|When I decided to do a review of rescue PFDs I sent out invitations to several of the leading PFD manufacturers who were advertising rescue version of PFDs. Rescue PFDs have built in towing and belaying features that allow one to do swift water rope rescues or tows. They are not particularly common and you probably won;t find one in your local paddling store.. Most manufacturers only offer one model, if any, in their line. We sent out invitations to Stohlquist, Astral, Kokatat and Patagonia. Astral and Patagonia never even replied after several attempts to contact them. Kokatat, normally a very helpful manufacturer, was having a problem with the UL approval on their buckle and had temporarily withdrawn their rescue PFD from the market. Only Stohlquist responded favorably, so I waited in anticipation for the arrival of their vest.
As promised the X-Tract-D vest arrived promptly. I opened the box and my very first impression was "This sucker is big." More specifically it was fat and flat. Two chunks of foam of nearly constant 2" thickness made up the front and a nearly identical piece of foam of slightly lesser thickness was on the back. This unit has 16 lbs 10 oz of floatation, about one and a half pounds more floatation than the average Type V paddling PFD.
The vest has two adjustable shoulder straps that continue to the bottom edge of the jacket in front and back. There, on both sides, a stainless shallow oval ring allows for attachment of a crotch strap. I looked in the box for said strap, with visions of shooting out of my kayak like a bull in a Professional Bull Riders contest, but did not find any such mechanism. Apparently the crotch strap is an add on purchase. I wonder if you have to sign a waiver or something. Presumably the crotch strap would keep the vest from riding up and pealing off should the tow/rescue rope start pulling up on the vest - can you say EEEEEEOOOOOOOWWWWW! ( I wonder what their other PFD model feels like - the Wedge-E. ) I am also uncertain how a crotch strap would work when you have a spray skirt on. Normally the top of my spray skirt is up under the PFD, not below it.
One of the continued shoulder straps in front and one in back hold the two inch nylon webbing that makes up the anchor belt. A stainless steel ring serves as the attachment point in the rear for the throw/tow rope. The belt terminates in front with a strong nylon jam buckle with a floating plastic safety release. The other end of the belt may be threaded directly to the jam buckle or routed once or twice through a double slotted metal plate. The more turns the belt needs to make before getting to the jam buckle, the greater the friction of the system and the more strain the system can take. But more friction also means a slower or more difficult release in case of a problem, so the user can decide which level of strain versus ease of release he wants to have. Adjustments can only be made with the tow belt unconnected.
This model is an over the head type, meaning you stick your head up through the straps to put it on. Then a flap with the zipper wraps around the right side and zips up with a large nylon zipper. Once the zip is up then the nylon tow belt can be run through the buckle system. There is an adjustable buckle strap at the bottom of the vest and two adjustable girth straps on each side. Each shoulder strap has its own adjustment buckle.
On the front right in the middle and high on the vest is a lash tap. The right-hand flap with the zipper sports a piece of nylon webbing with a small jam buckle. The left side of the jacket has a mesh pocket closed with a zipper symmetrically placed with the main zipper for the jacket. The pocket has a D ring keyminder on the inside.
The inside of the vest had two sections of no-slip rubber on the top three inches of the foam pad.
Trying it on.
So what should one be looking for in a rescue vest? First of all, it must have the guts to do a proper rescue. The design and materials of the rescue belt must hold up under extreme strain with good comfort and provide a safe and reliable release mechanism for ditching when needed. In this respect this vest makes the grade. The components are strong, positioned properly and designed to keep the vest in place. Under 200 pounds of strain the vest was very comfortable with only slight pressure on the lower ribs and just a bit of squeezing on the side, but still very comfortable. When the rope led vertically up, the vest did ride up some and there was strain on the lower rib cage from the buckled strap at the bottom of the vest. The nonskid material helped the ride up problem. At 200 lbs the vest did not come off or ride up excessively. I am sure that the crotch strap would keep the vest in place. I think I might be more comfortable with the idea of a sling seat to kept this puppy down however. So for the rescue features this vest is fine.
The second thing one looks for in a paddling rescue vest is something that is going to be comfortable and functional for use all day by experienced paddlers who are guiding or are on expeditions. It is here that this vest comes up short.
First of all I don't like over the head type vests. I think they are hard to get on. This one certainly was. The no-slip pieces at the top of the front and back floatation that kept it from coming off under overhead strain also made it that much harder to get on. It isn't cool to be struggling to get your PFD on in front of a bunch of novice kayakers, It doesn't instill confidence. Then the flatness of the floatation piece made it hard to get the zipper to zip. The side adjustment straps wind up way in the back, and they were hard to get to in order to tighten them once in the vest, especially the top one. This contrasts markedly and most annoyingly with the beautifully simple and easy to use cinch strapping system of other Stohlquist models that draw down diagonally across the chest. The bottom strap is also way around the side and hard to reach especially for someone with sore shoulders such as myself.
Another result of the unshaped flatness of the floatation foam as that the front no-slip material actually does not make contact with anything, sticking straight up into the air away from your body. It is only the back no slip piece that is actually doing anything. With the thickness, stiffness and flatness of the front foam, I think there is no way a women with a chest could comfortably use this vest. I also didn't like the feel of the side material as it came into the foam. I found the pressure of the foam edge as I paddled with torso rotation to be annoying. I suppose that the extra foam under the straps makes it more comfortable when the tow belt is under stress, but I think the discomfort of the foam edge all the time is more significant than the comfort under extreme conditions when actually making a rescue. I think that the foam piece should be more sculpted than the little beveling that it has. In fact it should have some curvature to fit around the torso. That might solve several of my complaints.
As this vest is most likely to be worn by guides and other experienced kayakers, the features on this vest need to be better. I didn't like where the lash tab was required to be, high and in the middle. I thought the pocket material was too tight and didn't really allow for enough equipment. The keyminder was a little D ring sewn right into the seam at the front of the pocket. Other Stohlquist models have it on a little nylon tether. That format is much easier to put a key on and stuff further into the pocket. There was no place to put a VHF and there was no provision for a light on the back of the vest. There was good reflective piping on both the front and the back. However, when leading a night paddle guides need to have a light on. Tying it to the strap is possible but having a loop available is better.
In spite of being favorably disposed to this company, and having used one of their PFDs as my personal vest for the last seven years, I can not recommend this model for kayakers. I think most paddling users would be better served picking a vest whose comfort and features are better and then use a separate tow belt/harness seat. If you are looking for a swift water rescue vest, this one would be good.