Reframing Our Views on the Auto-inflate PFD

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 04:19PM - Comments: (10)

It is important that you try your PFD in the water to determine the proper fit and to learn how to adjust straps to maintain optimum trim and head position. Photo by Ralph Naranjo

In the July 2019 issue of Practical Sailor we dive again into the world of inflatable PFD/harnesses. This time our focus is on auto-inflation systems. The report, written by marine safety expert Ralph Naranjo, highlights the proper care and use of various auto-inflating PFDs on the market. The article builds upon my previous blog post on the care of inflatable PFDs. It also describes some of the many recent changes in the design of PFDs and harnesses. The crux of the report, however, is the gradual and potentially dangerous shift in perceptions among offshore sailors with regards to inflatable PFDs.

Based on his study of recent accidents and experience as an instructor at dozens of safety at sea seminars, Naranjo observes that we’ve grown so accustomed to wearing inflatable PFDs that we’ve forgotten their limitations. And Practical Sailor’s editorial staff is not immune to criticism in this regard.

The most telling example of our shifting perspective on inflatable PFDs is the language that we use. Like most marine publications, we refer to inflatable jackets with an auto-inflate feature in shorthand as “automatic inflatable PFDs,” or “auto-inflating PFDs.” In fact, we should regard all of the so-called auto-inflate PFDs on the market as manually inflatable PFDs with an auto-inflate feature. This is precisely how International Maritime Organization regards them, for good reason. This is more than just a matter of semantics. Expecting too much of your inflatable PFD can delay reactions, and lead to unpreparedness or equipment failures that can be dangerous, even fatal.

A case in point: the sailor who regards their inflatable PFD as dependent primarily on manual inflation (rather than automatic), will pay more attention to the reliable mechanisms involved in manual inflation. This sailor will know precisely how to access and use the manual pull cord to activate the gas-cylinder inflation as soon as he needs it, rather than waiting for water to activate it. And they will be better prepared should the auto-inflate trigger mechanism fail. Likewise, they will know where to find the oral inflation tube, which is buried beneath layers of cloth in some new designs. Meanwhile, the sailor who was expecting their PFD to magically inflate the moment it hit water will be left fumbling in the dark if the “auto-inflation” doesn’t happen. (The failure to auto-inflate happens more frequently than you would think.)

Among the experts we turned to for this report was Mark Bologna of Landfall Navigation in Stamford Connecticut. A safety guru and a major supporter of safety training, Bologna has decades worth of experience selecting and servicing inflatable PFD’s. He was quick to confirm that Ralph’s observations were spot-on and that his concerns were legitimate.

Bologna outlined the specific steps sailors should take each season to ensure their PFD remains reliable. And to emphasize his point, he shared several stories of gear that was rendered useless due to misuse, ignorance, of plain neglect by their owners. Fortunately in these anecdotes the disasters were narrowly averted. As any longtime reader of Practical Sailor knows, we don’t have to look too far to find PFD incidents that didn’t turn out as well.  In recent years, we’ve document several incidents in which inflatable PFDs failed to perform as expected and led to tragic results.

The highly publicized crew overboard incident at the start of  the 2018 Chicago-Mackinac Race drove home the critical importance of equipment awareness (see Review Committee Report on the Fatal Accident Involving Imedi During the 2018 Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac). As with many sailing accidents, a variety of factors contributed to the death of Jon Santarelli, a crew member aboard the high-performance racing sloop Imedi. The breeze was up, the TP-52 had a mainsail with no reef points, and the crew failed to make contact with Santarelli on three successive passes.  Too much mainsail area and too much boat speed were clearly factors that impeded rescue. But the failure of the PFD worn by the Santarelli was almost surely another contributing factor.

The PFD was an SSM-Barcelone vest with a Hammar MA-1 hydrostatic inflator. The vest was reported to be over 10 years old. It was one of 13 that belonged to the boat’s owner. Whether the inflator had recently been replaced, or if Santarelli had done any in-the-water training with the jacket is unknown. But what is apparent is that when he went over the side, the auto-inflation feature failed. And for some reason, Santarelli was not able to manually inflate using the pull-cord on the gas cylinder, or by using the oral inflation tube.

The botched post-accident investigation was just as distressing. Santerelli’s body was recovered a week after he went overboard, but for some reason the medical examiner did not retain the life jacket in question for inspection by the US Coast Guard. Instead, it was cremated along with the victim. Important clues regarding what went wrong disappeared in the heat. 

But one fact became apparent. During the cremation, heat caused the life jacket’s CO2 cylinder to burst it’s seal outward, indicating that the CO2 cylinder still had a charge. It appears that the auto-inflation mechanism had failed and that Santarelli could not or did not use the manual pull-tab to inflate the vest, or that the pull-tab activation also failed. The destruction of the life jacket prior to a professional inspection leaves many other questions unanswered.

For more on today’s inflatable PFDs harness, and how you should approach the care and use of your gear, see the July 2019 issue of Practical Sailor. Sailors interested in a more comprehensive study of survival gear and man overboard recovery should reference our downloadable ebook MOB Prevention and Recovery, available in our online bookstore. 

Comments (10)

how about a form of "hybrid", preserver?

One which is easy to wear, has some inherent buoyancy, plus the CO2 buoyancy.

4-6 pounds of inherent buoyancy(foam) and 10-15 pounds of CO2 buoyancy.

Place the foam at the bottom horizontal strapping(2 lb) and at the chest high horizontal strapping(4 lb).

Posted by: SURV69 | June 14, 2019 10:17 PM    Report this comment

Does anyone know: Can you be seriously injured (embolism or ?) if you are orally inflating when the auto-inflator goes off?

Posted by: Kilo | June 14, 2019 5:01 PM    Report this comment

Now that you have everyone's attention would you recommend that some sort of PFD be worn at all times by everyone on deck or in the cockpit, not just "when necessary". Most people who fall overboard are surprised and don't have time to don a PFD.

Posted by: Washedup | June 14, 2019 12:46 PM    Report this comment

I've always been concerned how vulnerable an inflatable PFD is to being torn and losing all ability to be inflated. There's a myriad of sharp edges on a sailboat and especially in rough weather or going overboard, there are countless ways that this type of damage might occur rendering the PFD useless.
Are there any documented cases of this type of incident occurring? Are there any current recommendations for non inflatable PFD's that aren't vulnerable to this type of damage? Certainly they're going to be bulkier than inflatables, but they have an additional safety factor.

Posted by: AllanKirch | June 14, 2019 12:34 PM    Report this comment

Another example of a piece of safety equipment that is counted on to work when required, but which CANNOT be tested until then. This problem applies to life rafts, EPIRBS, PLBs, MOB radios, tethers, fire extinguishers, emergency bilge pumps, EVERYTHING that we count on to work in extremis, and which we are expected to haul around on deck all the time, but which are not used in the way that they are actually designed and intended, until the critical moment.

I also think that we are adding more and more "stuff" to the list that every sailor is supposed to carry at hand, in order to be "safe" but it is not making us safer. More attention should be devoted to ensuring that we do not fall overboard by installing more/better permanently installed handholds, moving sail/rigging controls into the cockpit. Better training in avoiding hazardous conditions - i.e., the time to reef is when you first wonder whether it is time to reef - and practice doing the stuff that needs to be done when trouble arises.

The manufacturers of all this stuff need to allow us to observe, or better, participate, when maintenance is done (this is aimed specifically at liferaft repack centers), so that we can see how the equipment actually works. Everyone should try out their inflatable lifejacket at least once. The purveyors should include several re-arm kits with each lifejacket, so that they can be tested by the owner, and then repacked. When you repack itself several times, you develop the skill to do it right, and you should not wonder whether it will work the next time that you need it.

Posted by: rxc | June 14, 2019 12:16 PM    Report this comment

Around the time that Practical Sailor first started to raise awareness of these issues, my own auto-inflate PFD inflated while I was on a fore-deck in very wet conditions. I was urgently trying to get a genoa down and tied safely during a nor'easter, sailing double handed. When the PFD inflated I suddenly found that I could hardly move my arms - the amount of expansion of the units is impressively large, providing buoyancy but at a cost of severely restricted upper mobility. I couldn't get my hands together for example - in fact, nowhere close to together. As a result, my wife and I switched to "standard", i.e. non-inflating, PFDs. I just couldn't imagine being so constricted when overboard. The downside of the growth of the market for auto-inflatable PFDs has been that standard alternatives aren't, in my opinion, as well developed for coastal cruising where one could regularly be 5 to 10 miles off shore. I would like to see Practical Sailor address such alternatives.

Posted by: Tom T | June 14, 2019 11:58 AM    Report this comment

Despite all the naysaying, for most situations, auto-inflation is safer. You get to float when incapacitated or too shocked and confused to pull the manual tab. The argument reminds me of people arguing against seat belts because a few people were trapping in a car, while the vast majority had their lives saved by belts.

Every auto-inflate PDF has a manual pull that works should the auto-inflate fail and a tube to blow up the vest by mouth should the CO2 inflate fail.

Posted by: Boston Barry | June 14, 2019 11:55 AM    Report this comment

As a life long sailor [and licensed professional engineer who has done product, test, safety and RAS (Reliability, Availability, and Serviceability) engineering during my career], I had already decided the "manually inflatable PFDs with an auto-inflate feature" PFDs that I have on my boat will be replaced with non-inflatable ones as soon as I can find ones I am happy with. My own testing in a pool in San Diego with my NEW inflatable PFDs was scary - a 50% failure rate for the auto-inflate based on four time of jumping in the pool with it. One failure was likely due to poor arming on my part (which is a failure of design in that they are so finicky to arm) and the other failure showed no obvious reason why. And the notion of blowing one up manually is laughable in the conditions other than a warm pool in San Diego. Finally, there was the time on a passage north when a spare inflatable PFD went off in the cockpit lazarette that is not included in the above failures.

The bottom line is "manually inflatable PFDs with an auto-inflate feature" do not meet the most basic engineering principle: KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). The best thing Practical Sailor can do is test all the good non-inflatable PFDs out there to help those of who are 100% done with the inflatable type find suitable, comfortable alternatives.

Posted by: Joseph | June 14, 2019 10:46 AM    Report this comment

We have had more than a half dozen PFD clinics in Chicago in the last few months. The one I attended included representatives from the three major inflatable PFD manufacturers. We include more abbreviated information in our club's Crew School. Everybody is paying better attention. Some personal observations about the information. (1) The manufacturers representative(s) at the clinic said they do not recommend a manual -- pull CO2 handle -- inflation on shore -- don't pull the handle to see how it all works. (2) I spoke to one retired and one active Coastie about CO2 pull handle testing and they said they do it all the time. No opinion -- the manufacturers might have liability concerns with on-shore inflation stressing the equipment when not restrained by water pressure. (3) We pulled the handle on an expired Hammar as a demo in Crew School. I figured I'd do the see-how-long-it-holds-air test. In fact, it deflated observably in less than 24 hours. But then I re-tested, inflating orally. That turned out to hold pressure indefinitely. So either higher pressure from the CO2 cylinder stressed the seal on the valve or orally inflating got the seal to seat better. If the seals don't seat, that's another reason to do the regular oral inflation test.

Posted by: DaveChicago | June 14, 2019 10:28 AM    Report this comment

Thanks so much for this valuable reminder. It's way too easy to misname equipment or features that then, unfortunately, lull the consumer into a false sense of security. "Auto pilot" on cars is a good example and this has lead to crashes. "Auto inflate" on PDFs apparently is another good example. Thanks for bringing this important situation to our attention.

Posted by: MikeH | June 14, 2019 9:43 AM    Report this comment

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