The ubiquitous “international orange” color and its use on lifesaving equipment is a relatively recent invention. Per traditional color theory, orange is considered “opposite” to blue, the highest contrasting value. (Other theories put yellow opposite blue.)
The federal government standardized several colors in the 1950s, primarily to benefit military vendors and define colors for everything from navy gray paint to khaki uniforms. International orange is defined by Federal Standard 595, as color #FS 12197. There are some gentle variations between engineering, aeronautical and maritime oranges, but the colors each have strict formulae and are largely indistinguishable unless viewed side by side.
It wasn’t until 1962 that international orange became the mandated color for lifejackets and lifesaving appliances. Prior to then, lifejackets were often white, as was the case with the cork lifejackets used on the Titanic, and were thus not as visible as other colors would have been. Even the military used non-contrasting colors for lifesaving appliances, and still does in some applications!
US Navy life jackets in WWII were blue! Imagine trying to spot a man overboard!
Despite the thousands of lost lives due to the almost invisibility of white, grey or blue lifejackets against a blue, grey or whitecapped sea, the requirement that lifejackets be orange was inspired by a single, bizarre, violent incident off the Florida coast in 1961.
And now the story — — —
In the winter of 1961, Dr. Arthur Duperrault, with his wife Jean and three children (Brian 14, Terry Jo 11, and Renee 7) chartered the 60’ ketch Bluebelle for a round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bahamas. The Bluebelle was captained by Julian Harvey, a handsome, athletic, decorated war pilot, and his (sixth) wife Mary, a pretty, vivacious stewardess, whom he had married four months earlier.
One evening, during the trip back to Florida, Captain Harvey murdered his new bride, presumably to collect on her life insurance policy. The Duperrault’s middle child, Terry Jo, was awakened by screams to find the bloody bodies of her mother, brother and Harvey’s wife Mary scattered about the deck. It is speculated that Dr. Duperrault and his wife and Brian and Renee saw the murder, and in a panic, Harvey murdered them as well.
Harvey prepared a dingy for himself and opened seacocks to scuttle the Bluebelle. As the boat began to sink, the dinghy began to drift away, forcing Harvey to jump in after it. Harvey pulled himself into the dinghy and rowed off into the darkness, leaving little Terry Jo to go down with the boat.
Terrified, Terry Jo noticed a cork life float tied to the cabin top and she was able to untie it and get it launched just before the Bluebelle sank out from under her. She was adrift for four days, wearing nothing more than the light sleeping clothes she had on when the boat sank. After four days adrift, she was rescued by a passing Greek freighter — she was on the brink of death from exposure and dehydration.
The raft was white.
Harvey had been picked up after only one day adrift in the dinghy, and was discovered with the dead 7 year-old Renee Duperrault on his lap. During the Coast Guard investigation, Harvey explained that a terrible squall had dismasted the Bluebelle and that the mast had penetrated a fuel tank, causing a massive fire. He had done all he could, but nothing could save the boat and everyone went down with the boat when it sank. He had found the baby floating face-down in the water and said he did his best to revive her, to no avail. During one of Harvey’s interviews, a Coastguardsman popped in to the interview room with the wonderful news of Terry Jo’s survival. Harvey was stunned, but then exclaimed, “Why that’s wonderful!” and quickly excused himself.
Harvey returned to his hotel, having already registered using an alias, penned a quick note to a friend, then slit the veins in his thigh and throat with a razor blade and killed himself.
Terry Jo, with maturity and presence beyond her years, explained there was no storm, no dismasting, and described in great detail the crimes that Harvey had committed.
It later turned out Harvey was no stranger to violence, suspicious losses, and miraculous survivals. Two of Harvey’s previous yachts had sunk under less than clear circumstances, both yielding generous insurance settlements. Twelve years before the Bluebelle murders, Harvey had driven his car through a wood bridge into 15 feet of water, killing his third wife and her mother. Harvey had miraculously emerged unscathed, a feat most investigators felt was only possible if he had been prepared for the impact, but they couldn’t prove it.
That lifejackets are orange is directly attributable to the observations of the Greek freighter captain who rescued Terry Jo. He explained to the Coast Guard investigators the difficulty of seeing a white raft bobbing on a white-capped sea.
As a result, the final Coast Guard report on the incident urged “. . . That consideration be given to amending the specifications for buoyant apparatus, life floats and life rafts (46CFR160.010, 160.018 and 160.027), to require that the body of such lifesaving equipment be painted or otherwise colored international orange……That consideration be given to amending the vessel inspection regulations to require that the body of buoyant apparatus, life rafts and life floats used on board vessels or artificial islands and fixed structures on the outer continental shelf, be painted or otherwise colored international orange.”
And now you know why lifejackets are orange!
- USCG report on the Bluebelle Incident: Investigating Officer, Miami Report MC-1385 of February 8, 1962
- “Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean” by Richard Logan, PhD and Tere Duperrault Fassbennder, TitleTown Publishing, Green Bay, WI 2010
Capt. Messer-Bookman holds a US Coast Guard Unlimited Tonnage Oceans Master’s license and has logged over 300,000 miles at sea as a ship’s officer. She has written multiple articles and three maritime books, most recently “Maritime Casualties: Causes and Consequences.” She retired after 23 years of teaching maritime subjects and is a Professor Emerita of California Maritime Academy. She lives in Gig Harbor, WA with her husband. They enjoy boating and playing with their two English Bull Terriers.She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on LinkedIn.