There are several pieces of important safety gear that paddlers should have with them, the most important of which is a US Coast Guard-approved life jacket or PFD (personal flotation device). A life jacket is legally required in most jurisdictions. An exception to this law would be paddlers using a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) as a surfboard in the surf zone. However, many big wave surfers are now making it a habit to wear a life jacket when surfing. Since it is the recommendation of the creators of this site that all paddlers wear a life jacket at all times when on the water, it is worthwhile to do some research to find one that is comfortable and works well for your purposes so that you will never be tempted to paddle without it. Like all the gear you carry with you, you want to know how to use your life jacket properly so that you gain full advantage from wearing it.
Retiring a Life Jacket
Awhile back, as I was getting my equipment ready before a class, I noticed a tear in the fabric around the neck of my life jacket. I snapped some photos and then went to grab another PFD’s that I could wear for class.
I retired this jacket from use on “open water” like Lake Michigan several years previous due to obvious fading of the fabric. However, I continued to use it for teaching on inland lakes and rivers since all the fabric and closures were intact and it floated me comfortably during rescue practice whenever I tested it. I was actually kind of curious to see just how long this life jacket would last as I had never taken a PFD all the way to material failure. As it turned out, this life jacket lasted about 12 years from the time I bought it to when it finally tore. I did a lot of paddling and teaching in those 12 years, so my life jacket probably took a lot more abuse and was exposed to a great deal more sunlight than the average person would expose it to. Here in the Midwest where we don’t have to contend with the corrosive effects of saltwater, it is UV exposure and/or mildew that is the biggest destroyer of fabric. You can see how hard UV exposure is on a life jacket when you compare my jacket on the right to a similar life jacket that I purchased for my son at the same time I bought mine. These two PFD’s were originally the same color. My son quickly outgrew his jacket so it spent most of its life unused in our basement out of the sun.
So what’s the point of this little trip down memory lane? First of all, it should be obvious that a life jacket is a pretty durable piece of equipment that will give you many years of hard service, so don’t be afraid to spend some money to get a good one. I wasted money on some of my early life jackets. Although they were less expensive, they either weren’t comfortable or didn’t have the features I needed like pockets. As a result, I was buying a new jacket every few years during my first decade of kayaking even though I was paddling a lot less than I do now. Even if you end up spending $150 to get a good life jacket that fits well and has all the bells and whistles you need for paddling, that still breaks down to $25 per year over 6 years. Most paddlers will easily get 6 years out of a life jacket if they take reasonable care of it. When you consider that according to boating fatality statistics wearing a life jacket is the single most important thing you can do to prevent a drowning death, that’s pretty cheap life insurance.
The other important point to take away from my experience is that you need to be inspecting your gear closely before, during, and after every paddling season. I knew this jacket was going to fail eventually, so towards the end I only used it in very benign conditions on inland waterways. I also kept a spare life jacket available to replace it as soon as I saw the tear that marked the end of this jacket’s useful life. I read an article in Sea Kayaker magazine about a rescue that was in large part a result of a series of equipment failures in old, worn out gear, it’s important to remember that your life may depend on the condition of ALL your gear including your life jacket.
To extend the life of your PFD, store the jacket out of the sun when it is not in use and make sure to allow it to dry thoroughly before putting it away to prevent mildew. High temperatures can cause the foam to lose buoyancy, so don’t leave your life jacket in a hot car or other locations where the temperature will climb well above 100°F. When you stop for lunch on shore, don’t use your life jacket as a seating cushion. This potentially damages the fabric and compresses the foam which also reduces buoyancy. Regularly test your life jacket to make sure it is still floating you adequately. At a minimum, this should be done at the beginning of every paddling season. It is best if you do it several times during the season. All you need to do is put the jacket on and go swimming or do some rescue practice. It should be pretty obvious to you if you are having trouble keeping your mouth above the water or if you have to actively tread water to stay on the surface. Long before your PFD starts to look as faded and worn as mine, it’s time for you to retire it to less demanding service like winter pool practice. Get yourself a new life jacket for use out on the water.
Article written by Sherri Mertz