Size Counts – But One Size Doesn’t Fit All

survival suit
(Left) A man who is 5’6” tall and weighs 245 lbs. tries on a “one-size-fits-all” survival suit.
(Right) A woman who stands 5’4” tall and weighs 136 lbs. tries on a “one-size-fits-all” survival suit. Photos courtesy of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.

Although few people go to a store to buy shoes without trying them on for fit, it has been observed that when buying survival suits, people look at the size range written on the suit, pay the bill and call it good. However, size counts whether you are buying shoes for walking or the survival suit you are depending for on your life.

When a fishing vessel sank in the Gulf of Alaska, a small crew member who entered the water in a “universal” sized survival suit ended up needing to be held on a larger person’s body in rough seas. That’s because her suit was too large and the hood kept floating off her head, allowing water to enter the suit, and placing her in danger of drowning. Fortunately, the crew members were rescued by a Kodiak-based Coast Guard helicopter and survived to fish another day.

Another fishing vessel sank a few years later near the Aleutian Islands. In that case everyone survived in survival suits except for the captain, who could not get the zipper up due to his large midriff. He entered the water with the zipper open and perished due to cold water.

Survival suits (formerly called immersion suits) have saved thousands of lives. They are available in only four general sizes (see chart below).

After training thousands of people in survival suit use, we have seen that so called “universal” survival suits only properly fit someone between 5′ 8″ to 6’2″ or 6’3″, weighing between 150 and 220 pounds. The “universal size” suit is the worst offender.

People come in many more sizes and shapes. Woe be the fisherman who wants an off-the-shelf suit yet is 5 feet tall, weighing 275 lbs. Looking at the chart, it appears he would fit into a Universal suit. However, he would be unable to close the zipper of the suit and be unable to walk, use his hands, or keep the hood on his head. The “short and wide” crewmember would need to have a survival suit custom made for it to work effectively in the water, especially in rough seas. Many fishing vessels only carry universal suits for their crews to avoid having to buy extra suit sizes, or in an emergency, have the wrong size suit grabbed by someone by mistake.

Yet another consideration when sizing your suit is what are you likely to be wearing while on deck? Trying the suit in the store is a good idea, but remember that on the deck you will likely be wearing more clothing, and what fits well in the store may not fit well or be easy to get into with a couple extra layers of deck clothes on.

So what to do? One good idea is to at least try a suit on before you leave the store, or if ordered online, find someone with the same-sized suit and check it for fit. Some brands of suit are cut a bit more loosely, so try on another brand of the same size if you are on the border due to size.

If you are a professional crew member, especially working on different vessels, treat yourself to your own suit. You’ll know it fits and you will know its condition. You should also try the suit in the water. What fits good on land, may not feel right in the water due to the suit’s buoyancy. Get comfortable in the water with the suit before the emergency happens. Make it easily identifiable as your suit by putting a storm whistle, personal survival kit or Sponge Bob on the suit’s bag handle.

You wouldn’t jump out of a plane without your own parachute and you shouldn’t leave your vessel without a properly fitting survival suit. Size matters.

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