Carroll County Times
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Safety on the water begins with PFD

I dutifully raised my right hand and pledged: "I will not take out my kayak again without wearing a PFD."

A PFD is a personal floatation device, the main topic of the press briefing held jointly by the Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) on April 20 at Sandy Point State Park. The "administrator" of my pledge was Julie Brown, NRP Boating Education Coordinator.


First speaker, NRP Superintendent Colonel Robert K. Ziegler, Jr., stated the urgency of this briefing was the fact that there had been four boating-related drownings in the prior 16-day period from craft ranging from a 43-foot cabin cruiser to a kayak. Like the nine drownings of last year, none of these victims was wearing a PFD. In most of these cases, PFDs had been on the watercraft, as required by law, but the boaters couldn't get them on in time, a feat especially difficult in cold waters. Ziegler noted the water temperature at the Bay Bridge that day, the day before the opening of the rockfish season, was 49.3 degrees, 10 degrees cooler than this day last year.

By contrast, Ziegler recounted the near miraculous case of a man off the mouth of the South River earlier this year who fell from his kayak. He was wearing his PFD and managed to stay with the kayak. He was in the cold waters for three hours in gathering darkness, before finally being rescued with a dangerous level of hypothermia.


Commander Sara Wallace, Chief of the Enforcement Sector of the USCG in Baltimore, then provided this boating guidance:

Wear an appropriate and well-maintained PFD, a point repeated several times.

Carry a VHF radio dialed to channel 16 for emergencies.

File a float plan and boat with a buddy.

Dress appropriately: A dry suit or wet suit is life-saving in cold water. Hypothermia can be quickly fatal.

Check the weather before setting out.

Take a free boating course with the Coast Guard Auxiliary. See

Both agencies vowed to increase boating surveillance in the coming days.


After the formal presentation I interviewed Julie Brown for advice on PFDs. She repeated the theme of the best PFD is the one you wear: "Be prepared, don't get prepared." After you're in the water, trying to get a PFD from the watercraft and put it on, especially in cold water, is nearly impossible. The technology of PFDs has improved greatly in recent years, so you can find comfortable models appropriate for your boating activity.

Probably the simplest, safest, low-maintenance and affordable types are foam-filled models and are the best choices for children and for white water tubing, rafting, water skiing, paddle boarding and kayaking. These should "fit like a glove" and can be tested for snugness by inserting thumbs into the shoulder strap and pulling up; the vest should not ride up. (This test is better done by a second party.)

These PFDs for also include specialized models. I tried on an NRS Chinook kayaking/fishing model at REI outdoor store and found it remarkably comfortable with fishing vest pockets adequate for most anglers.

For people desiring more freedom of movement there are models that can be inflated by a mouth tube or a CO2 cartridge. Inflatables are not permissible for children under 16 or for water skiers or operators of personal watercraft, nor are they suitable for non-swimmers. Automatic/manual models inflate by an emergency handle or upon contact with water, providing safety if one becomes unconscious. But, despite improvements, they can be triggered inadvertently by rain, splashing, even heavy fog. Manual models can only be inflated by the mouth tube or pulling on the emergency handle to active the cartridge.

Most inflatables are suspender/vests, but there are also belt pack types. For the latter, there is a two-step process, first pulling the handle to activate the cartridge inflating the vest and then pulling the vest over the head and tying the neck closure. Inflatables should be worn with perhaps a two-finger gap from the body to allow for inflation.

Good inflatables have a light indicator showing whether the cartridge is charged. They usually cost in the $100 to $150 range, and cartridges must be replaced after one use at a cost of $10-30 (still cheap life insurance). (Theoretically one can board airlines with the cartridges. The reality is they may be confiscated, so the best bet is to buy new cartridges at a destination site.)


I mostly fish from several kayaks in ponds, reservoirs and slow moving rivers and wade fish in moderate current rivers. In reviewing my options, and in honor of my pledge to Julie, I opted for a top quality belt pack inflatable that also carries an emergency whistle and got a back up cartridge. This PFD requires two-step implementation but is the least burdensome to wear, meets all Coat Guard requirements and may save my life. When fishing from a powerboat, I may opt for wearing a PFD provided by the captain that's better suited for higher speed boating.

Maryland safety equipment requirements can be found at:

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Some notable excerpts: "Life jackets are required on non-motorized vessels including canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and any other device capable of being used as a means of transportation on the water or ice." This also includes float tubes and inner tubes.

"If an inflatable life jacket is to be counted toward minimum carriage requirements, it must be worn and may be carried instead of another type of life jacket only if used according to the approval conditions on the label."

See also "Children's Life Jacket Requirements" including:

"All children under the age of 13 must WEAR a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket (Type I, II, III, or V) while underway on a recreational vessel under 21 feet in length on Maryland waters."


I recommend visiting a boating/kayak store for advice and fitting of a PFD.