Mailport: July 2012
Stearns PFD Woes[IMGCAP(1)]
When I heard of an unfortunate happening during an evening race on Long Island Sound where a crew member who was not wearing a PFD was knocked overboard in the dark and almost did not survive, I decided to check my inflatable PFDs to be sure they were working properly.
I have one inflatable “SOS” (Sospenders brand, model B718CS-60) PFD that I keep on board as a spare, and I check the CO2 cartridge at the beginning of each season. It is then stored in a plastic bag to be used as a spare. When I checked it this time, I found that the cartridge had fired. I was about to replace the cartridge when the thought occurred to me, “Why hadn’t the unit inflated?”
The Velcro used to keep it folded was still in the sealed position. I unfolded it and tried to inflate the PFD by blowing into the manual oral inflation tube, but the PFD’s bladder never filled. Upon inspection, I discovered that the inflation tube had never been fastened to the bladder. I took the PFD to a local plastics design engineer to confirm my observation. He said the tube did not show any evidence of ever having been cemented or heat-sealed to the bladder.
Since Sospenders was acquired by Stearns in 2004, a subsidiary of parent company The Outdoor Co., I contacted Stearns to report the problem and request a replacement. I was told that since the PFD was made prior to the acquisition and was now out of warranty, Stearns would sell me a PFD for the list price minus 20 percent. Their offer was not acceptable, in my opinion. If I was looking for a bargain, I could go online and buy a PFD for less than their offer. Yes, the PFD is many years past the warranty period — however — since the PFD was never used and the defect is not due to age or use, but due to an obvious manufacturing defect, I felt I had the right to expect it to work.
Stearns also informed me that the PFDs should be returned to the company every two or three years for re-certification (if they are USCG certified). I have not been able to find notice of this in any instruction manual, and I doubt any other PS readers are aware of this.
It is fortunate that this PFD was never needed in an emergency, or the results could have been tragic. I wanted to share my experience and to urge other owners of inflatable PFDs to test them using the oral inflation tube.
Your experience is another great reminder that inflatable PFDs should be inspected frequently and regularly. Some makers recommend inspecting them each time you leave the dock. Users should check that the CO2 cartridge, bobbin, and hydrostatic release are in order and that the life jacket can be manually and orally inflated.
Next: Boat Financing