PFDs (Personal Floatation Devices)  We use to refer to these as lifevests, life jackets or life preservers.  Though now a days they're more commonly referred to as PFDs, these vests are still life savers.  Wear them!  Type III is recommended for paddling.  Some are more comfortable than others.  Prices may range from $40 on up to a few hundred dollars for a new PFD.  Prices will of course vary amongst some of the manufacturers and their various models.  As comfort and options go up, so often does the price, though there are PFDs out there offering the kayak angler a lot of bang for the buck.  The important thing is matching the PFD with the person's size and their intended use.  I think we'd all agree that being comfortable is being alive.  PFDs may also offer an additional layer of thermal protection.

The U.S. Coast Guard are the experts.  They do extensive testing and research on PFDs and have for years now.  Be sure your PFD is Coast Guard rated and approved.  Read below for more information from the U.S. Coast Guard regarding PFDs.

Coast Guard Approval Ratings:

Type I  Provides the most buoyancy. It is effective for all waters, especially open, rough or remote waters where rescue may be delayed. It is designed to turn most unconscious wearers in the water to a face-up position.

Type II   Intended for calm, inland water or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. Inherent buoyant PFDs of this type will turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water, but the turning is not as pronounced as a Type I. This type of inflatable turns as well as a Type I foam PFD. 

Type III Good for conscious users in calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. It is designed so wearers can place themselves in a face-up position in the water. The wearer may have to tilt their head back to avoid turning face-down in the water. The Type III foam vest has the same minimum buoyancy as a Type II PFD. It comes in many styles, colors, and sizes and is generally the most comfortable type for continuous wear. Float coats, fishing vests, and vests designed with features suitable for various sports activities are examples of this type PFD. This type inflatable turns as well as a Type II foam PFD. 

Type IV Intended for calm, inland water with heavy boat traffic, where help is always present. It is designed to be thrown to a person in the water and grasped and held by the user until rescued -- It is not designed to be worn. Type IV devices include buoyant cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys. There are no inflatable Type IV devices. 

Type V Intended for specific activities and may be carried instead of another PFD only if used according to the approval condition(s) on its label. A Type V PFD provides performance of either a Type I, II, or III PFD (as marked on its label). If the label says the PFD is "approved only when worn" the PFD must be worn, except for persons in enclosed spaces and used in accordance with the approval label, to meet carriage requirements. Some Type V devices provide significant hypothermia protection. Varieties include deck suits, work vests, and board sailing vests. 

Type III/V

Multi-Purpose Commercial Vests.

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What is the "Best" PFD?


In terms of risk of drowning, the safest Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is the one youíre willing to wear! "I only need a PFD in case Iím unconscious or incapacitated, right?" Wrong. You need your PFD before you're unconscious, otherwise, how would you put it on? Once you understand the importance of wearing a PFD, youíre prepared to consider the best design for you. There are many good choices to keep you and your loved ones safe on the water. Some of the choices are a better for certain situations than others, and therefore the choices are explained in the "Think Safe" PFD pamphlet that is sold with every US Coast Guard approved PFD. By reading the pamphlet, you can understand how to safely have fun on the water.

Obviously, the safest PFD is the one that saves your life every time itís needed. To accomplish that task, a PFD must be available for proper use at the time of an accident, must be designed to perform well enough to keep your head out of the water, and must be reliable enough to provide its design performance when needed. It is the combination of these three characteristics that define the life-saving potential, or safety, of your PFD. If a PFD fails to do any one of these three essentials tasks, it canít save your life.

The perfect life preserver, lifejacket, or PFD has not yet been designed. All the designs in existence today have some limitations. For example, Type I PFDs (off-shore lifejackets) have the highest buoyancy of the inherently buoyant Types, but they are not considered comfortable enough to be worn continuously. Therefore, they are frequently not being used when accidents occur, and many boaters have died that could have been saved with just part of the buoyancy in this kind of PFD. Another example is the inflatable Type III PFDs. These recently approved PFDs provide the buoyancy of a Type I PFD and are comfortable to wear, but they lack the reliability and low maintenance characteristics, and cost, of inherently buoyant PFDs. Because each style has limitations, users are given a choice of PFDs to match to their particular boating activities. The Coast Guard requires the "Think Safe" pamphlet to be attached to each PFD sold in order to give boaters the information needed to make a good choice.

Accident data clearly shows that Type III PFDs have very significant reduced fatalities overall, as well as those fatalities in which a PFD was somehow used. While the number of people who boat has steadily increased, the number of drownings (excluding other fatalities) has decreased from about 1500 to 500 annually (from 1971 to 1996) since Type III PFDs were introduced. Equally important, the number of drownings when a PFD was "used" has decreased from nearly 200 to about 55 over the same period. So, while the total number of drownings has been significantly reduced (especially in light of increased boating) the drownings with a PFD used has been even more significantly reduced.

It canít save you if you donít use it. Research and boating accident statistics have shown that the most frequent failure resulting in drowning is not having a PFD available when needed. Nearly 1300 (1286) people drowned for lack of a PFD in 1971. Since that time, the Coast Guard has approved Type III PFDs which are more wearable, and in 1996 only 448 people drowned for lack of a PFD. This remarkable reduction occurred even though the number of boats increased from about 5.5 million to 12 million over the same period. That means that about 15,000 people are alive today because Type III PFDs are approved. Thatís 1100 in 1996 alone if there were no increase in boating activity. When increase in boating and trend prior Type III PFDs are considered, 1700 lives were saved in 1996. The Coast Guard approves a number of Types of PFDs so that you can choose the one that best suits your boating activities and environment. All the types are explained in a pamphlet, entitled "Think Safe", provided with each PFD sold. This means that people who wear PFDs today are safer than they were 25 years ago.

What about someone drowning while using the "wrong" type PFD? It is unlikely that any different Type of PFD would have prevented most of the drownings where a PFD was used. Consider this regarding PFD performance:
(1) About 450 people drowned in 1996, apparently because they didnít have a PFD that they were willing to wear.
(2) About 55 people died in accidents where PFDs were used, but only in about 5 to 10 of those cases is there any indication that a higher performing PFD might have prevented the drowning. In the other 45 to 50 cases, other contributing factors would have overcome the benefits of any PFD. The factors include: being trapped in an overturned boat, being held under a boulder or log by the strong currents of white water, removing the PFD for some reason (like swimming to shore), becoming hypothermic due to the duration of exposure in cold water, suffering other injuries that led to drowning, etc.

How would you tell someone to safely cross the street? Would you be remiss if you didnít warn them to look out for objects falling from the sky, like airplane and satellite parts? After all, things can fall out of the sky and kill you; however, the probability is very low. A pedestrian is much more likely to be struck by a car when crossing the street than by falling objects. Likewise, one is much more likely to drown while boating due to not wearing a PFD than wearing one with inadequate performance for conditions which occur only occasionally, and only at places and times that most boaters know to avoid. Additionally, the very best performing PFDs ever made, Type Is, provide only a small increase in probability of survival over a Type III PFD.

Inflatable PFDs have a number of limitations as explained in the "Think Safe" pamphlet provided with them, and in some cases, as marked on them. They are not recommended for non-swimmers and not approved for use on personal watercraft and in water-skiing and similar water sports. Additionally, as characterized in the pamphlet, the reliability of inflatable PFDs is less than that of inherently buoyant PFDs. Some say that maintaining them is easy, but that is a small part of the issue. Actually doing the maintenance is the most frequent problem noted in studies to date. So, while inflatable PFDs may increase use in some circumstances, they arenít suitable for all boating activities, and their reliability when maintained by boaters is yet to be proven.

Conclusion: The best PFD is the one that matches your needs!
It is important that boaters carefully choose the PFD what is right for their boating activities and environment. The information to select the right PFD is contained in the "Think Safe" pamphlet with each PFD. The Coast Guard is concerned that some boaters may not be reading it. The boating accident statistics are available at http://207.87.5.18/stats.html should you wish to study this further. The message to take from all this is that PFDs are saving al lot of lives, but there are more to be saved by choosing the right PFD and wearing it. Boat Smart from the start; Wear your PFD.

U.S. Coast Guard

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