Help Us Design a Better PFD/harness


Do try this at home: Don your favorite inflatable-PFD/harness and inflate it. Dont waste a gas cartridge; use the oral inflation tube. Wade into the water. A pool is fine-make 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 don’t have to dive deep, the imaginary overturned boat could be as small as a dinghy.

Cant dive? Of course not, youve 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 tethers 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 isn’t 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 todays 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 weve 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 don’t 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 significant-in some cases revolutionary-changes, 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 shouldnt be the first. I think that by putting our heads together, PS and our readers can come up with a better design. So thats just what were 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 No, theres no prize, just due credit and the personal satisfaction of knowing youve helped move the sport of sailing one more step forward. And thats always a good thing.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 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. Darrell is booking speaking engagements in Colorado, Idaho, California, the Pacific Northwest, and British Colombia this summer. You can reach him by email at