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How to select a PFD: The Safety Belt of the Sea

By Todd Vorenkamp
When I started sailing and racing sailboats many years ago, it was rare to see a crew out on the water wearing lifejackets or personal flotation devices (PFDs).PFD’s were always viewed as bulky, restrictive, and, well, dorky. Of course, we had a ton of PFDs on board at all times, but the mindset was that we would don them if we started sinking. Looking back, I see now that that approach is similar to an automobile driver saying that they plan to put their seatbelt before they crash their car.

If you go to sailboat races now, more and more sailors are wearing PFDs full time, even if they are not planning on going swimming.

Commercial and recreational vessels are required to carry lifejackets, but crewmembers are not required to wear them at all times.[Consult the Coast Guard regulations for information on what type and size and number of PFDs and exposure/immersion suits you are required to have on board your vessel.]

So, what is the message here? Simply, the Coast Guard encourages all mariners to wear a life jacket at all times.

Are you like I used to be and under the belief that a lifejacket is a bulky piece of gear that is not suitable for deck work and gets in your way at every opportunity? Well, it might be time to revisit the world of the modern personal flotation device.

[Editor’s Note: The term lifejacket is used frequently today along with the acronym “PFD” or Personal Floatation Device. It is what it is: A life saver: Wear it!]

PFDs come in all shapes and sizes and the Coast Guard breaks them down by type based on their buoyancy and performance.

Type I jackets are the large PFDs that you see on many commercial boats. If you enter the water in an unconscious state, or lose consciousness after you spend some time in the cold water, these lifejackets will keep you face up. These are the ideal PFDs for abandoning ship in ocean conditions. However, if you plan on spending time in the waters of the Lost Coast, you will want to have an immersion/exposure suit on as well due to the extremely low water temperatures of the North Pacific.

Type II jackets may turn you face up and are ideal for inshore and near-coastal use (but not the Lost Coast!).Offshore, you might wish you had something larger on.

Type III PFDs are for inland waters or when you expect to be out of the water in quick fashion.Type III includes float coats and “sports” PFDs that are slender and allow good maneuverability.

Type V PFDs are considered “special use” PFDs and include work vests, hybrids and Type III vests that are modified with an integral harness and other equipment.

Many manufactures now offer very low profile inflatable life vests for coastal and offshore use – some meet Type II requirements and may have an integral harnesses built in to them for clipping yourself into a jackline.

I realize that asking someone to wear a Type I vest whenever they are onboard a vessel is not very realistic. I certainly encourage carrying Type I jackets on board for those scenarios when you have time to plan your overboard excursion, but the size and bulk of a Type I jacket makes most deck work impractical. If you haven’t tried on a new Type III or V PFD lately, you might find them surprisingly comfortable and friendly to performing deck work while you wear them. Kokatat, based in Arcata, is one of the top sport PFD manufactures in the country. Their PFDs are made here in Humboldt County and are known for their comfort and performance.

What do I have on my boat when sailing? I rarely sail with more than four persons on board. Therefore, I carry four Type I jackets in a cockpit locker for abandon ship scenarios. I also carry four Type III/V PFDs – two low-profile inflatable vests and two lifejackets. I always wear my Kokatat Type V PFD while on board. I personally prefer the non-inflatable vest for two reasons .One, inflatable vests must be maintained and serviced and, two, I like having a built-in back pad strapped to my back while sailing and working on the boat.

The Coast Guard (and this sailor) encourages all boaters and mariners to wear some sort of PFD while on board a vessel. Overboard falls are never planned and the moment you leave the safety of your vessel for the water, you will be glad you are wearing a PFD of any type when you end up getting wet. A comfortable Type III vest might be all you need to keep yourself afloat for a critical few extra minutes while you wait for your shipmates to pick you up or for a rescue from the Coast Guard.

Just like your seatbelt, the best time to wear a PFD is before you actually need it because you never know exactly when you will need it.

Useful websites:

[Editor's Note: Please share with our readers what you know that will enhance the experience of wetting a line in Northern California or Southern Oregon waters. What have you learned? Your expertise, no matter where you fish (fresh or saltwater) or what species you target, could be invaluable to other anglers. What not to do is just as important as what to do. Please send your strategies, ideas, tips, techniques and personal experiences to Please include your name and hometown.]

Todd Vorenkamp is a 1996 graduate of the US Merchant Marine Academy has served as a naval aviator flying search and rescue missions in four different helicopters. He maintains an unlimited tonnage merchant marine license and owns a sailboat.

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