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.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. 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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