Hidden Risks of Life Jackets

Posted by Darrell Nicholson with Ralph Naranjo at 02:22PM - Comments: (2)

Ralph Naranjo
Ralph Naranjo

PS Editor Darrell Nicholson deflates an auto-inflated personal floatation device underneath a capsized dinghy.

Rule one: Wear a personal flotation device (PFD).

Rule two: Wear the right PFD for your on-the-water activity.

Rule three: Know what to do when your PFD prevents your rescue or self-rescue.

Testing any sailing equipment entails a high degree of responsibility, but this is especially true of safety equipment. A tragic accident off the coast of Costa Rica this week called to mind an important study that Practical Sailor did in March of 2013 on the trouble that life jackets can pose to sailors in the event of a capsize. No one will challenge the fact that life jackets save far, far, more lives than they ever put at risk, and the accident in Costa Rica is proof of this. However, sailors need to be aware that in certain rare circumstances a life jacket can be an impediment to keeping you alive.

In the tense video footage captured by an American tourist we see exactly how it can happen. The added buoyancy of the jacket inhibits the camera person's ability to dive under and get free of the hull and superstructure of the tour boat (a power catamaran, in this case). Alexis Esneault, the 23-year-old law student from Alabama who took the footage said, "I knew enough about swimming that I had to take off my life jacket otherwise I was going to get trapped under the blue canopy. I took it off, the boat went under, and I swam up as the boat sank around me.”

The decision about what type of personal floatation device (PFD) to wear is not straightforward. It involves a careful risk assessment by you, the sailor. This is to say that the following guidance I offer should not be regarded as a one-size-fits all advice. However, as we prepare for another summer of sailing and get ready to send our young sailors off to summer sailing camps, I’m encouraging you to do a couple of things.

  1. If you are using an auto-inflating personal flotation device, think hard about the benefit versus risk of disabling the auto-inflate feature, so that it will only inflate manually (not all infalatable PFDs allow this). Know how to manually deflate it in an emergency, and always have a knife handy or cutting tool that will allow you to free yourself (or even puncture the bladder, if needed) of the auto-inflating PFD in an emergency. On your boat and in the waters you sail, is your greater worry being knocked unconscious or drowning as a result of a gasp reflex (cold waters can cause this), or is it more likely that you will capsize and possibly be trapped? 
  2. For coastal sailing in small boats (or even larger cruisers that operate within a few miles of shore in protected waters) consider opting for a “sport” PFD or a manual inflating PFD, instead of an auto-inflating PFD. The buoyancy in the auto-inflating PFDs is tremendous, too much to escape from under even a small boat. Young sailors in particular, should be well practiced in escaping from hiking harnesses and equipment and diving free of the hull while wearing their floatation device. Insist that your sailing school teaches this skill, and teaches it well. A young sailor also should be prepared to shed his or her life-jacket if needed (clips instead of zippers are easier for this). Too much floatation, and a bulky life vest can be an impediment to escaping small boats.

Keep in mind, the risk of your PFD being a problem are extremely low and the benefits of wearing one far outweight the benefits of going without. Nevertheless, it doesn't hurt to be aware of how things can go wrong, and to understand the subtle differences in life jackets that can make a difference. Below is a summary of our 2013 report on how some PFDs can impede escape in a capsize scenario.The report offers specific tips on how to handle a capsize while wearing your PFD. As with most of our safety articles, it is free to everyone; you don’t have to be a subscriber to access it. If you find it useful and are not a subscriber, please consider a one-year trial. We are the only publication doing this sort of independent testing, and we exist solely by the grace of your generous support:

“In other sports, participants recognize how essential gear can become a hazard, and they are trained how to respond in that event. Scuba diving courses teach beginners how to don and doff their tanks and buoyancy compensators. Sailors need the same kind of awareness and need to recognize the importance of being able to quickly release a tether or PFD. Some years ago, Type III life jackets had a drawstring that could be knotted, making quick release all but impossible. Today, there are harness-tethers attached to inflatable PFDs that lack a quick-release clip. They must be cut to affect an escape. In our opinion, this is as much of a potential hazard, and all PFDs should be easy to release.

“One of the most important observations made during this initial round of our testing was how important it is to practice bleeding air from the PFD bladders. All it takes is a pinky finger press on the Schrader-like valve in the oral inflation tube, but without practice and during an emergency, the task can be tricky—particularly if you are wearing gloves or have large fingers. Re-inflation using the same tube was easier, but is also worth practicing.”

Our Safety at Sea e-book series, available in our bookstore, offers an in-depth look at PFDs, including more than a dozen tests of essential safety equipment for offshore sailing. For more on this topic you can also read my recent blog on PFD inspection tips

Comments (2)

Key points:

-- overwhelmingly our problem is that people do not wear PFDs when they should;

-- everything we're learning about human cognition suggests that we have a grievous tendency to focus on statistically insignificant edge-cases while ignoring much larger signals that are more pertinent to our decision-making.

Knowing the above, this latest blog post makes me squirm, because it's essentially inadvertently feeding the marine version of the "I don't wear seatbelts because I might be trapped" fallacy.

There are ways to explain things like this in a manner that is informed by cognitive science, more effective at conveying information while not feeding or cementing misunderstanding. Considering the stakes, any communication like this one should be state of the art.

Certainly the hazard described in the article is real, and certainly the risk from that hazard goes up seasonally and is worth a reminder, but it's a tricky topic because you're dealing with fitting this narrative into a space that may already contain misinformation and cognitive failure.

I attempted to paste some academic journal references here but they're flagged as spam. Try "risk communication" in Google Scholar for loads of info.

Posted by: dbostrom | May 2, 2016 4:57 PM    Report this comment

Very timely given that we had 'opening day' on the SF Bay this past weekend and have just signed our two children up for summer youth sailing camps (at your suggestion, we will ask our club if they plan on reviewing all your recommended pfd practice techniques). Thanks for posting this.

Posted by: CA Dude | April 27, 2016 12:53 PM    Report this comment

New to Practical Sailor?
Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In