Reframing Our Views on the Auto-inflate PFD


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 Sailors 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 PFDs. He was quick to confirm that Ralphs 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 boats 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. Santerellis 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 jackets CO2 cylinder to burst its 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 todays 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.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at