On the Water
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Keeping Afloat

How to find a PFD that's really comfortable
By Mark R. Johnson
Published: February 1, 2005
22C maxum afloat
Photo courtesy Maxum
Saving a life has never been easier. Innovations in personal flotation devices (PFDs) have made them more comfortable than ever. And PFDs do save lives. Of the 703 people who died in boating accidents in 2003, 481 drowned. Of those, 416 lives probably could have been saved if boaters had been wearing a life jacket.
    A PFD is especially crucial when boating in the cold water of early spring. If you are suddenly tossed from the boat, you may be in serious jeopardy even if you don’t hit your head on the way in and even if you are an excellent swimmer.
    Sudden immersion in cold water causes a gasp reflex, which can cause a person to swallow up to 2 or 3 liters of water in one involuntary gulp. Even if the initial gasp is not fatal, the hyperventilation that follows can lead to rapid hypothermia, confusion, disorientation and death. If you are wearing a PFD, your chances of survival increase dramatically.
    And why not wear a PFD? Today there are easy-to-wear units for everyone: slim and trim units that only inflate when you either hit the water or activate them manually; side-vented models with wide arm holes that make fishing more comfortable; anatomically correct models that fit a woman’s figure; and buff-looking, form-fitting neoprene vests for easy movement during water sports.
    Another boating season is under way. Remember the PFDs and save a life – your own or your passengers’ - by following these guidelines.

How Many PFDs Do You Need?
  • The United States Coast Guard says you must have USCG-approved devices on your recreational boat. How many and what type PFDs you’ll need depends on the number of people on board, the size and type of your boat and the kind of boating you do.
  • You must have one of any of these wearable devices for each person on board: Offshore Life Jacket (Type I); Near-Shore Buoyant Vest (Type II); Flotation Aid (Type III); Special Use Device (Type V).
  • Additionally, if your boat is 16 feet or longer, and is not a canoe or kayak, you must also have at least one Throwable Device (Type IV). For example, if there are four people on your 16-foot boat, you must have at least five PFDs – four wearable PFDs and one throwable PFD.
Trying on Your PFD
  • Try on your device to see if it fits comfortably snug. Then test it in shallow water to see how it handles. Check the buoyancy of your PFD in the water by relaxing your body and letting your head tilt back. Make sure your PFD keeps your chin above water and you can breathe easily. If your mouth is not well above the water, get a new unit or one with more buoyancy.
  • A PFD is designed not to ride-up on the body when in the water. But if a wearer’s stomach is larger than the chest, ride-up may occur. Before use, test your device in the water to establish that excessive ride-up does not impair its performance.
  • Be aware: your PFD may not act the same in swift or rough water as in calm water. The clothes you wear and the items in your pockets also may change the way your device works.
Selecting a PFD for a Child
  • Children’s models are sized according to weight range and chest size. Weigh your child and measure his/her chest under the arms before you go to pick one out.
  • Be sure to try the device on the child in the store. If one model does not work well, try another style. Be sure it fits snugly. To test it, lift the child up by the shoulders of the PFD to make sure it will not slip over the chin or ears.
  • If the child does not swim, a Type II device is recommended to help keep the child face up in the water. (It is difficult for a child to float in a face-up position because of the distribution of the body weight and a child’s tendency to struggle or try to climb out of the water.)
  • Crotch straps are particularly important on children’s models, as they keep the PFD in place. They should be used whenever the device is on.
  • Even though a PFD is designed to keep a child afloat, it does not substitute for supervision. Never leave a child unattended near water.
Statistics provided by U.S. Coast Guard
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