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Thread: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

  1. #1
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    Default I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Now that my boat is done and going out sailing and rowing, Iíd like to treat myself to a new, more functional PFD to replace the basic one-strap, blue-light-special that has been kicking around our family for ten years or more.

    I know I want something comfortable and not too sweaty to wear all day (Iím a never-nude when it comes to small boats and PFDs) and with some pockets to keep a knife, whistle, and a small camera close at hand. But when I go shopping online I have no idea where to start. I canít even tell what the difference is between a $45 and a $215 option.

    How did you choose your PFD? Or alternately, how would you recommend that someone choose one? I donít know of any stores more specialized than a Walmart or a sporting goods store near me where I could try things on. Are there online retailers or brands that you would trust so much that you would just be confident with whatever they offer? Do you have a specific model or set of features that you like so much that you think everyone should just get that one?

    No inflating gizmos I think (I donít need one more thing in my life that expires) and say a budget around $150?

    Thanks in advance for any advice or suggestions you can offer. Iíve always been stunned by the generosity and experience that people are willing to share here in response to my vast ignorance.

    -Neil
    Dreaming of sailing in Iowa, building a Carnell Nutmeg.

  2. #2
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    https://www.westmarine.com/west-mari...019295617.html

    I have an older version of that. Has lasted at least 10 years. Sailing, kayaking, dinghy racing, etc. I don't think you need anything fancier than that.

    My wife just got this one, https://www.westmarine.com/stohlquis...019586650.html, specifically to fit a female body type, but it is a bit thicker than the (older version I have of) the one above.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Two rules

    1:. Try before you buy. In this country they are all built to a reasonable set of standards so it's impossible to get a really bad pfd, it is however quite easy to buy an uncomfortable example this is tedious.

    2: Take it for a test swim. ideally in the kind of water you expect to use it in.

    Personally I really dislike front mounted pockets as they can seriously hamper self rescue.
    I'd much rather lay in my bunk all freakin day lookin at Youtube videos .

  4. #4
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    We have been using Lotus brand PFDs for sea kayaking. Good mesh pockets on the front and we rigged strobe lights and whistles on the shoulders. With rather large foam blocks they are fairly warm on a hot day, but not awful. That being said, about two years ago we switched to Mustang inflatables for most boating. They are only legal when you are wearing them, but they are very comfortable and have an incredible amount of flotation once inflated - substantially more than most foam-filled vests. Chances are that if you ever get pulled over out on the water by the DNR, Coast Guard, etc. that's what they will be wearing.

  5. #5
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Get one with a crotch strap. Without, you might end up in the water with your pfd wrapped around your head and your arms locked in a very appropriate "help, I'm drowning" position

  6. #6
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    The publication Practical Sailor has an extensive series of articles on the pros and cons of various pfdís.
    You may be able to access it from their web site.

  7. #7
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    A few thoughts from my experience, for whatever that is worth...

    Like Todd, we use Mustang inflatable PFDs aboard Skookum Maru and I like them a lot for their comfort and unobtrusiveness when not inflated. We have an older model that is no longer sold but Mustang make a very nice product. However I have found that it is difficult to swim, and even harder to pull oneself out of the water, with an inflated PFD. I had to do it once (ahem) and ended up taking the PFD off in order to climb up a two-foot sea wall after failing on several attempts with the PFD on. They are also only good for one use before they need to be rearmed, so once they are inflated your day is done unless you have a spare.

    We also have some non-inflatable West Marine PFDs for general use and guests. They sell a huge range of models that are mostly differentiated by details of shape and fastening. We have some of their bottom end "Runabout" line as well as a few "Cruiser" PFDs, which are similar but priced a bit higher and have a zipper closure, and a kid's "Paddle Adventurer" PFD for Dash. I think the Paddle Adventurer line is pretty good at a reasonable price (well under $100).

    https://www.westmarine.com/west-mari...019295575.html

    I think the Adult Paddle Adventurer is pretty similar to the Sail Medalist that was linked above, but with more pockets. You can spend a lot more, but you will mostly be buying fit and amenities like pockets and such.

    Finally, I dislike all PFDs when rowing as I find that even the most unobtrusive ones tend to interfere with the oar handles so I use a Stearns manually inflated belt pack PFD for open water sculling. It's not ideal since you have to pull it on and inflate it in the water (something I should actually try at some point!) but I think it's a reasonable trade off.

    Bottom line, I don't think you have to spend a lot to get a decent PFD. Any of the mid-range, non-inflatable models from West Marine would be a good choice. You can order online and return it if you don't like the fit. (We all love to hate on "Worst Marine", and they are not my first choice in Seattle, but they are very handy if you don't have a selection of chandleries nearby).

    Edit to add: Oh, and a thought on the crotch strap. If the PFD is adjusted correctly it should not ride up under normal conditions. I think I'd want a crotch strap for offshore use or high-speed water sports but I've never once thought that I needed one for general boating, dinghy sailing on protected water, etc. But you can add straps to most PFDs if you feel the need as they are sold separately.
    Last edited by cstevens; 09-08-2022 at 10:21 AM.
    - Chris

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  8. #8
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Pez dispenser

  9. #9
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    As to climbing back aboard, there is a reason ABYC requires a step or ladder or other built in means of climbing aboard be incorporated into the boat. Many foldable/ retractable steps and ladders exist.

    Of course, many of the small boats discussed on the WBF would not be candidates for these and clambering over the side or transom is the only way to reboard. In that case, I say: survive the fall aboard, get back to the boat, then remove the lifejacket. In fact, if you fall over uninjured and can swim to the boat, remove the lifejacket and do so. It has served its purpose.

    Kevin
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  10. #10
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Quote Originally Posted by Breakaway View Post
    As to climbing back aboard, there is a reason ABYC requires a step or ladder or other built in means of climbing aboard be incorporated into the boat. Many foldable/ retractable steps and ladders exist.

    Of course, many of the small boats discussed on the WBF would not be candidates for these and clambering over the side or transom is the only way to reboard. In that case, I say: survive the fall aboard, get back to the boat, then remove the lifejacket. In fact, if you fall over uninjured and can swim to the boat, remove the lifejacket and do so. It has served its purpose.

    Kevin
    Yep.
    - Chris

    Any single boat project will always expand to encompass the set of all possible boat projects.

    Life is short. Go boating now!

  11. #11
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    What is your boating mission? Choosing the right PDF for what you are doing is the way to go. For hardcore sailing - nothing beats a foam core right/tight fit.. I do like sports cut flotation and chest protector. If you are going to get banged up and fall down, not breaking a rib is an excellent idea.

    for simple boating stuff the mustang inshore inflatable is pretty good. The waste marine ones do their job well for sale often under 80 dollars.
    Without friends none of this is possible.

  12. #12
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    I bought a set of these for the boat. They turned out to be even better than I expected and I have become a Teamo Backtow enthusiast:



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  13. #13
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Quote Originally Posted by P.I. Stazzer-Newt View Post
    Two rules

    1:. Try before you buy. In this country they are all built to a reasonable set of standards so it's impossible to get a really bad pfd, it is however quite easy to buy an uncomfortable example this is tedious.

    .
    This.
    I've long believed that comfort = safety with PFD because any measure of discomfort will become hesitation to wear it.
    "Visionary" is he who in every egg sees a carbonara.

  14. #14
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    I like my Kokatat Neptune. One does pay for it.


    When dinghy sailing, I use it to safely store things I'd want to have if separated from my boat:
    VHF Radio
    Signal Mirror / Whistle / Signal Laser (leashed to common lanyard, which tethers inside pocket)
    ID / Credit Card
    Knife. Having nicked myself a few times with spearfishing fish-killin' daggers, I am partial to this blunt-tipped one


    I think I did some minor surgery to the pfd to get the knife mounted somewhere accessible by both hands and otherwise out of the way. I can post a picture if you like.


    I, too, struggle to climb anything while wearing a PFD. I typically remove mine to re-enter my dinghy.

    - James

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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    I should add: Choosing on comfort is good. You mention carrying a camera- I have enough leftover pocket space to stash my iPhone, recognizing that an undesired immersion would be the end of it. I think the crotch strap recommendation is sound. Though I find that mine stays put well in the water without any crotch strap, I do wonder if an extended float would find me settling uncomfortably into it.

  16. #16
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    a real PFD is a personal requirement when i am playing solo

    an inflatable is only an option when w/ able bodied seapeople who can aid in my rescue for whatever reason

    the folks involved in paddle sports seem to be wearing some of the more comfortable units and since many of them play in turbulent waters their PFD's are designed to do extra duty

    don't just search the "normal" sources

    include the paddle sports sources as well

    and ALWAYS try on before dropping coin at the check out stand

    NEVER take someone else's word on this subject and just order something

    iffin 'taint comfortable you'll likely forget to wear it

    just an old man's 2Ę worth this afternoon

    sw
    "we are the people, our parents warned us about" (jb)

    steve

  17. #17
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Quote Originally Posted by swoody126 View Post
    a real PFD is a personal requirement when i am playing solo

    an inflatable is only an option when w/ able bodied seapeople who can aid in my rescue for whatever reason

    the folks involved in paddle sports seem to be wearing some of the more comfortable units and since many of them play in turbulent waters their PFD's are designed to do extra duty

    don't just search the "normal" sources

    include the paddle sports sources as well

    and ALWAYS try on before dropping coin at the check out stand

    NEVER take someone else's word on this subject and just order something

    iffin 'taint comfortable you'll likely forget to wear it

    just an old man's 2Ę worth this afternoon

    sw
    I agree, and that's good advice, but I'll note that my recommendation to order online was based on the assumption that there might not be a wide selection of marine supply - or even paddle sports - emporia in Decorah, Iowa...
    - Chris

    Any single boat project will always expand to encompass the set of all possible boat projects.

    Life is short. Go boating now!

  18. #18
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    My inflatable Mustangs have drastically more flotation than any type III canoe/kayak pfds that I have ever owned. When inflated they are also more secure. Paddling jackets have to be built so that you can move freely while wearing them. The inflatable's main mission is to keep your head above water when you are out of the boat. There is really no comparison in their ability to float you - high and face-up. Most type III paddling jackets may not even turn you over.

  19. #19
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    I’ve got the Mustang inflatable, too. But I think you can use it even if the cartridge is used. You just have to blow into the air tube, a few deep breaths will do it.

  20. #20
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Mustang before and after inflation. There are certainly plenty of good pfds out there which are capable of doing the job. This type shines for its ability to do the job well when needed, yet be pretty non-obnoxious to wear the rest of the time.

    I'm probably too old these days to run whitewater, but for that it was always nice to have a pretty serious foam pad on the back in case you got rolled over and slammed into the bottom. The inflatables wouldn't be great for that, but for open water, I'm sold on them.IMG_20220909_021037~2.jpgIMG_20220909_020554~2.jpg

  21. #21
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    You haven't mentioned what kind of waters you're sailing/rowing on. Since it seems to be a sail & oar boat I'm assuming you're not doing whitewater work and since you're in Iowa I'm guessing an offshore system isn't required, so here's my tuppence: Get what you'll wear. No matter how sophisticated or expensive a PFD is, if you're not wearing it it's just debris floating around after a capsize. I've always worn my offshore harness (inflatable) but found that once deployed it's useless for swimming in unless you want to backstroke. That "deployed" thing is a double edged sword...it's smaller and more comfortable when deflated, but if you're in a dinghy and sailing in fairly heavy air there's a chance you'll go over more than once in an afternoon...with an inflatable you're done with one.

  22. #22
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    I agree with Hugh's post #21. In addition remember that after a capsize a somewhat passive sailor suddenly becomes a very active watersports athlete who's trying to save their gear, save their boat, and mostly trying to save their life. Active indeed. So their pfd must allow the sorts of movement to accomplish those tasks.

    Jeff

  23. #23
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    Default

    Get one with a crotch strap, or fit one.

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  24. #24
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    with an inflatable you're done with one
    Maybe with some, but with others you have a choice of using the cartridge, or just blowing it up by mouth using the tube. They inflate pretty quickly, and you can inflate and deflate it as many times as you want during an afternoon of sailing. You also have a choice of auto-inflation when it gets wet, or only when you pull the release. Auto inflation models have some sort of wafer which dissolves when wet and inflates the pfd. Manual ones don't have the wafer. In order to inflate them you have to pull the release handle. Both types can also be equipped for manual, blow-up inflation as well. If I'm in the motorboat, I wear the auto-inflator, as falling out would generally indicate a fairly serious situation. For canoe and kayak use I use the manual model, since there is more chance of getting wet, but in a non-serious manner.

  25. #25
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    For me, the inflatables (once deployed/inflated) look like they'd make re-boarding a typical sail-and-oar boat very difficult if not impossible. It's hard to imagine crawling in over the gunwale of a re-righted whitehall with one of those giant inflated collars around your neck.

    That said, if you're likely to be in situations where being knocked overboard (and perhaps unconscious or injured) by a boom, an inflatable might make sense. They certainly look comfortable to wear. Then again, so are many vest-type PFDs, especially lower-profile ones (which offer less flotation, a double-edged sword). But the vests seem like they would impede re-boarding far less than an inflated inflatable PFD.

    I've concluded that, with my boomless rig, I'm unlikely to be injured or hit in the head, so don't need the automatic inflation/protection of an inflatable.

    I worry far more about the effects of cold water than I do about the need to wear a PFD at every moment aboard a small boat. If I'm not injured when I go in, I'm comfortable managing a recovery without a PFD if I have to.

    But dressing for immersion in cool-to-cold water is crucial if there's a plausible risk of capsizing (my self-imposed rule when cruising alone is, if I reef, I wear a drysuit). PFD or not, cold water is deadly. Finding a drysuit that's comfortable enough to wear in unfriendly conditions is a really good safety measure if you sail in cold water. And, of course, insulation under the suit. A drysuit won't keep you warm (or alive) without that.

    Tom
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  26. #26
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    I agree that the inflatables are best such as Mustang. If is is convenient, provides ample range of motion and keeps your head above water you are more like to use it and benefit from it. All PFD's are a compromise between comfort, safety and awkwardness. One more thing though about inflatables vs. the standard "lifejacket". Mustangs and other inflatables only count as a PFD if you are wearing them. If you are approached by the Coast Guard and it is not being worn, you would need another PFD as well such as a CG approved floating cushion or traditional lifejacket or you will have a fine.

  27. #27
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    I have long been aware of that CG rule re inflatables only are allowed if being worn. And it has long made me wonder why. What is the logic?

    Jeff

  28. #28
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Quote Originally Posted by jpatrick View Post
    I have long been aware of that CG rule re inflatables only are allowed if being worn. And it has long made me wonder why. What is the logic?

    Jeff
    I suspect that it's because they'd be virtually impossible to don once inflated. A standard life jacket might be struggled into, but I think an inflatable would just be another floating object. That's my guess, but that's all it is.

  29. #29
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Quote Originally Posted by Hugh MacD View Post
    I suspect that it's because they'd be virtually impossible to don once inflated. A standard life jacket might be struggled into, but I think an inflatable would just be another floating object. That's my guess, but that's all it is.
    Yes, That's the reason

  30. #30
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    The two air chambers are not connected in front, so theoretically you could climb in, stuffing your head between them, and then buckle the strap system behind them. However, I think the problem would be more a matter of trying to get into something so buoyant. Compared to the typical boater's type 3 vests, the inflatables have more flotation, and it is all on your chest and the collar in the back. The typical human being weighing 17-20 lbs. in the water is not going to have enough weight to push that thing under, so getting in while it remained on the surface would be a serious challenge. Being light and very buoyant, they might also have more of a tendency to skitter away if there is much wind., so you really want to be wearing it before you go in.

    As to climbing back into the boat, that inflation tube has a valve on the end of it. If you're at the boat, hanging onto it and trying to climb in, you could always let most of the air out in a few seconds (and even reinflate later if needed). The inflatable vest is basically just another tool, and if you intend to use it, then it's worth learning how to use it.

  31. #31
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    I have several, and I don't know that one jacket will serve all situations. For sailing, I use an inflatable simply because it's the most comfortable one I have, and I therefore use it willingly. For kayaking and small boats, I've found I like the stuff Stohlquist makes. For routine boating -- longer days trips in small boats -- the "fishing" vests have the advantage of lots of pockets. But you don't need to overthink it.
    -Dave

  32. #32
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Quote Originally Posted by Woxbox;[URL="tel:6724679"
    6724679[/URL]]But you don't need to overthink it.
    Thanks for that encouragement, Dave, but I’m afraid I probably already have overthought it. But I did make a decision finally and got one of the MTI paddling foam vests. Thanks to everyone for the great discussion and especially the suggestion to look at Practical Sailor. Their summary of the types and the evolution from Type 1 to 2 and 3 and so on was very helpful.

    Also they mentioned a truly sobering investigation of a MOB drowning in the Chicago to Mackinac race that was very interesting to read. Despite being a very strong swimmer and an experienced sailor, his inflatable life vest never inflated, either automatically, or manually.
    Dreaming of sailing in Iowa, building a Carnell Nutmeg.

  33. #33
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?


    I'm in the market too, this appears to be the float vest Roger Barnes wears, not sold in the US as far as I can tell. Easy enough to order online but it sure would be nice to try on first.
    Steve

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  34. #34
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    You might also want to check on what sort of classification it has. It may or may not qualify as a Type III. We used to run into this problem back in the whitewater kayaking days. The best whitewater vests at that time were French, made by Flotherchoc, but they were not approved in the U.S.A. We had to deflate our flotation bags enough that we could stuff a boat cushion inside the boat in order to be legal.

  35. #35
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    Default Re: I know nothing: Choosing a PFD?

    Cold shock syndrome. That is one of the drawbacks of inflatable vests. If the auto fails, you’re dead before you can manually inflate the vest.

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