150 years – Crew kit then and now

Today, if you walk into any lifeboat station kit room, you will see rows upon rows of yellow and black clothing hanging up, with a place for everything and everything in its place.

ILB drysuits and woolly bears

ILB drysuits and woolly bears

This is the lifeboat crews’ personal protective equipment or PPE – ‘equipment designed and provided to be worn by persons at work to protect them from particular hazards likely to endanger their health and safety at work’.

But the crews didn’t always have this.

Cork, hair, rushes or air

The development of PPE in the RNLI began in the 1850s. In 1852 the Life-boat Regulations stated that lifeboats should have ‘a cork life-belt for each of the crew’ and in 1854, RNLI Inspector Captain Ross Ward introduced a design of narrow strips of cork, sewn and strung together to a strong linen or canvas belt so that the life-belt moved with the wearer’s body. These remained in use for over 50 years.



The PPE requirements have inevitably changed over the years and Poole Lifeboat Station has seen them all:

Date Crew kit development
1854 Cork lifebelt
1900s Use of oilskins
1904 Kapok lifejacket
1967 Introduction of head protection
1970 Beaufort lifejacket
1970s Helmets and visors on inshore lifeboats
Mid 1970s Waterproof jackets and trousers
1977 Drysuit
1993 Crewsaver all-weather lifeboat lifejacket issued to crews
1995 Development of Gecko helmet
1997 Crewsaver inshore lifeboat lifejacket issued to crews
2000s Breathable drysuit for Thames crews on 12-hour shifts
2011 New design of all-weather and inshore lifeboat lifejackets
2014 Breathable drysuits issued to inshore lifeboat crews


In the early 1900s, kapok (used for stuffing cushions before its buoyant qualities were discovered) lifebelts came into use. Some crews refused to wear them, saying they were too cumbersome, so the design was modified several times. In spite of the early design problems, the brown canvas-covered kapok lifebelt remained in use until the late 1960s.

Kapok lifejackets

Kapok lifejackets


Long Winter services took their toll on crews as the lifeboats offered little protection to them. Although not regulation issue, in 1936, 1,525 knitted woollen scarf-helmets were sent to lifeboat stations, supplied by a merry band of knitters. ‘Woollen comforts’ of gloves, mittens, helmets, scarves, jerseys, socks and sea-boot stockings were also knitted during the war years.

Lifeboat crew being presented with woollen scarf helmets in 1930s


The 1970s also saw several changes in lifejacket design and clothing. The RNLI replaced the kapok lifejacket, which had been in use for over 60 years, and the Beaufort lifejacket was introduced in 1970. Closed-cell foam provided inherent buoyancy to support the crew member and a rubberised bladder could be orally inflated for extra buoyancy to support another person. Features also included a light, recovery loop, ‘buddy’ line and safety line.

Beaufort lifejackets

Beaufort lifejackets


For over 20 years, the Beaufort lifejacket proved its worth but, as it was fairly bulky to wear, the RNLI started looking for a lighter, more comfortable lifejacket. In 1992, the RNLI and Crewsaver came up with a lifejacket design with two parallel stoles inflated by CO2.


Interestingly, in 1852, Captain Ward had tested lifebelts with a single air case enclosed in a waterproof case but the objection to it was that a puncture would be fatal to it. It was then proposed to use one divided into two lengthways. Perhaps Captain Ward was 140 years ahead of his time.

21st century

Today’s crew kit has come from over 160 years of development. In the mid 1850s, a lifebelt was the only requirement.

Cork lifejackets

Cork lifejackets

In the mid 1940s, a boy’s essay in the Life-Boat stated: ‘a Life-boatman must possess great courage, a spirit of self-sacrifice and a water-proof!’

Today’s 21st century Regulations of the RNLI still include the requirement to wear a lifejacket and waterproofs in their many guises but other PPE items are available to crews including helmets, woolly bear thermal undersuits, gloves, boots with toe and cap protectors and recently introduced breathable drysuits.

Poole crew shots mr-56