Staying Afloat – All About PFDs


When I started boating, I had no idea what PFD stood for. I had to ask. Apparently it stands for Personal Floatation Device. When I was a kid we called them life vests, which I think is more descriptive. But in our acronym-crazy world, we now call 'em PFDs.

The Case For PFDs

The legitimate research that has been done on PFD efficacy (as opposed to the common Internet babble of anecdotal stories about unconfirmed people or conjecture what could happen on the water) is crystal clear: PFDs save lives. In the Coast Guard's 2014 report on recreational boating, they observed that where cause of death was known (and it's an uncommon circumstance where it's not), in 78% of fatal boating accidents the victims died by drowning. Of those drowning victims, 84% were not wearing a life jacket. Eight out of every ten boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length. And where the type of vessel was known, kayaks had the 3rd highest percentage of deaths at 10%.

What this means is that as a kayaker, there's always a potential for you to get in a serious boating accident no matter how safe you are. If something kills you, it's likely to be drowning. And your odds of drowning go down quite a bit if you wear a PFD.

If that's not convincing, then I don't know how to help you. You should consider this your train stop and quit reading this post right here.

For everybody else, here's what you need to know about PFDs.

Standards

One of the many things that the US Coast Guard does is set performance standards for PFDs. You always want a US Coast Guard approved PFD. Frankly, I've never seen one sold that wasn't USCG-approved, but I'm sure they exist. Don't waste your money on a PFD that doesn't meet minimum federal safety standards.

The USCG specifies five different types of PFDs depending on the type of water and the likelihood of quick rescue:
  • Type I – Also called "offshore life jackets, Type I PFDs are the most buoyant. They're the old-style life vest you see on Gilligan's Island reruns. They're suitable for all water conditions, including rough or isolated water where rescue may be delayed. Offshore jackets will turn most unconscious individuals to the face-up position. Type I PFDs have a buoyancy of at least 22 lbs. All of this sounds great, except that type I PFDs are the bulkiest and least comfortable of all PFDs. They would be seriously uncomfortable for kayak fishing in my opinion.
  • Type II – Also known as "near-shore vests", Type II PFDs are for calm and open water where a rescue will most likely occur quickly. They are not designed for long periods in rough water, and will turn some – but not all – unconscious wearers face-up in the water. A Type II vest is less bulky than a Type I, and often the least expensive of the PFD types. Buoyancy is at least 15.5 lbs
  • Type III – The Coast Guard calls type III PFDs "flotation aids". They're for calm and open water where a rescue will most likely occur quickly. Type III PFDs are designed to keep the wearer in a vertical position, but it is the wearer's responsibility to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in the water. These types of vests are the most comfortable to wear, and the most popular for recreational boating and fishing, including kayaking. Buoyancy of a Type III vest is at least 15.5 lbs.
  • Type IV – A Type IV PFD is designed to be thrown to a conscious person in the water. They are not designed to be worn. A few examples of a Type IV PFD are a buoyant cushion, a life ring, or a horseshoe buoy.
  • Type V – These PFDs are designed to be worn for specific activities described on the PFD’s label. To be effective, Type V PFDs must be worn according to these specifications, and many must be worn at all times in order to qualify as a PFD. A Type V label will also list its performance as Type I, II, or III. 
Buoyancy is the force (measured in pounds) required to keep your head and chin afloat above water. Most adults need just 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to stay afloat. A lot of things factor into your own personal buoyancy: your weight, body fat, lung size, clothing, and water turbulence. Interestingly, this is one area where being fat is a good thing: The more physically fit you are, the more buoyancy you need from a PFD!

I strongly advise reading the USCG's PFD recommendations for the type of waters and kayaking you do.

That said, most kayak anglers are best served with Type III or Type V (specifically marked for kayaking use) PFDs.

Inflatables

A relatively recent innovation for kayak anglers is the inflatable PFD. Inflatables are essentially vest-shaped balloons that employ CO2 cartridges to air up the vest in the event you need it. Depending on the PFD, inflation can be activated manually or automatically via water sensors. Inflatables are usually considered a Type III PFD, but always check the label to verify. In any case, they're a very attractive option because they are way less bulky and uncomfortable when deflated. But they also cost more and are an additional maintenance responsibility – you have to make sure you have good CO2 cartridges loaded and it's a good idea to have spares. There's also the risk that you snag one with a hook and destroy its ability to hold air until you can repair it. And if for some reason there is a failure in the inflation system, or the vest has been punctured, it's very possible you wouldn't know it until you actually need the PFD.

Fit

The most important "feature" of a PFD is how well it fits. An improperly fitting PFD can actually increase your risk of drowning in an emergency. First, the discomfort from a poor fit encourages you not to wear your PFD. Second, a loose PFD can ride up into your face when submersed in water, and can actually make matters worse (especially in turbulent water). Once you're in the water, it's very difficult to adjust the fit because the PFD's buoyancy is working against you.

A properly fit PFD should be snug and form-fitting, yet allow unfettered movement and not chafe while paddling and fishing.

How to properly fit a PFD

Note: These instructions are for an adult (child instructions are different!)
  1. Loosen all the straps (belt, side, and shoulders).
  2. Put the PFD on.
  3. Zip it up.
  4. Buckle the belt if there is one.
  5. Starting at the waist and working your way up, tighten all the straps. The shoulder straps should be tightened last, assuming your PFD has them.
  6. The PFD should feel snug but not uncomfortable.
  7. Have somebody else pull up on the PFD from the shoulders. If it moves up past your nose or head, tighten the straps. If it still moves up, the PFD is too large.

Features

PFD manufacturers have gotten really hip to the needs of kayak fishermen! There are a lot of PFDs specifically designed with the angler in mind. Some of the features I recommend looking for are:
  • A PFD with a lot of straps can generally be fitted to your body more accurately.
  • We all want to look good, but at the end of the day a PFD is a safety device, not a fashion accessory. So my recommendation is to skip the earth tones and camo patterns and get one in a color that helps with your visibility.
  • Likewise, I highly recommend that you buy a PFD with reflective tape added. You might not intend to paddle after dark, but you never know what kind of circumstances you might run into that force you to do it.
  • Some PFDs place rear vest foam higher up towards the shoulders so that it fits above the kayak's seat back. I highly recommend this feature as it makes the PFD far more comfortable for long hours on the water.
  • Many PFDs are outfitted with rubber lashing tabs for attaching knives, whistles, strobes or other accessories. There's some debate about the advisability of putting a sharp-pointed knife on a PFD, which is why they sell specialized round-tipped knives. But having mounting options is in general a good thing.
  • Pockets are where it's at for fishing! You'll want at least a couple to store stuff you need quick access to. Some PFDs have specialized pockets for things like phones or GPS devices, pliers, or fishing licenses. There are also pockets with drop-down covers that provide a tiny horizontal surface for working with lures, flies, and other fishing tackle.
  • Having plenty of lashing tabs so you can tether items to the vest is pretty handy. Just be careful not to tie anything one that would impede your ability to get back on the boat in the capsize situation.
  • If you paddle in the South, you'll appreciate mesh panels for ventilation.

Use it

People often ask, "What is the best PFD?"

The best PFD is the one you'll actually wear.

This is a polite way of saying that a PFD is unlikely to help unless you wear it. That means putting it on every time you're on the water, for the duration. Carrying your PFD on your boat, but not wearing it, is not going to do you any good in an emergency. If you drown when there was a perfectly good PFD on your kayak with you, your obituary might very well say you were a particularly special kind of dumbass. Do yourself and the people who love you a favor and wear it.

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