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Do You Wear a Life Jacket?

Posted by on January 21, 2013

Do you wear a life jacket?

This is almost as controversial a subject as choosing an anchor.  (We won’t go into that:  too dangerous.)

Wearing or not wearing a “personal flotation devise” (PFD) is a choice that should be considered carefully.

In our cruising waters (the Pacific NW) sometimes it’s an easy decision.  The water here is COLD  and survival time for a man overboard can be measured in minutes.  So when the wind comes up and the sailing gets good we  put on PFD’s, even close to shore.  Swimming any significant distance in 55-65 degree water is unlikely.  Plus, if the ambient air temperature is 65 to 75 degrees, a comfortable life vest keeps you much warmer.

If you choose not to wear a PFD (as is common) please be extra careful on your boat.  Stay in the cockpit and stay alert to sudden wind changes.  If you have to leave the cockpit for any reason put on your PFD.  It only takes a few seconds.

When you are riding in your dinghy wearing your PFD is mandatory (in Washington State) and State Park Rangers will never miss a friendly reminder if you are spotted without one.

My favorite example of a good decision occurred on our first trip around Vancouver Island.  While tied to a buoy in an exposed anchorage during a big blow, I spotted a fellow cruiser’s dinghy break free and start to blow away.  I quickly began to prepare for a rescue.  Mary saw me and said, “Put on a Lifejacket”.   I replied, “Good idea.  Bring one up”.

With my vest securely on I ventured forth in our 12′ inflatable.  I motored to our neighbor’s errant dinghy and tied its painter to my stern.  As soon as I turned toward their boat the 30 knot wind flipped me bow over stern, landing me in the cold water, underneath my formerly dry cockpit.  Fully clothed, wearing boots, and instantly cold.

But aided by the flotation from the vest I was able to swim clear, remove my heavy boots, pick up floating gear (oars, fuel tank, etc.) and climb into the neighbor’s dinghy that was still floating upright.  I was able to use the wind to flip my inflatable back over.  Then I started the neighbor’s engine (ours was waterlogged) and motored back to Mary with our dinghy in tow while she stood watching in shock.

The whole incident probably took 15 minutes and the last second decision to put on that PFD  probably saved my life.

The discussion continues regarding mandatory wearing of life jackets on boats.  The National Boating Safety Advisory Council has asked the Coast Guard to consider mandating that anyone aboard a boat less than 18-feet long be required to wear a life jacket when underway. In addition it asks that all those being towed in water sports, riding personal watercraft, or in human-powered boats of any length be required to wear life jackets as well.  For more details and an opportunity to comment see the full article in Boat US Magazine.

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