Personal Flotation Devices



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Whether called life jackets, life vests, life preservers, Mae Wests or Personal Floatation Devices ( PFDs), this equipment is one of the essential Ps of kayaking. PFDs provide individualized floatation assistance. The Coast Guard states 85% of all drowning deaths were preventable if the victim had worn a PFD..




A PFD is one of the essential Ps of safe kayaking -

Plan - A formal float plan and a good strategic plan for the paddle

Partner - Some to help in case of trouble

PFD - A Personal Floatation device

Practice - Experience and practice performing rescues under conditions likely to be encountered

Protection - Cold water kills, wear proper clothing

Preparation - Safety and rescue equipment available and reachable for each participant




Type I - Off-Shore Life Jacket

These devices have in excess of 20 pounds of positive buoyancy. Frequently with high collars and floatation high on the torso, they are designed to turn an unconsciuos person to a vertical or slightly backward position. This category of PFD is the best at keeping the user afloat in large and rough seas for extended periods of time. It will keep an unconscious user from drowning. These PFDs are large and bulky and may constrict paddling movements.




Type II - Near-Shore Buoyant Vest

Usually less bulky than Type I PFDs these devices have a minimum floatation of 15.5 pounds and are also designed to right an unconscius or disable wearer. They are not well secured to the body and therefore are suitable only in relatively calm inland waters.




Type III - Flotation Aid

Less bulky and more comfortable, these PFDs will not right the user from a face down position. They have a minimum of 15.5 lbs floatation. Almost all kayaking PFDs are of this type.




Type IV - Throwable Device

These devices are meant to be thrown to someone in the water. they are not to be worn, but rather held to the chest for immediate assistance. Canoes and kayaks are exempt from requiring throwable devices. All other vessels greater than 16ft must have at least one on board.






Type V - Special Use Device

These are wearable devices approved only for certain activities as described by the attached label. Work vests, board sailing vest and inflatable vests are of this type.

The Coast guard requires that:

  1. The device be the appropriate size
  2. Be in good servicable condition - no rips. missing straps or buckles or broken zippers
  3. Coast Guard Approved with a legible tag showing the classification.

The last point frequently is a problem for kayakers as the tag on the inside back of the jacket is rapidly worn by the rotating motion of a proper paddling stroke. When the tag of your PFD is illegible, the PFD is illegal EVEN IF THE PFD IS IN GOOD CONDITION OTHERWISE. This can get you into trouble with the Coast Guard if your run into certain personalities.

It is important that PFDs be worn not just carried. A PFD on the back deck is of little use when you go over. Remember that immersion in cold water is extremely dangerous. Cold water numbs the extremities bery quickly. It may not be possible to retrieve and put on a PFD in cold water. PFDs should always be worn when kayaking in cold water. Rough conditions may also prevent you from reaching and donning a PFD kept on the back deck. A PFD stowed in a compartment under a hatch may as well not be there.

Fit is important in a good kayaking PFD. The torso should be short so that the bottom of the PFD does not chaffe against the cockpit skirt.. The Zippers on the PFD should be large and non-corroding. The straps should be made of nylon with a plastic buckle on each of several different straps, incase of failure on anyone buckle or strap. The more adjustable the device the better. Adjustments on the shoulder straps will help to keep the PFD from riding up. It is also good to have mesh pockets and tie downs on the jacket to hold safety equipment that is best carried on your person, such as strobe lights, flares, signal mirror or flashlight. Remember that extra weight in the PFD pockets might mean less bouyancy.

Testing your PFD.

To test your PFD, adjust it for a comfortable snug fit. In shallow water, relax your body and tilt your head back. Make syre your PFD keeps at least your chin above water. For use in cold water, it is much better if the PFD supplies enough flotation to keep your head completely out of the water. Test the PFD using the H.E.L.P. position used in hypothermia prevention. Can you maintain that position with turning over? If not try the SURVIVAL position (Legs pressed together and arms tight to your sides). Could you maintain one of those positions in rough waves and wind? Make sure that the PFD does not ride up, reducing its effectiveness.

Caring for your PFD.

To keep your PFD in good condition:

  1. Do not alter your PFD in any way. If it does not fit, get one that does. An altered PFD is a dangerous as well as illegal PFD.
  2. Do not use your PFD for a kneeling pad, fender or cushion. PDS's lose buoyancy when crushed.
  3. Rinse your PFD after use in salt water. let it dry throughly before storing it.
  4. Do not store PFD aboard for long periods of time.
  5. Never dry out your PFD with any heat source such as a radiator or heater.

Checking your PFD

Check your PFD regularly for rips, tears, and holes. Check that seams, fabric straps and hardware are in good condition. Tug on straps to make sure they are still securely fastened to the body of the PFD. Bouyancy material should be waterfree without mildew odor. There should be no apparent shrinkage. If your PFD uses kapok bags, squeeze them and listen for air leaks. If there is one replace the PFD. Faded material can ndicate loss of strength of the body material. Test each PFD at least at the beginning of every season.


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EVEN THE BEST BOATERS CAN FIND THEMSELVES IN SERIOUS TROUBLE ON THE MILDEST OF DAYS ON THE WATER. PARTICIPATION IN THIS SPORT IS A STRENUOUS ACTIVITY. CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN BEFORE UNDERTAKING ANY SUCH ACTIVITY. PLEASE BE AWARE THAT EACH BOATER TAKES FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR HIS OR HER OWN SAFETY, AND IS TOTALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR ASSESSING THE DANGER LEVEL AND ACCEPTING THE CONSEQUENCES OF PARTICIPATING IN THIS SPORT.


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