Editorial October 1, 2001 Issue

Wrestling With PFDs

We have a good article on PFDs this month, and it's worried me every time I've looked at it. These worries can probably be attributed to the fact that I live in the Northeast Corridor, where we're vastly overpopulated and over-regulated.

Not that I'm making pipe bombs in the basement or anything, but I can easily imagine a day when we're all required to wear PFDs all the time. If it happens, it will be a sad day, not because it's a bad idea to wear a PFD all the time, but because it'll be one more obstacle to our ability to go out and drown in peace, without having someone alongside with badges and radios and firearms, making sure we're doing it by the book.

I have a good PFD. I wear it more and more these days, especially when I'm alone on a boat with no one else around, or when the water is particularly cold. Even so, I resent it, mostly because I resent all the rules that have made me aware that if I don't wear it, and I drown, I will die a forewarned fool, having done something heartless and stupid and irresponsible and left my family in a poor state. And it bothers me to realize that I will then have become a statistic that some people will be able to point to and say, "There! See? Need more rules!"

My death would only encourage them. That alone is enough to make me wear a life jacket. I'd wear it in the shower if I thought it would stem the torrent of safety rules and restrictions, most of which start out as decent ideas, then get tied to laws, and are therefore immediately tied to liability and litigation. (See the Mailport letters in the last couple of months regarding EPIRB battery replacement.)

Pretty soon we're all going to be required to wear helmets in the supermarket in case a can of apricots topples off a shelf. Then it'll be strongly recommended that we wear safety glasses when we brush our teeth, in case we miss our mouths and poke ourselves in the eye. After that you won't be able to buy a toothbrush without proof of eye protection, and Procter and Gamble will develop a line of disposable brushing goggles animated by Disney characters. But then somebody will manage to swallow a set of goggles, and we'll start all over again.

There's a school of thought that would say, "If just one life can be saved by the enactment of an Always-On PFD Law, it will be worth it." It sounds noble, but it's craven. A life is worth a great deal, but the freedom of everyone else to exercise common sense is worth something, too.

Thank you for bearing with that Yankee rant. Now, on to more practical matters, as befits us: Our PFD article tells you about the requirements and types available, and about what we found when we put them on and jumped in the water. I would only add a couple of thoughts:

Wear a PFD any time you feel it might be prudent. For some, that will be all the time, and that's great. Not only will it help keep you from drowning; it will provide warmth and protection. PFDs are comfortable these days. Some have pockets. Some you can wear like a set of braces. Some you can carry in a belt pack. Some are coats. Some are as cozy as cottages with central heating, as those who have spent a day or two in a Mustang exposure suit will attest.

Whatever PFD you decide to make your own, put it on, as we say in the article, as if you mean itócinch it up tight and see if it's still comfortable. If it inflates, inflate it. Blow a CO2 or two.

If you've ever tried to climb over the side of an inflatable dinghy with a PFD on, you know that feeling of trying to pull yourself up and falling back, defeated, thinking, "What if this had been serious? What if this were a life raft?" So also get good at taking the PFD off in a hurry.

Wearing PFDs is second-nature to a generation of young sailors today. They think nothing of it; they don't wrestle the issue. That's good. Sort of.

-Doug Logan

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