In 2019, there is no excuse not to wear a PFD (personal flotation device). Unlike an avalanche beacon or ropes and harnesses, a PFD requires no specialized skill or advanced training. It is one of the easiest pieces of safety equipment to use with the biggest return: That is, not drowning. Yet some people still think they are above PFDs.
“I think people who don’t wear PFDs have a distorted sense of risk or they worry about the image or they don’t even have a sense of the risk.” Says Wendell Uglene, Research and Technology Manager of the Canadian life jacket company, Mustang Survival. “It is that, ‘It is not going to happen to me,’ or ‘I’m a good swimmer,’ and they don’t realize that the water is cold. There is only about 20 percent wear rate in the U.S. and Canada.”
Sense of risk is not something manufacturers can control, however, making more streamlined PFDs is something they can do. Far from the life jackets of the past which were typically made from cork and other natural materials like kapok fiber, the invention of polymeric foam and other lightweight, flexible materials that float have vastly changed silhouettes and the comfort of PFDs.
“Fabrics got lighter weight, like nylons that are high tenacity with durable, water-resistant finishes. Lighter stronger fabrics have been the big-big change,” says Uglene. “To make them more comfortable, you have inventions like wicking fabrics which move your sweat around, and spacer materials that allow airflow between the jacket and your skin.”
“For the inflatable life preservers,” Uglene adds, “there are new innovations in inflater technology, that make things lighter weight and smaller and less bulky. We have lighter bladder fabrics and fillers that are used to hold the air that we didn’t have just a few years ago.”
Lili Colby, co-owner of the U.S. life jacket company, MTI Adventurewear agrees. “You don’t have to spend a ton of money, and now there are so many options for all kinds of body types, you just have to do a little digging and try on jackets.”
Brands like Mustang, MTI, Kokatat, Astral, Stohlquist and NRS, to name a few, are design-forward brands that strive to make PFDs as friendly and useful as possible. The bottom-line goal is to convert paddlers into PFD users. If that means adding pockets for smartphones or (in MTI’s case) having vests for dogs that are specially designed for their comfort and their swim strokes, the manufacturers respond to demand.
Colby jokes that she often finds people spend more money on their dogs’ PFDs than their own children’s. “I always see it, parents say their kids will get a hand-me-down, but the dog gets a new jacket.”
Colby likes to call PFDs “prevent freakin drowning,” and loves to hear the stories of when “shit hit the fan” and a choice to wear a PFD actually saved a life.
“That is what it’s worth doing all this for. Go home happy and do not be a headline.”
The Coast Guard’s most recent data (compiled from the 2018 paddling season) show that the vast majority of boating accident fatalities are the result of drowning, and of those (where it could be determined if the victim was wearing a life jacket or not), 84 percent were not wearing a life jacket.
“I will never forget one of our family rafting trips down the Salmon River outside of Riggins, Idaho,” SUP athlete Allison Roskelley says. “I must have been 12 or 13 years old. We were heading toward a stretch of Class V rapids, and when we hit the first wave I toppled out of the raft. I swam pretty gnarly stretches of rapids before, so I knew I needed to put my feet in front of me, not panic, and ride it out. But, I ended up getting caught in a whirlpool that kept pulling me back against a big rock, and no matter how hard I tried to swim out of there, I couldn’t move. Finally, after a handful of tries, it spit me out. I was scared shitless, but the situation could have ended a lot differently had I not had a PFD on.”
You don’t have to be in aggressive waters to die from not wearing a PFD.
“I have two different PFDs I use, which are dependent upon the type of water I’m recreating in,” says Rosskelley. “If I’m on a river paddle trip, I always wear a full vest due to the unpredictability of the water and currents in a river. If I’m on a lake, then I’ll usually just bring my NRS Zephyr inflatable PFD waist belt.”
Yes you can drown in a lake.
“We had approximately six total lake drownings to date this summer,” says Grant Brown, Boating Safety Program Manager for the state of Colorado. “None of the six were wearing a life jacket. Some of these drowning occurred with other boaters nearby, thus wearing a life jacket could have given some of them a chance to have been saved or found quickly. You should at least give yourself a chance to be saved.”
And of course there is the “good swimmer excuse.”
“We often hear that people don’t wear life jackets because they are really good swimmers,” says Brown. “They are only good swimmers when they expect to go swimming. Cold-water immersion can cause a panic response in a majority of people, and how they react in those first few seconds upon entering the water will dictate their odds of survival. Cold-water immersion can occur in water 77 degrees and colder. Majority of lakes in Colorado rarely get above 77 degrees. A lot of our river water comes from direct snowmelt or from the bottom of very deep reservoirs, thus the water is rarely above mid 50s-low 60s during the boating summer months.”
“I think with the advancement with life jacket technology,” Brown adds. “There are so many different types and styles that anyone should be able to find one comfortable enough that they do not mind wearing it regularly. Life jackets and personal floatation devices (PFDs) aren’t only the big bulky orange horse collar-style anymore, which many people still associate with life jacket wear.”
“I am shocked when I see someone on the river without a PFD.” Says NOLS Whitewater Canoe and Raft instructor Sarah Harvey, who has guided in Brazil, India and throughout North America.
“Not wearing a PFD just shows a lack of respect for the river or body of water you are in,” Harvey adds. “Myself, I’m constantly humbled by the power of water.”
The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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