Since 2010, the National Boating Safety Week campaign has centered on a pretty simple concept for boating safety: wear a PFD. Whether you call them personal flotation devices, life jackets or life preservers, donning a PFD dramatically increases the likelihood of a positive outcome to most mishaps on the water.
However, making sure that PFD is functioning properly is critical to this approach. We all go through a variety of “checklists” to make sure our boats are in working order every spring; doesn’t it make sense to take a moment to do the same thing for the most important piece of gear on your vessel?
Whether you have a foam life vest or an inflatable one, the steps below represent accepted best practices to ensure that vests are properly fitted, maintained and in good working order.
We’ll Start with Inflatable Vests. First step is a visual inspection. Open up the vest and visually inspect the bladder; make sure that there are no rips, tears, excessive abrasion or holes and that all seams are securely sewn. Don’t forget to inspect the outer cover, adjustment straps and any integrated harness strapping to make sure they are sound and in good working order. If the cover, straps and harness are not working properly, further damage to the vest through normal use can become accelerated. Or worse, prevent the vest from working as it optimally should when you need it the most.
PERFORM AN INFLATION TEST
- Manually inflate the vest using the oral inflation tube.
- If you have another cylinder on hand, use the opportunity to test the manual pull tab inflator on your vest.
- You should inflate the vest until the bladder is firm to the touch. Then let the vest sit overnight; this will help identify any slow leaks or decaying seals. By the next morning, the vest should still be as firm as it was after you finished inflating it. If it is not, you have a leak and you should replace the entire vest.
- INFLATION TESTS SHOULD BE PERFORMED EVERY TWO MONTHS
Next, Ensure that every mechanical component of the inflator is in proper working order. Start with the CO2 cylinder; remove it by unscrewing it from the inflation mechanism. Inspect it to make sure there is no pitting or rust on the threads as poor threads can allow air to escape during the inflation process. Check the date on the cylinder; if your cylinder is within one year of expiring, it is best to replace it.
If you have an automatic vest that uses a bobbin to activate the inflation, a good rule of thumb is to replace the bobbin annually. However, if you do not have a replacement bobbin or believe the bobbin can last more than one season, at least make sure the bobbin still has all of its filler-material. In addition, make sure the filler material has not developed a glaze which will increase its impenetrability causing a delay in inflation activation. During the season, a good practice is to inspect the bobbins every two months.
Hydrostatic inflators on PDFs offer reliable inflation in a low maintenance design that only automatically inflate when submerged in four or more inches of water, not inadvertently due to rain, spray or humidity. However, these units typically have a finite working life – usually five years from the date of their manufacture. So it’s critical to check the date on these inflators and if they are within one year of expiration it’s best to replace them.
Foam or Inherently Buoyant vests, similar to inflatable vests, require that their outer covers, seams, straps and any harnesses to be in good working order to serve their function. So, just as with an inflatable vest; begin with a visual inspection of the PFD. Make sure that there are no rips, tears, excessive abrasion or holes, that all seams are securely sewn and any buckles are securely fastened and working properly.
This is also a good time to make sure you are using the right vest for the type of boating activities you’ll be enjoying. Make sure it is properly rated and recommended for the activity. You will also want to make sure that the vest is properly rated and fitted for the person using the vest.
DETERMINING A PROPER LIFE-VEST FIT
A proper fit is essential to ensuring a PFD will function adequately when it is needed. It should fit snug but not overly tight, It should not restrict breathing or be uncomfortable in any other way (uncomfortable vests do not get worn, and an unworn vest is useless in an emergency). The United States Coast Guard recommends the following steps in fitting a life vest:
- Check the manufacturer’s label to ensure that the life jacket is a proper fit for your size and weight.
- Make sure the jacket is properly fastened.
- Hold your arms straight up over your head and then ask a friend to grasp the tops of the arm openings and gently pull up. There should be no excess room above the openings and the jacket should not ride up over your chin or face.
If you will have children on your vessel take special note that to work properly, a PFD must fit snugly on a child. To check for a good fit, pick the child up by the shoulders of the PFD. If the PFD fits right, the child’s chin and ears will not slip through. Ask them questions about where it feels too tight or loose, make adjustments as necessary. While it may seem obvious, children grow and may need a new life vest every year or two. Be sure the child’s life-vest is the proper vest for their weight range. Standard Weight Ranges For Children’s Life Vests Are:
- Up to 30 Lbs
- 30 – 50 Lbs
- 50 – 90 Lbs
Speaking of children and life vests, remember that PFDs are not babysitters. Even though a child wears a PFD when on or near the water, an adult should always be mindful of the situation. Another obvious point: remember that inflatable toys and rafts should not be used in place of PFDs.
When considering life jackets for infants, toddlers or non-swimmers, choose a model that has extra foam behind the child’s neck which will help the child right themselves if they fall into the water. Also, allow young crew members to experience their life jackets in a controlled settings such as a pool. This lets the child feel how the life jacket will float them when they are immersed in water, potentially minimizing panic in an emergency. It will also let you see how the jacket fits in an in-water situation.
One final word about children and life jackets – be aware that children are extremely perceptive and if you minimize the risk factors for wearing a vest, they will mimic your attitude. Handing down good safe boating habits is one of the best gifts you can provide a young crew member so wearing your lifejacket when you are boating with them will set a good example. Setting this precedent early in their boating life, especially as they approach pre-teen and teenage years will hopefully avoid any notions that wearing a lifejacket is silly, un-cool, or worse yet, for little kids and babies.
Finally, if you have any lights or peripheral equipment associated with your vest such as Spray Hoods, Whistles, Safety-Knives, PLB, AIS, or Tethers, now is a good time to inspect them as well. Make sure all peripheral equipment is properly secured and affixed to the life jacket.
Here at Marine Special Products Group, we are either on boats or in conversations with boaters every day. We realize people want to be comfortable and casual in their approach to boating life. Integrating safe PFD practices into everyday boating makes it a more comfortable experience for everyone involved. To learn more visit the USCG website on PDFs.