Gearing up: the inside story of the new RNLI all-weather crew kit
1990. The year the Berlin Wall fell; Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first page of the World Wide Web; and New Zealand’s Peter Blake won the Whitbread Round the World Race in the yacht Steinlager 2.
1990 also marked the last time the RNLI introduced a new all-weather lifeboat crew kit. Now, after almost three decades, three iterations, and thousands of lives saved, it’s time for an upgrade.
A duty of care
‘I spend my working life keeping our crews safe,’ says Allen Stevens. Senior Engineer at RNLI Headquarters in Poole, Dorset, he’s one of those responsible for introducing the new offshore gear.
‘Our all-weather lifeboat crews operate in every condition,’ he continues. ‘In Shetland, they’re nearer to Norway than London. By comparison, south coast England weather is relatively mild. We have a duty to give our volunteers the right kit, wherever they are.’
Why change it now?
‘The outgoing kit was quite high tech for its day,’ says Allen. ‘It’s done the job. But when it was introduced, material technologies were in their infancy.
Nowadays people we rescue are wearing better gear than we are! ‘We want to lead by example – everyone should be correctly dressed for the conditions they're intending to sail in.’
Laying down a challenge
We needed to find the best partner to work with on the new kit. We started with 20 companies and began a tough selection process – with the help of lifeboat crew.
‘To kick things off, we invited all the companies to a presentation in Poole,’ explains RNLI Principal Procurement Manager Matt Keatley. ‘We challenged the marine clothing industry to provide a solution to meet the demanding and varied needs of the RNLI and the different geographical environments we operate in. Crew members were on hand to answer their questions.
‘Afterwards, we whittled it down to eight companies to be invited to tender for the replacement kit. They then brought their gear, and pitched to a panel of RNLI crews and commercial teams. Our crews tried that kit on – even rolled around the floor in it! We picked two for trials.’
Trials by water
‘The two trial kits were anonymous,’ says Matt. ‘There was no branding tying them to any manufacturer. ‘We sent them to six all-weather lifeboat stations: Tenby, Weymouth, Lochinver, Hoylake, Dun Laoghaire and Humber – high-use stations, spread all over the UK and Ireland, capturing the different conditions the kit would operate in. ‘Testing involved everything from helicopter lifts to slipway launches, crew recovery, boat-to-boat … you name it, we did it.
‘We also trialled the kit across male and female crews, including female-only gear. ‘The trials lasted over 6 months. Crews completed over 500 feedback forms, telling us how the kit performed; feel; sizing. The manufacturers took that feedback, and sent us revised versions, which crews tested and scored too. We used that, along with two final presentations, to pick the final kit from Helly Hansen. ‘It was a thorough process,’ concludes Matt. ‘It all had to be done fairly, and we had to get it right. We owe it to our supporters to spend their money wisely. And we owe our volunteers the best kit possible for the next 10 years or more.’
And it's not just great kit that Helly Hansen is providing us with. The RNLI and Helly Hansen are entering into a full strategic partnership that will see Helly Hansen committing to deliver drowning prevention messages to their customers worldwide, in addition to supporting our fundraising and safety campaigns.
The view from the crew
Below, three crew members - Coxswain Phil John from Tenby, Crew Member Alice Higgins and Coxswain Andy Sargeant from Weymouth (pictured below) - tell us candidly how different features of the new kit will make a difference to them.
1. Breathable fabrics
It can get hot inside an all-weather lifeboat – and freezing outside. Having different breathable layers lets us control our body temperature by deciding what we put on or take off – even mid-shout.Andy Sargeant, Coxswain at Weymouth[Quote Author Role]
2. Lightweight construction
The new gear is really light. The old stuff could be heavy and cumbersome. Now we move much more freely.Phil John, Coxswain at Tenby[Quote Author Role]
3. Feminine fit
In our old gear, we’d sweat a lot. So we’d get cold. For the new gear to filter sweat away, the underlayers need to touch the skin. The underlayers are tailored to women, fitting us better and keeping us drier.Alice Higgins, Crew Member at Weymouth[Quote Author Role]
4. Shoulder straps
Our old elastic shoulder straps were stitched in. When they stretched, we tied them up, which restricted movement. Or we replaced the whole salopette. Helly Hansen designed a secure clip. Now, we undo it, and replace the shoulder straps - saving us time, and the RNLI money.Andy[Quote Author Role]
5. Female drop seat
The new female gear has a back zip, which makes it easier to use the loo. Now we don’t need to take our lifejackets off, or remove our salopettes mid shout. Much safer.Alice[Quote Author Role]
6. Two leg lengths
The new kit has two leg size options. Shorter crew won’t have their gear bunch up, dragging on the deck and wearing out quickly. No more trip hazards.Andy[Quote Author Role]
7. Reinforced materials
Helly Hansen has reinforced the fabric around the knees and the torso, but also around the hem behind the wellies, where we get a lot of wear and tear. It gives us peace of mind that we’re protected.Phil[Quote Author Role]
A complete clothing system
‘Our new kit is a system,’ says Allen Stevens, ‘like you’d find in modern hiking gear. Our crews will wear a base layer next to the skin, a middle layer, and a breathable top layer. Each layer works with the next; passing perspiration through, but keeping wind and water out. In warmer weather, our volunteers can regulate their temperature by choosing their layers.
‘It’s also important the new kit doesn’t interfere with the helmets or the lifejackets. The safety of our volunteers is an absolute priority while they are out saving people.
‘It’s all off-the-shelf gear Helly Hansen has modified for the RNLI. So the good news for our supporters is they could walk into a shop and get something similar.’
A new era
The new kit is due to arrive at lifeboat stations from this September – almost 2 years on from the original presentations. However, for the volunteers, that will be just the beginning.
‘The biggest challenge is going to be re-educating crews on getting changed into the right layers,’ says Phil.
‘It’ll take a little time,’ agrees Andy. ‘But the benefits will far outweigh the teething problems.’
‘Breathability is my new favourite word,’ adds Alice. ‘I think it’ll be revolutionary. Returning from a shout not drenched in sweat – it’s pretty nice!’