The Kisbee Ring (sometimes spelled as Kisbey, or Kisbie)

by John MacFarlane 2012

Kisbee HMCS Summerside

Kisbee Ring from HMCS Summerside. The design, colours and motif are based on similar designs originating with the Royal Navy.(Photo from Bill Clearihue Collection.)

A life buoy or ring buoy, also known as a Kisbee ring or Perry buoy, is a life saving apparatus designed to be thrown to a person in the water to provide buoyancy to prevent drowning. Some modern life buoys are fitted with a seawater-activated light or lights to aid rescue at night.

Cork was the first material for these life preservers. The unit is usually ring-shaped or horseshoe-shaped and has a connecting line allowing the casualty to be pulled to the rescuer. They are carried by ships and are also located beside bodies of water that have the depth or potential to drown someone.

The kisbee ring, sometimes ‘kisbie’ or ‘kisby’, is named for Thomas Kisbee, the inventor. He was also responsible for the invention of the ‘breeches buoy’. Kisbee was born in 1792 at Farcet, Huntingdon, England. He served as First Lieutenant(RN) in HMS Driver, the first steam paddle sloop to circumnavigate the world. He departed in March 1842 travelling via South Africa and China to New Zealand finally returning to Portsmouth (via Rio de Janeiro) in May 1847. Kisbee had spent 1846-47 transporting Governor Grey around the North Island of New Zealand during the Maori Uprising. Kisbee died in 1877 at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England.

Kisbee HMS Belfast

Kisbee rings and ship’s bell on the quarterdeck of HMS Belfast. (Photo from Bill Clearihue Collection.)

Widespread use of the life preservers became the norm when organizations such as Britain’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (1855) started using them. The institution was also using a cork life belt invented by Commander J.R. Ward USN in 1854. The RNLI set up a Board of Supervising Inspectors that set standards and rules for lifesaving apparatus.

Kisbee HMCS Charlottetown

Kisbee rings from the original HMCS Charlottetown held as a trophy in HMCS Charlottetown. (Photo from Bill Clearihue Collection.)

Kisbie Remora

Kisbee ring from the fishpacker Remora. (Photo from John MacFarlane Collection.)

Life buoys are now considered unsuitable by the Royal Life Saving Society for use in swimming pools during emergencies because they are heavy and hard and throwing them into a crowded pool has the potential to cause more harm than good by injuring either the casualty or nearby pool users. A more modern device such as the torpedo buoy is preferred in these situations. In the United States, Coast Guard approved life buoys are considered Type IV personal flotation devices. In the US one Type IV PFD is required on all boats 16 feet or larger (except canoes and kayaks).

Kisbee Queen of Cumberland

Kisbee Ring from the British Columbia ferry Spirit of British Columbia. The lantern is attached to the ring with a lanyard and will light up upon exposure to salt water. The light is very useful in locating the ring once it is in the water, particularly at night or in low light situations.(Photo from Bill Clearihue Collection.)

At one time a life buoy sentry was stationed in the stern of the vessel to watch for men who fell overboard. In a man overboard emergency their job was to throw the kisbee ring and keep their eyes on the man overboard at all times until recovered. Stew Churlish advises "A friend in the regular force, when asked about the status of life buoy sentries, looked at me rather strangely and then confirmed that there is no longer a Life buoy Sentry. He thought it a quaint idea but apparently the ‘uppers’ (upper decks) are out of bounds after working hours, apart from a small and secure smokers ghetto."


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