Don't cast off need for life jackets

A couple of weeks ago on the Pacific Ocean off San Diego, a $3 million America's Cup boat broke in half and sank within two minutes, sending 17 crew members overboard into cold, rough water. And while there were life jackets aboard oneAustralia, none of the crew was wearing one and none had time to put one on before going over the side.

A few days later, when the Australian team went to the race course in their back-up boat, all were wearing life jackets -- but then they removed the personal flotation devices when the racing began.


John Bertrand, skipper of oneAustralia, said at the time that the crew was being funny while wearing PFDs.

However, on that blustery Sunday when their boat broke in half, the joke was nearly on them, and the Australians sent out the wrong message when they returned to the race course and then took off their life jackets.


PFDs can't save anyone if they are packed away below decks, and somewhere in a $25 million budget certainly there is money to be spent on the best and least obtrusive PFDs money can buy.

Accidents happen, and preparation is mandatory for all boaters, whether sailing a 75-foot racing machine, paddling a canoe on flat water or heading out on the local lake or reservoir for a day of fishing.

According to federal statistics, more than 80 percent of boating accidents happen in open motorboats, jon boats, kayaks, canoes and other small boats -- and 77 percent of those accidents occur on sheltered waters.

On May 1, boats under 16 feet will be required to have on board one wearable PFD for each person aboard, which is a change from the requirement that such boats need have only throwable devices on board.

In July 1993, the Bailey family of two adults and seven children gathered their gear and got into the family's 14-foot boat for a day of fishing on the calm waters of the Fourche Lafave River near Perryville, Ark.

Within minutes, the boat foundered and seven of the Baileys drowned.

And while the boat was laden with coolers, fishing gear and twice the legal load of 600 pounds, no PFDs of any kind were on board.

According to federal statistics, nearly 70 percent of boating fatalities occur because victims found themselves in the water without warning or preparation. An estimated 75 percent of drowning victims would have survived had they been wearing a PFD.


In December 1994, six Washington State waterfowl hunters made several trips to get themselves and their gear to Brown's Island in the Columbia River. Later in the day, when a storm front moved in, the six decided to return from the island -- and the six loaded themselves and their gear into a 14-foot jon boat and tried to make one trip back across the river, now roiled by stormy weather.

Four men died after the boat swamped and capsized. No PFDs were aboard.

Last summer, shortly after the start of the Governor's Cup sailing race from Annapolis to St. Mary's City, an experienced racer was hit in the head by a boom as the racing boat he was on gybed unexpectedly in rough, following seas.

The man was knocked overboard and an autopsy showed that probably a PFD would not have saved his life because his head injuries were so severe. Still, without a PFD in the conditions that existed that evening, finding and recovering any crew overboard quickly and efficiently is more difficult that it could be.

The problem with PFDs, of course, is that they can be uncomfortable and hinder freedom of movement while on a boat, especially a small boat. Part of the comfort problem is poor fit; another part of the problem is expense.

Most boaters spend comparatively less on their PFDs than they do on their fish finders or jib sheets. But if a fish finder fails, it can be repaired or replaced. If a jib sheet breaks during competition, the race might be lost. If a PFD fails, you could lose your life.


Children's PFDs present special problems, and proper fit and type are especially important. Take the time to take your child with you when buying his or her PFD. Make certain there is a strap that passes from the back of the PFD through the crotch to the front of the PFD. The crotch strap will keep the PFD riding at the proper level, and the PFD can then keep the child's head above water -- and make the kids wear them.

For adults, there are many PFD options, from the 50 to 100 mph impact vests that professional bass fishermen are required to wear to the inflatable PFDs that are becoming more popular with adult boaters.

The most important factors of PFDs, however, are amount of flotation and the life jacket's ability to turn an unconscious boater face up in the water and support the head and neck. The top-of-the-line PFD is the Type I or offshore vest, a bulky, uncomfortable life jacket that has the best chance of saving a life when worn properly.

Type II PFDs are used a great deal in the Chesapeake Bay and inshore waters. They are inexpensive, more comfortable than Type Is, but provide less flotation and might not right a tired or unconscious person.

Type III PFDs are popular, especially among water skiers and active boaters, and normally will keep a conscious person upright in the water. They usually have little neck or head support.

Type IVs are throwable devices such as horseshoes, rings or seat cushions and are meant for temporary use.


Type V PFDs are special-purpose devices approved for specific activities and include the hybrid PFDs that use both flotation belts and inflatable chambers. The hybrids can be the most expensive PFDs, and they probably are the most comfortable to wear full time.

This season, take the time and spend the money to update your PFDs with Coast Guard-approved devices -- and then make the effort to wear them.

A PFD doesn't have a chance to save your life if it isn't being worn.