Seldom does one size fit all, and the same goes for whether or not one type of life jacket can meet all lifesaving needs.
The backstory behind this fresh look at life jacket design stems from how fashion and function have merged and market focus has zoomed in on inflatables. Many find inflatable harness-vest to be a sensible compromise because a life jacket left in a locker isn’t much help at all. But the question remains, can one personal floatation device (PFD) work well in all circumstances? There’s a long list of life jacket design issues to consider. For example, a device that expedites the rescue of a person bobbing about on a calm, flat sea may be very different from what’s needed to survive being washed through the surf zone.
A positive ongoing theme in the sailing community has been an effort to increase the number of sailors wearing life jackets. And for offshore sailing, the inflatable PFD has become the life jacket of choice. Unfortunately, over enthusiasm about one product can sideline other useful equipment, or in some cases, even denigrate better equipment. There are some legitimate concerns over the view that the inflatable life jacket is the perfect fit for offshore sailors. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate of inflatable life jackets; I own and use several different brands, but I also recognize that there are some inherent shortfalls in the technology.
One the biggest concerns, is that in its very comfortable deflated mode, it offers less lifesaving buoyancy than a pair of worn out flip-flops. And when you need floatation most, that buoyancy must arrive quickly, if not instantaneously. The auto-inflation gamble can span a range that goes from a few seconds to never. In our last year’s report, (see PS July 2019, “Rethinking the Inflatable PFD”) we detailed how to hedge your bets and improve the odds for a rapid arrival of lifesaving buoyancy. There are guidelines about what to do if the auto feature fails and why blowing up the bladder orally, while gasping for air, in cold water, on a dark night—is truly a last resort.
Despite this fallibility, we hear inflatable advocates and safety experts go on record with comments like, “if you buy a USCG-approved inflatable life jacket you won’t have to bother carrying one of those bulky, space wasting type I, II or III life jackets.” This assumes that the all-important inflation process will occur near instantaneously, and that the PFD’s thin bladder skin, sealed seams, and hardware will always remain intact. The evolution of inflatable life jackets as the rock star of safety afloat, has been troubled by inflator malfunctions, bladder seam failures, and corrosion caused by poor maintenance.
Mark Bologna is a safety expert on and off the water. He sells, rearms and advises clients at Landfall Navigation and helps train participants with safety training programs up and down the east coast. I recently asked Mark for a comment about inflatables vs. foam life jackets. He wrote the following summary for PS offering thoughtful insight from a pro’s perspective on why there’s reason to wear an inflatable life jacket while sailing and to also keep a Type 1 PFD onboard and ready:
“Most agree that as good as inflatable PFD’s have become, they are not infallible. Each must be regularly inspected and maintained. Foam PFD’s on the other hand, have no mechanical mechanism that can malfunction. They are inherently buoyant and do not require an auto or manual inflation system to develop buoyancy. The closed cell foam life jacket cannot be rendered inoperable by being punctured or damaged by floating debris. And they will always work if stored and donned properly.
“The reason we wear inflatable PFD’s is freedom of movement, they are less restrictive than foam PFD’s, which are more cumbersome when moving about and working on deck. Inflatable PFD’s protect us from drowning when knocked overboard, because we have them on. If the need arises to abandon ship due to fire, uncontrollable flooding or grounding on a lee shore and time permits; nothing says you can’t switch out of your inflatable and don your Type I life jacket.”
Mark’s logic dovetails with ours. We agree that one of the big pluses of inflatable life jackets is that they are more likely to be worn, which means that it’s more likely that a person-in-the-water (PIW) will have floatation. Abandoning ship is a different scenario. Floatation is vital, but equally important is retention of that buoyancy regardless of impacts from waves, sharp edges, dismasted rigging and other hazards to the air bladder. A USCG Type I or SOLAS-approved, closed cell foam life jacket delivers a 100 percent chance of immediate lifesaving buoyancy, is much more immune to damage, and remains the Coast Guard’s recommendation for use in extreme conditions.
Deciding when to abandon a vessel that’s grounded, flooding and swept by surf involves some waterman’s survival instincts. The route to safety may be a circuitous one. It might necessitate swimming parallel to, rather than toward the beach, in order to get out of a gutter rip where a seaward setting current makes progress toward shore impossible. When one can swim directly toward shore, they will be both helped and hampered by whatever PFD they happen to be wearing. That’s why getting to know how to swim wearing a life jacket is so important.
It can become life threatening if one’s sprint for shore coincides with the largest waves of a set. In this case timing is everything. Surfers who sit in a lineup, waiting for a favorable peak, know a thing or two about oceanography and the energy transferred between a wave and a shoal or reef. What the sailor needs to learn is the opposite of what the surfer is looking for. The sailor is looking for the energy nadir rather than its zenith
Breaking waves are an amalgam of distant swells and closer, short period wind waves that combine into greater or lesser amounts of energy. The larger sets (more resonance—greater amplitude) are often regularly interspersed with lulls. These periods of smaller waves are the best bet for a PIW hoping to reach shore with the least amount of “over-the-falls” action. As one lines up for the safest transit through the surf zone, it makes sense to get a feel for where the bigger sets are breaking hardest and how long the lull presides between sets. The time to get going is just as the big ones subside and the fickle lull period begins.
Get to know your life jacket from an in-the-water perspective. Spend some time floating around in a flat calm. Experiment with what swimming technique works best. Try out a type I PFD and you’ll probably discover that your most mobile swim is linked to a strong frog kick and a breast stroke. Most sailors discover what divers have known for decades, and that’s swim fins are a big asset. A waterman knows the value of a pair of small, body surfing/boogie boarding fins such as the old standby Churchill Makapuu fins. They also favor a quick to slip on a neoprene Shorty or Farmer John wetsuit that helps stave off hypothermia, lessens injury from abrasive surfaces and retains mobility and flexibility.
If you ever face a grounding in the surf zone and the need to swim to shore, you’ll improve your survival chances by donning a wet suit, booties, hood and a type I PFD. Grab the small, easy to slip-on swim fins and carefully enter the water avoiding immersed rigging and the pounding hull. Time your swim to safety so it takes advantage of the lull between sets. Beware of offshore moving rip currents that can make progress impossible. A self-rescue through the surf zone is a different kind of victim response than what’s done in an underway MOB where signaling efforts are prioritized.
A significant amount of effort has been given to the development of life jackets that sailors will wear. The latest inflatable life jackets often include a harness and help keep a sailor tethered to the boat. If they do go overboard, the PFD theoretically delivers the buoyancy needed to keep the victim afloat and visible—expediting a rescue.
However, there’s one potential usage that’s had much less scrutiny. It’s a hazardous self-rescue scenario that arises in certain types of abandon ship incidents. These situations often define the pathway to safety as a gauntlet run through breaking surf, and an inflatable PFD may not be your best bet. Our review of some of the tragic sailing accidents of the last decade reinforces this concern.
One of these tragic accidents involved the crew of the 32 foot sloop Uncontrollable Urge. A cascade of problems began to unfold when the race boat’s rudder blade sheared away from the stock. It was late afternoon and the northern end of San Clemente Island was growing larger and larger. The crew tried to steer using sail trim augmented with propeller thrust. It didn’t work. Next came efforts to make up an emergency rudder and finally, in desperation, two light anchors were deployed. All attempts to regain control failed and a long overdue Mayday call to the Coast Guard was finally transmitted. It would take a helicopter over an hour to reach the scene. But just as the sun was setting, the sloop and her six person crew, entered the surf zone at the northern end of the island.
Uncontrollable Urge was driven hard onto a rocky offshore ledge. A particularly large set of waves hit like a piledriver, knocking the boat flat and causing the rig to collapse around the crew. Four sailors were swept overboard (three carried away by the current). The fourth, with his harness connected to the boat, was washed into the water but remained tethered alongside, tangled in the rigging. An attempt to haul him aboard failed and he was cut free to swim for shore. The two crew remaining aboard would soon have to decide whether to stick with the vessel being demolished around them, or abandon ship.
In the minutes that followed, five of the six crew would stagger ashore. All wore inflatable PFDs but four of the five survivors indicated that, in the surf zone, the life jacket bladders tried to shift position, causing both lobes of the bladder to attempt to relocate to the same side of their head. The sailor who tragically perished was found with his inflatable vest shifted into this position. Several of the crew said that making it to shore had been a very close call.
The last two sailors to abandon ship put a large rectangular foam fender to good use. It added extra buoyancy and helped significantly in getting them to shore safely. Another crew member was able to make his way to the inflated life raft that had torn free during the knockdown. He clung to the raft’s exterior and washed his way onto the rocky beach.
In the follow-on scrutiny of the incident, the life jacket manufacturer stated that their offshore rated inflatable vests were never intended for such use. This raises a major question regarding what should be worn, or used as a life jacket, when it’s time to abandon ship and the surf zone is the only shortcut to safety?
Such encounters are not unheard of. Three similar sailing accidents quickly come to mind. They involve the vessels, Low Speed Case (see Inside PS blog, “U.S. Sailing Releases Report on Farallones Accident”), Aegean and the big 66 foot sloop PWC. In total, 10 sailors perished in these encounters, all attempting to make their way from a grounded vessel to the nearby shore.
Finally, reconsider your life jacket requirements, especially if you’re long distance cruising or racing along a surf swept, rocky, coastline.
The abandoning ship process is in many ways a sequel to fire fighting aboard a sailboat. In the latter case, the basic minimum US Coast Guard fire suppression equipage for a 40-65 foot sailboat are one B-1 and one B-2 (or 3 B-1) fire extinguishers. Three B-1 fire extinguishers gives a person a total of 30-40 seconds worth of fire extinguisher flow. This short duration of fire-fighting capability is minimal and the reason why many sailors augment it with fixed engine room extinguishers and higher capacity portable extinguishers. The same logic holds true for abandon ship gear.
In addition to having a frequently worn, comfortable inflatable PFD/harness, follow Mark Bologna’s advice and add a USCG/SOLAS Type I to your safety kit. Also include a neoprene wet suit and swim fins. Or as commercial mariners have learned, perhaps even a dry suit or survival suit.
The higher in latitude you sail, the later in the season you cruise and the more time you spend on the water, the greater the cumulative risk. A well-maintained inflatable PFD may be the right answer day sailor on Long Island Sound. But those heading further afield should consider hedging their bet.
Ted Parish is an experienced coastal and offshore sailor with a very legitimate argument in favor of foam, inherently buoyant, life jackets. His day job involves safely piloting merchant ships up and down the tight confines of the Delaware Bay.
He’s a senior bay pilot who understands the risks involved in climbing from the pilot boat’s deck, just a few feet above sea level, to the rail of a merchant ship that may be 30 feet or more above its waterline. It takes a strong grip and a good sense of balance to negotiate the rope ladder. Add the swell from a nor’easter, ice on the deck and darkness, and one misstep can lead to an overboard incident.
From Ted’s perspective, an inflatable lifejacket’s inflation lag, often up to 10 seconds or more, is viewed as unacceptable among many mariners. Parish favors instantaneous, floatation that’s available 100 percent of the time. A delayed or even complete auto-inflation failure may be acceptable to those sailing in warmer water. There is a manual tab to pull and if that also fails, an oral inflation tube offers a last resort. However, in colder Chesapeake Bay winter water, or in mid summer conditions in Maine, Nova Scotia or the Pacific Northwest, a person in the water will be more likely to experience laryngeal spasms and have a hard time breathing let alone be able to orally inflate a PFD.
Sailors are starting to wonder how often the auto-inflation feature on inflatable life jackets fail? The industry doesn’t have an answer. But moderators of US Sailing Safety at Sea Seminars have for several years been informally, and now more formally, tracking these numbers.
It’s done by monitoring participants in their “hands-on” training program. Students jump into the pool, wearing their own inflatable PFD. At almost every session some fail to function properly. It’s a small number and the trend is around two or three per session. This is why we at PS recommend treating the device like a manual inflation PFD and advise users to immediately reach for the yellow tab and pull. If the auto-inflator beats you to the pull, that’s great. If not, your tug will initiate inflation.
Feedback from seminars also indicates that there are incidents when a double failure occurs and even a tug on the yellow tab does not result in inflation. These are often linked to poor maintenance and even owner failure to replace an empty CO2 cylinder. The oral inflation tube does offer a third way to attain some buoyancy. But when a victim is in extremis, traumatized by having fallen overboard, contacting cold water and wearing a life jacket with no floatation, the effort to orally inflate the life jacket is like singing as you sprint to the finish line of a 10-kilometer foot race.
Think of it this way. Those headed to a safety seminar are more likely to have checked out their inflatables and made sure that they are in good operational order (see Inside PS blog “Inflatable PFD Care and Use”). That said, there have been reports of a 2- to 4- percent failure rate, and it’s likely that it would be higher in random sampling in the field.
The reason we still support the inflatable idea is that they are comfortable to wear and even more importantly, when combined with a harness, tether and jackline system there’s a whole other level of safety added to the mix.
Consider a situation in which a vessel and crew are in an emergency, when the boat is being driven onto a surf-swept lee shore and the skipper decides that it’s time to abandon ship. In such a situation we recommend careful thought be given to donning a Type 1 USCG or SOLAS approved life jacket, and if time permits adding the wet suit and surf fins mentioned in the adjacent article. Safety lies in the transit through the surf zone—a survival route understood by the makers of old cork life jackets, but a pathway that’s apparently not part of the design capability of all inflatable life jackets.