Building a proud legacy of saving lives at sea

Izzy George explains how Survitec's life rafts have helped to revolutionise safety at sea over the past century

Building a proud legacy of saving lives at sea


From left: An early RFD liferaft in 1957 and a Survitec Surviva life raft in 2019

Whenever the history of life rafts is mentioned, no company can claim a longer heritage or a stronger legacy than Survitec. Yet, Survitec’s latest developments in ship evacuation technology are a far cry from the first experiments of inflatable life rafts carried out by Reginald Foster Dagnall on Wisley Lake in Surrey, England in 1919. Here, Dagnall explored the potential of rubberised cloth as a flotation material and, a year later, gave his initials to the company he founded in 1920 to develop his ideas: RFD.

That company later went on to become Survitec and this year marks its centenary. During the past 100 years, many other legacy companies have added their energy and expertise to give Survitec a vital, more broad maritime safety role as requirements and technologies have evolved.

At first, Dagnall did not focus on the maritime market. As his experience came from making observation balloons and his inspiration came from the role early aircraft played in World War I, he initially worked on developing flotation devices for downed aircraft.

Dagnall created a lightweight inflatable ring to prevent a ditched plane from sinking, allowing the craft to be recovered. He soon realised that, by adding a floor to the ring, it was possible to save the aircraft’s occupants too. This led to him developing an inflatable boat, which later became the life raft we know today. And, in the following year, flotation bags were supplied for planes launching from aircraft carriers and for long-range aircraft making the journey from the UK to Africa.

In 1930, collapsible dinghies were exhibited at an aircraft exhibition, marking the start of life raft development, and in 1932, RFD patented an automatic inflation system. The following year, five trials were made using automatically inflated dinghies in Portsmouth in conjunction with the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.

However, it was 1950 before RFD developed a full range of aviation and marine life rafts and there was particularly high demand for those with canopies. Four years later, these were approved by the UK’s Ministry of Transport for use on trawlers and small merchant vessels sailing under British rules in British waters. Their use spread and in 1955, navies from Holland, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all carried RFD life rafts.

Developments then came quickly. In 1956, the carriage of inflatables became mandatory for all UK fishing craft and, in 1957, RFD introduced a 25/26-person life raft that was lighter and smaller than its predecessors. An important breakthrough came a year later when RFD introduced its 20-person MC-type life raft. This could be lowered fully laden from a ship with an 18-metre freeboard by a single-arm davit and it could be released automatically. This overcame one of the problems with life rafts: passengers usually had to board them by climbing down ladders or jumping from height. Not only did this new design remove that difficulty, but it also provided a means by which the life raft and its survivors could be recovered by a rescuing vessel.

Among the significant products in Survitec’s product range that date back to its earlier years is the Babycot, which was developed by Beaufort Air-Sea Equipment, another Survitec company with origins dating back more than a century. Beaufort and RFD merged in 2003 to become RFD Beaufort, which is now a subsidiary of Survitec. That product – now in its Mk IV version – remains unique in providing protection for infants and is widely supplied to the aviation industry.

Recognition of life rafts’ importance to shipping safety was sealed when, in 1965, it became mandatory under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations for ships to carry inflatable life rafts. RFD was the first manufacturer to gain approval under the new requirements, confirming its craft to be both safe and reliable. That reputation was further cemented in 1976, when the company produced the world’s first welded life raft.

Just three years later, it launched the world’s first marine evacuation system (MES), introducing the concept that survivors could leave a ship rapidly, initially down a slide directly into a landing life raft. Later developments introduced a vertical chute system, to offer vessel operators a choice. Both MES options saved space and sped up the evacuation time enormously compared with previous boarding systems, which is vital in an emergency. They also make it possible to abandon ship without getting wet feet – a feature termed ‘dry-shod’ evacuation.

That original MES was the first generation of RFD’s Marin-Ark system, which is still available today and now consists of four large enclosed life rafts offering a combined capacity of 430 people. A significant design feature is that the life rafts are fully reversible, so there is no risk of them launching upside down. Additional over-capacity life rafts can be added to boost capacity.

A second-generation system, Marin-Ark II, can be expanded to hold up to 860 people and features a dual spiral slide that accelerates evacuation and incorporates a feature that allows crew to ascend if necessary.

Another significant development is Survitec’s recently rebranded RaftXChange life raft rental service, introduced following a SOLAS amendment which came into force in 2008. The regulation allows extended servicing intervals for life rafts for some ship types, taking the normal 12-month interval and increasing it to 30 months.

Under the regulation, the life rafts must be maintained within their containers at the correct ambient conditions, so Survitec developed a solution to hermetically seal the life rafts in watertight silver foil bags and to incorporate humidity and carbon dioxide sensors that deliver readings via a USB port on the side of the container.

Survitec, one of the first maritime safety companies to offer the extended service solution concept, has carried out a combination of more than 50,000 life raft exchanges and inspections under the RaftXChange programme since 2012, with technicians recording life rafts in perfect condition even after 30 months of service.

Seahaven, Survitec’s latest advanced evacuation system, builds on the innovations developed by Dagnall all those years ago and is expected to revolutionise maritime safety. The award-winning system is capable not only of providing cruise ships with a means of transporting 1,060 people per craft to safety, but it could even make it unnecessary for ships to carry conventional lifeboats. This would free up large amounts of space for more cabins or entertainment areas and open up the view from areas of a ship that are currently obscured by davit-mounted lifeboats. Seahaven uses two inflatable slides to transfer passengers directly into a pair of powered inflatable lifeboats and one of its novel features is that it allows families to descend as a group, reducing stress and increasing levels of safety during the evacuation process.

Dagnall, who began his development work in a small shed, applying his own inventive zeal to a particular practical need, would surely approve of this novel innovation. RFD and Survitec have been powered by his driving force throughout the past 100 years and, for as long as there are ships, there will be life rafts. And Survitec will continue to protect lives and be at the forefront of their development.

Izzy George is a marketing executive at Survitec

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By Izzy George
15 January 2021

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