Rhumb Lines March 2012 Issue

Help Us Design a Better PFD/harness

Do try this at home: Don your favorite inflatable-PFD/harness and inflate it. Donít waste a gas cartridge; use the oral inflation tube. Wade into the water. A pool is fineómake sure it is still shallow enough to stand. Now, imagine you are underneath an overturned hull and are trying to escape. Try to swim beneath the surface as you might do to get out from under the turtled boat. You donít have to dive deep, the imaginary overturned boat could be as small as a dinghy.

Canít dive? Of course not, youíve got 30 pounds of buoyancy keeping you above water. Your fully inflated PFD is working just like it is supposed to.

Now try to deflate your PFD enough so you are able to dive under water. It helps if you have small fingers, small enough to release the valve inside the oral inflation tube. How long did that take? In perfect conditions, it took me about 30 seconds, but even then, there was still enough air in the vest to make it a challenge to get under water.

The next test is not for the faint of heart. While you are still in the water, attach your safety tether to your harness. Imagine you are tethered to the capsized boat and must get free. Imagine it is night. Imagine it is rough. Try to pull the lanyard on the tetherís quick release snap-shackle.

Can you easily reach the lanyard? I doubt you can. It is probably buried beneath the tightly inflated bladders. Good thing that the snap shackle isnít loaded, with the tether pulled taught between your body and the boat as it tosses in rough seas. If this were the case, you might not be able to release the shackle, even if you could locate it. The lanyard is simply too small to grip and apply the force needed to open the snap shackle when it is under load.

Witness: Your life jacket has become a death jacket.

I can understand why some would not want us to harp on the problems with todayís personal safety gear. The risks associated with our sport are already overblown in the imaginations of non-sailors, why make it worse? And why would anyone want to knock PFDs?

As weíve found in our own testing, a well-designed PFD/harness can be a true lifesaver in the kinds of situations a sailor will most likely encounter. Really, what are the odds of winding up underneath an overturned hull? Or wishing you could deflate your PFD in the water?

No one is knocking the importance of harnesses and PFDs. But you donít need to look very far to recognize that PFD/harness and tether designs for sailing could use a makeover. While similar equipment used in sports like kite-boarding, rock climbing, and skydiving have seen significantóin some cases revolutionaryóchanges, sailors have been stuck with the same basic design for a decade or more. And from the little experiment I describe above, it seems like few PFD makers have given much thought to releasing from the boat once the bladders are inflated.

One solution: a good sharp knife that can be used with one hand. Yes, a knife is a good last resort, but it shouldnít be the first. I think that by putting our heads together, PS and our readers can come up with a better design. So thatís just what weíre doing. Based on input we will gather from sailors, designers, and safety experts over the next few months, we hope to come up with a better PFD/harness and tether design.

If you take the time to try our little experiment and think you might have some ideas for a better PFD/harness and tether setup, let us know at practicalsailor@belvoirpubs.com. No, thereís no prize, just due credit and the personal satisfaction of knowing youíve helped move the sport of sailing one more step forward. And thatís always a good thing.

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