Personal Flotation Devices can save your life when paddling
Part Four: Essential safety equipment
This is one in a series of staff writer Graham Jaehnig’s personal experiences as a
In the last installment of the kayaking series, the topic was types of kayaks and suggestions for selecting the right one for the individual paddler. Once you have selected the kayak, It is time to shop for additional items needed to get out on the water: A life jacket or personal flotation device, a paddle, and equally important, straps for securing your new kayak to your vehicle. However, because a PFD is the single most important piece of boating equipment to prevent drowning, this installment is solely devoted to them.
While the terms are too frequently used interchangeably and are confused, it is important to know that there are differences between a life jacket and a PFD. The Van Isle Marina website states that life jackets and PFDs are often confused with each other by both new and experienced boaters alike.
“Since they perform the same function of helping people stay afloat in water, the website states, “many use the names PFD and life jacket interchangeably.” While their website article, “Your Complete Guide to Selecting a Life jacket or PFD,” is very educational, there are regulations and guidelines regarding the two devices that differ between Canada and the U.S.
It is also important to realize that a life jacket or a PFD will not save you if you don’t wear it while paddling. The American Canoe Association reports that 85% of canoe fatalities were not wearing a life jacket, while 48% of kayak fatalities were not wearing a life jacket.
The United States Coast Guard USCG) lists three main types of what it calls buoyancy aids: commercial PFDs, recreational PFDs, and throwable PFDs.
Recreational PFDs are buoyancy aids intended for use on uninspected commercial vessels under 40 ft (12m) not carrying passengers for hire and recreational boats, states the USCG. Buoyancy aids may rely on inherently buoyant material, inflatable chambers, or a combination of the two.
Also referred to Standard PFDs, recreational PFDs are the most common used by recreational kayakers, canoers and stand up paddle boarders, reports the REI Co-op. REI, or Recreational Equipment, Inc., is an American retail and outdoor recreation services corporation. It is organized as a consumers’ co-operative.
“The majority of PFDs on the market are standard, non-inflatable ones,” says REI, “however, an inflatable PFD might be right for you depending on your needs.”
Non-inflatable PFD characteristics include:
• Low-maintenance: Other than keeping it clean, dry and out of the sun when not in use, a standard PFD requires very little care.
• Inherently buoyant: Other than putting it on properly, you don’t need to activate a standard PFD in any way for it to provide flotation.
• Versatile: A standard PFD can be used for many different water sports, such as kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, waterskiing and fishing.
• Pockets: Most standard PFDs provide pockets for stashing snacks, tools, sunscreen, emergency gear and fishing equipment, something you won’t find on inflatable PFDs.
The American Canoe Association’s (ACA) educational resources site cautions making sure the PFD you buy fits properly.
“Because paddlers wear their life jackets all day, make sure yours has a secure, yet comfortable, fit,” says the ACA. When wearing a life jacket properly you will hardly know you have it on. Although all USCG-approved life jackets meet certain strength and buoyancy standards, they are not all the same. Spend some extra money for a higher quality model. It will have softer foam, a more comfortable fit and improved adjustability.”
REI offers more detail on sizing:
“For adults, your chest size–not your weight–will determine what size PFD you need…(For children, their weight will determine the size.) To get your chest size, measure the circumference of your chest at its broadest point. Use this number along with the PFD manufacturer’s size recommendations to find the right size for you.”
REI offers the following tips to get the proper fit:
• With a standard PFD, loosen all the straps, put the PFD on and zip it up. With an inflatable, put it on over your head (if it’s a vest style) or clip it around your waist (if it’s a waistpack style).
• Start at the waist and tighten all the straps. If it has shoulder straps, tighten them last. It should feel snug but not uncomfortable.
• With a standard PFD, have someone pull up on the PFD shoulders. If it moves up past your nose or head, tighten the straps. If it still moves up, the PFD is too large.
• A properly sized PFD should be snug and fit like a glove, yet allow you to move freely and not chafe while paddling and playing.
Because knowing as much as possible about life jackets and PFDs is so important, the next installment of this series will continue this topic.
To explore the topic of PFDs more thoroughly please visit the following:
• To learn more from the USCG on PFDs, visit their website at https://www.dco.uscg.mil/CG-ENG-4/PFD/
• For more information on PFD labeling, visit the Great Outdoors Stack Exchange website at https://outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/21916/understanding-the-transition-in-uscg-personal-flotation-device-pfd-labeling
• REI’s URL regarding in-depth details on PFDs for adults and children is https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/personal-flotation-device.html