Reflections from the Cockpit "Using your PFD"
June 2002

In light of another unfortunate death in the sea kayaking community I decided to focus this month's reflections on using your PFD. For those of you not familiar with the term PFD it stands for Personal Floatation Device which in many circles is synonymous for a Life Jacket (please read note below regarding the term life jacket).The U.S. Coast Guard requires all water craft to have a PFD for each occupant or passenger. However, they do not require the PFD's to be worn. That decision is left entirely up to you when you are kayaking if you are not under some other regulations (classes, guided tours, national parks...).

As a kayaking instructor I require my students to wear their PFD's at all times while in the class. When I am guiding I require all participants to wear their PFD's. To be perfectly honest the two motivating factors are safety and liability. The safety aspect is not only for the participant who is wearing the jacket it is also safer for the group in the event of an incident or accident. This way the group will be less likely to have to deal with negative consequences as a result of someone not wearing their PFD. The liability aspect is self explanatory.

I want to focus my attention to the individual paddlers who do not wear their PFD's. First let me make it clear I am not here to preach. I freely admit to paddling many times in my career without wearing my PFD. Many of those times I was paddling solo. Later in this reflection I will also discuss times when not wearing a PFD may be the wiser choice. Also, their may be times when your PFD is needed for another purpose.

The most recent death (as I understand the report) had a sit on top paddler slump over and fall into the water. When his partner got to him he was gone. His body was found later. Could his PFD have kept him above the water (if he was wearing it) so he could have possibly been saved? One of the many sad parts of this story is the victim left behind a wife (they were recently married) and family. I know of two other instances where the paddlers disappeared because they were not wearing their PFD. Both of those accidents had wives and families left behind to grieve the loss of their loved one.

When I think about these three unfortunate accidents I can appreciate the feelings of the paddlers for not wearing their PFD's. My excuses for not wearing my PFD were: too hot, too restrictive, I wanted to feel more free on the water, I needed it as a back rest, I could get to it if I needed it and I just don't feel like wearing one. Do I like wearing my PFD? No, I do not. I would prefer to have the freedom I feel when I am not wearing it. However, I also feel for the ones who have to deal with the loss. I cannot say that wearing a PFD would have definitely saved the lives of these three paddlers. The truth is we will never know. I do believe there would have been a better chance for survival it they were wearing a PFD because they would have been above the water which could have provided more opportunities for survival.

Over the past few years I have reevaluated my priorities and my responsibilities to myself and others. Even though I have practiced putting my PFD on in the water under all kinds of conditions I have to admit it is impossible to do when you are unconscious. Once you admit to the possibility that you could be rendered unconscious without significant warning then you may start rethinking your desire to paddle without wearing your PFD. Possibilities for sudden unconsciousness are: heart attack, stroke, seizure, dehydration, hit by motorized craft, impact from large marine life, allergic reaction to marine organism when hands or body are in the water (i.e.: jelly fish type creatures, electric rays,...), hit by your own kayak or partner's kayak in a surf zone, hitting a submerged object... only to mention a few.

I love my wife dearly. If she were to pass away suddenly I would be devastated. She tells me she feels the same way about me. (Although I do wonder why the sudden increase in my life insurance, by her request.) Knowing how I would feel convinced me to minimize the possibilities of making my wife a widow and put her through what I would never want to feel. To put this in perspective, I still do things that are high risk but I also calculate the possibilities. However, losing my life over a decision of wearing a PFD is a no brainer. "Put up with a little discomfort Wayne and wear the PFD!!!" are my words to myself.

I also believe we all have a collective responsibility to the kayaking community at large. The more incidents, accidents and fatalities there are in a sport the more the government sticks its nose in and begins regulating. Let's avoid that one.

The fewer times we have to call out for a rescue agency the better I feel about it. I am concerned for those people who have to come out looking for you. Just this morning I heard of a helicopter crash while they were trying to assist some climbers on Mount Hood. The report said the helicopter crew were badly hurt. Know that others will be put at risk looking for you or your body.

Now that I have stated my case for wearing your PFD's let me discuss times when you may need to remove a PFD or maybe not even wear one. This is where we get into judgment and unusual circumstances. I believe discussing varying view points and possible alternatives and consequences are important. There are times tough decisions need to be made. I will make my points by sharing true stories with you.

I have a good friend who was paddling off the coast of Maine. The water was cold and even though he is an experienced paddler he went out NOT dressed for immersion. The short version of the story has him getting tossed out of his kayak and unsuccessfully trying to re-enter and roll. He was very cold and banged up because the waves took him over a rock ledge. He is here today because he used his PFD as a paddle float. (You see, being an experienced paddler he didn't think to bring a paddle float. Don't think I ever let him live that one down.) Here was a decision of getting back into the kayak or succumb to exposure. Be careful when using your PFD as a paddle float because it is not easy to keep it on the paddle.

I have friends who specialize in playing in rock gardens. I have to say they are the best ones I know of this breed. Some of them do not wear PFD's because they want to be able to swim under a wave instead of being picked up by the wave and smashed on the rocks. These same folks wear full helmets, wetsuits for some buoyancy and body armor when they play. They are making calculated choices.

A PFD can be used to help tow a swimmer who is not wearing one (see Swimmer Assists). The choice is, do you give up yours to save the other person who does not have one or keep it on yourself? If you have a wetsuit you do have some floatation but it is a difficult choice to make.

Whether you chose to wear your PFD at all times or not is up to you. Regardless of your choice I ask you to go out and practice taking off your PFD and putting it on while you are in the water (calm water near shore with someone backing you up.) I also ask you to try putting a PFD on someone who is acting unconscious. Do it from the water and try to do it while you are in your kayak and they are in the water. It is rare you will ever need these skills but if you do, prior practice could save a life. While you are at it, try a paddle float recovery with you PFD. Again, this is a back up to be used as a last resort. It is much smarter to carry a reliable paddle float and check it regularly if it is an inflatable one.

I will finish with my belief in maintaining my equipment and some equipment thoughts. My PFD is NOT a seat. I wash it in fresh water after each use if I am near fresh water. I air dry it out of the UV. My PFD has a pouch for a water bladder. It also has a cowtail (short towing leash.) Reflective tape is a great thing on a PFD. Don't attach your whistle to your zipper (snags when you climb on the kayak.) With all the great designs they now have for PFD's it is a sin if you have one that does not fit properly.


Note about life jacket - I was contacted by Francis Casey one of our Canadian readers and Francis pointed out the term Life Jacket is used specifically for a wearable floatation device that floats you with your head above water. All PFD's cannot make that claim. There are different types of PFD's. I rechecked my sources and most of them use the term life jacket and PFD interchangeably. However, the Canadian Coast Guard web site makes a distinction between the two. They do confirm Francis' objection to the statement I made above by calling a PFD a life jacket. Thank you to Franics Casey for pointing out the different use of terms.


Wayne Horodowich


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