Solo Sailor Safety

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Yes, an auto-inflate jacket will automatically turn you face up, even if unconscious. Unfortunately, if you regain consciousness, you might be drowning against the side of the boat or watching it sail towards the sunset, depending on whether you were tethered. Unless you are in a high-traffic area, no one will pick you. The odds of your survival are remote at best.

On the other hand, if you are conscious, there are three probable scenarios. First, you might be pinned against the topside but still tethered. Assuming your tether was conservatively short, you are within reach of the toe rail. This is a rotten situation, but there are stories of sailors muscling their way back on board. It is frightening, but plausible for a fit sailor.

With a bulky inflated PFD, you can barely see where you are, let alone clamber over the rail. Even with assistance from the crew, a swimmer with an inflated PFD is greatly hindered. In our previous report on tethers, we recommended carrying a knife to puncture the bladder before re-boarding

Alternatively, you may find yourself swimming like mad for the last-chance-line, a towed dinghy, or even a channel marker. But swimming in an inflated PFD is next to impossible. The inflated bladder is also a hindrance inside a capsized hull.

With manual inflation you inflate only when you need flotation. During testing for the adjacent article, testers found that the type III PFD they wore for the boat brake test was a hindrance. It was worn only to simulate the added drag of foul weather gear.

Auto inflation is handy, but single handers need more control. Many auto-inflate PFDs can convert to a manual PFD with an inexpensive kit. Check into it.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

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