Maintaining Your Immersion Suit

F/V Risky Business
Crew abandoning the F/V Risky Business, 69 miles offshore of Kodiak, Alaska. Photo: USCG Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Tripp.

Protect yourself and your crew by inspecting and maintaining your survival suits regularly

Immersion suits have saved thousands of fishermen’s lives. Most fishing vessels on the West Coast and Alaska are required to carry them. They are your “parachute” if staying on the vessel is more dangerous than being in the water, but survival suits need attention and care.

After the sinking of the F/V Wayward Wind, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation revealed that corroded zippers on immersion suits most likely contributed to the deaths of three crewmembers. The suits were not fully zipped, allowing cold water to flush in and out. Inflation bladders were not attached to all of the suits and none had lights. The NTSB concluded that the crewmembers may have survived if the suits had been properly maintained.

Here’s how to ensure that your immersion suit is up to the task if it’s ever called upon to do its job.

Pressure testing an immersion suit using a shop-vac. Image via AMSEA.

Inspect and Maintain It

When you do your monthly drills, take the opportunity to inspect and care for your “gumby” suit.

  • Look for rips and tears and check the seams to make sure they are securely glued.
  • Feel the suit to make sure it is dry. Storing them wet or damp can cause them to mold.
  • Try the suit on, zip it up, secure the face flap and blow up the air bladder. Does the bladder hold air overnight?
  • Try the suit on monthly. Does it still fit? People tend to “outgrow” their suit as they age.
  • Do the whistle and light work? Replace older light batteries. Is the reflective tape securely attached? Yellowing is a sign to replace tape.
  • Wear the suit in the water at least once a year to check for leaks.

Clean and Dry It

When your suit has been used in salt water or a pool, rinse it inside and out in fresh water. If contaminated with petroleum products, wash it by hand in warm, mild soapy water and rinse it thoroughly.

  • Turn the suit inside out, dry it completely in a shady, well-ventilated place, then turn it right side out to dry the outside. Do not dry it in the sun.
  • Re-lubricate the zipper according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Avoid petroleum-based greases or waxes; they can destroy the rubber on the zipper. Lubricate the inside of the teeth and work the zipper several times.
  • Leave the zipper open and outside the suit, but zipped up one inch to un-work a jam. Roll the suit up feet first, trying to avoid any folds. Lay the hood, then arms over the rolled-up suit and return to the bag.
When the suits is inflated, spraying soapy water helps to find leaks. Image via AMSEA.

Leak Test It

Pressure test your immersion suit when it is new and every year thereafter. You can do this with a small shop vacuum that can both suck and blow air.

  • Insert the shop-vac hose into the “blower” opening. Insert the other end of the hose into the narrow end of a 14-inch conical buoy and tape up. Insert the other end of the buoy into the hood of the suit.
  • Zip up the suit so it makes a tight fit around the buoy. Seal any air valves in the feet with duct tape.
  • Prepare a spray bottle with mild soapy water. Turn on the shop-vac to inflate the suit. Spray seams or problem areas with soapy water and look for bubbles. Mark the location of any leaks on a suit diagram.

Repair It

  • When the suit is dry, use a wet suit repair such as Aquaseal® on leaky seams. You can also thin it with Cotol®. Both are available from dive shops.
  • Be sure to take or send the suit to an authorized repair shop if major repairs are needed. The suit’s manufacturer can recommend an approved facility. This should be done after 10 years from the date of manufacture.

Mark It and Store It

  • Put your name on the bag and mark it so you can find your own suit in an emergency. Add a tag to the bag and write the manufacture date and each inspection date, pressure test and all work done.
  • Store the suit in a dry, accessible place where you can get to it quickly in an emergency.

And Finally, Throw It Away

If the suit is older than 20 years, it’s time for a new suit! Cut off an arm and throw it away or repurpose the materials. 

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