Rescuers searching for Robin Walbridge, captain of the sunken tall ship HMS Bounty, are hoping his survival suit is protecting him from the high seas brought on by Hurricane Sandy.
"The sea state is the biggest enemy right now," says David Corneau, of Survival Systems Ltd., a company that trains people to stay alive on the water. "But if his suit is dry, and he's wearing a life jacket, his chances are better."
'If it [the suit] is properly fitted and zippered then water can’t come in and the wearer will be protected from hypothermia.' —David Corneau, Survival Systems Ltd
The survival suit that Captain Robin Walbridge and his bounty crew were wearing onboard the Nova Scotia-built replica tall ship was a Stearns 1590 Cold Immersion suit. It's made of waterproof rubber material, with a large zipper up the middle, built-in feet (boots) and gloves, an inflatable hood, reflective tape, a light and a whistle.
The Transport Canada and U.S. Coast Guard-approved suit is designed in a way that enables the wearer to put it on themselves in under two minutes, says Corneau. "If it’s properly fitted and zippered then water can’t come in and the wearer will be protected from hypothermia."
"It also has to be what we call ‘262’, meaning that in 2 degree Celsius water over a six hour time period, the wearer’s core temperature can experience no more than a 2 degree temperature drop."
The other key piece he would need to survive is a life jacket designed specifically to wear with the immersion suit, Corneau adds. "It keeps your head up and can prevent you from drowning. And if it has a soft plastic spray hood, that could help keep water from splashing in your face."
But while both the suit and lifejacket are able to float, they are not necessarily life-saving floations, especially at high sea.
"In a survival suit, everything floats and if you add an additional life jacket that gives you additional buoyancy," says Corneau. "These suits and life jackets work great in calm sea conditions, in low waves, and in moderate seas."
A calm sea is clearly not what the crew of HMS Bounty was up against. Walbridge was reportedly swept overboard by brutal sea winds before he could reach the covered life-rafts that saved most of his crew members.
In a rough sea, "the wind is blowing so hard that you're constantly having to work and protect yourself from waves, all while struggling to keep afloat," says Corneau. "It can feel like there's almost no difference between the atmosphere and the water."