained, cork being a bad conductor of heat.
The coxswains of the Life-boats are therefore instructed to be most careful in seeing that, the Life-belts under their care are always in good condition, that their strings especially are strong, and on every occasion of going afloat in the Life-boat, that each of her crew has his belt properly and securely tied before getting into the boat.
The extra buoyancy of this belt is equal to 25 lbs. It will fully support an ordinary man with his clothes on, with the shoulders and chest above the water. The most buoyant of the old descriptions of cork belt (Carte’s) had extra buoyancy equivalent to about 14 lbs., and some not more than 7 or 8 lbs. The largest size of the ordinary inflated belts has buoyancy equal to 20 lbs. when completely inflated ; some not more than 8 or I0 lbs.
The defects of all inflated air-belts are, their liability to puncture, want of strength, want of flexibility if more than half inflated, difficulty of inflation in very cold weather, and the liability of their inflating-valves to get out of order by corrosion from the effects of salt-water.
Another important feature in the equipment of those Life-boats which may be called on at night to proceed to long distances from the shore is the Compass. The subject of the Mariner’s Compass has for many years past been considered a most important one, and has had great attention bestowed on it, especially since the introduction of iron as a material for building ships.
The principles of construction of Compasses for boats are the same as of those for ships ; but, on account of the more violent motion of a boat in a rough sea, it is necessary to provide some mode of steadying the face-card to which the needle is attached, in addition to the ordinary “gimbals”, on which Ships’ Compasses are balanced. For such compasses in boats and small vessels, subjected to the motion of a rough sea, are so perpetually in motion, spinning round and round, as to be then altogether useless. It is evident, therefore, that they are not appropriate to Life-boats, whose work always lies amongst heavy seas.
To remedy this evil, the late Mr. F. Dent, the chronometer-maker, Strand, London, devised the particular description of Compass known as “Dent’s Fluid Compass,” the improvement consisting in the card and needle being immersed in a fluid enclosed in a hermetically-closed bowl. This plan was found to answer the purpose admirably, and these compasses are now in general use in the Royal Navy, and to some extent in the mercantile marine.