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Choosing and Using the Correct PFD

As we prepare for the boating season, it is important to be mindful of the required equipment, specifically PFDs. If you’ve taken the Nautical Know How boating safety course you know the requirements and the different types of PFDs (if you haven’t taken the course you should review this chapter). But can you answer the following questions?

  • How do you shop for a PFD?
  • How do you choose a PFD for your child?
  • How do you test your PFD?
  • How should your PFD be maintained and stored?

Shopping for a PFD

PFDs come in a variety of shapes, colors, and materials. The most important thing to remember is to choose the right one for you. Consider what kinds of boating you may be doing. You may need more than one PFD. Try on your selection and have everyone who boats with you try on theirs. Is it comfortable? Can you adjust it for a snug fit? Will the color be visible when you are in the water? (Your best choice is a bright color, or at least a PFD with reflecting tapes. These are easiest for rescuers to spot against dark blue or green water.)

Read the PFD label to be sure it is made for people of your size and weight and it is made for the type of boating you plan to do. Labels may show recommended use but manufacturers are not required to state categorically a specific use for a particular PFD. If a PFD is labeled with an “Impact Class” (“Effective on impact at speeds up to [ XX ] MPH”) you know that it has been tested by water impact for strength at the speed stated. This, however, does not mean it will give you personal protection. It only means the PFD will withstand that impact.

Never select a PFD based solely on fashion or price — never choose one in a hurry. The question is which one is the right one for you? The one you will actually wear while on board may be the best answer. You may, however, want to choose more than one type of PFD if you use your boat for a variety of purposes, such as on the lake one day and deep sea fishing another.

How to choose a PFD for your child

Just as you should yourself, have your child try on a PFD before buying it. To work right, it must fit snugly. Check the fit by picking the child up by the shoulders of the PFD. If the fit is correct, the child’s chin and ears will not slip through. Children are apt to panic when they fall in the water suddenly. They move their arms and legs violently and make it hard to float safely, even in a PFD. Because their body weight is distributed differently, children float differently from adults. A PFD will keep a child afloat, but may not keep a struggling child face-up. That’s why it is important to have the child try on his or her own PFD and to explain the reasons for wearing a PFD. Take your child to a pool or shallow water and let them become comfortable and used to wearing a PFD in the water.

Children should always wear a PFD when onboard and underway. In many states it is the law.

CAUTION: PFDs are NOT baby-sitters!

A parent should always be alert when the child is on or near the water. Parents, remember too, inflatable toys, surf rafts and other non-approved devices are not dependable and should NEVER be used in place of PFDs.

How to test your PFD

Test your own wearable PFD in a pool or shallow water close to shore to see how it works. If it fits properly and is correctly fastened, it should stay in place and not ride up or slip over your chin. To work best, PFDs must be worn with all straps, zippers, and ties properly fastened and any loose ends tucked away. To check the buoyancy, relax your body and let your head tilt back. Make sure your PFD keeps your chin above water and that you can breath easily. If your mouth is not well above the water, select a different PFD with more buoyancy. If possible, the best test of all is to jump into a pool, feet first, from a platform the same height as your boat. (Be sure you are in deep enough water.) Your PFD should not ride up and try to pop off over your head. Throwable PFDs (life rings, boat cushions) should be tested by heaving them. Test how accurately you can aim at a specific spot, keeping in mind the adjustments you need to make for changing wind conditions.

BE AWARE: Your PFD may not act the same in swift water or heavy seas as it does in calm water.

Maintenance and Storage Tips

If you want your PFD to take good care of you — take good care of your PFD. Follow these tips and your PFD will last for many years.

  • Don’t alter your PFD to make it fit. Buy another that does fit.
  • Don’t put heavy objects on it or use it for a knee pad or fender, it can lose buoyancy when crushed.
  • Don’t leave your PFD on board for long periods when the boat is not in use, the heat can degrade its flotation.
  • Don’t dry your PFD in a dryer, on a radiator, heater, or any other direct heat source. This can degrade and damage the buoyancy material.
  • Don’t let your PFD lie out in the sun when the boat is not in use. Sunlight weakens some synthetic fabrics very rapidly.
  • Don’t leave your PFD onboard for long periods of time when the boat is not in use, the heat can degrade its flotation.
  • Don’t dry your PFD in a dryer, on a radiator, heater or any other direct heat source. This can degrade and damage the buoyancy material.
  • Do let your PFD drip dry thoroughly before putting it away.
  • If your PFD has been in salt water, rinse it thoroughly with fresh water.
  • Do stow your PFD in a well ventilated place.
  • Do check your PFD for rips, tears, and holes and make sure seams, straps and hardware are okay.
  • Do make sure there is no sign of water-logging, mildew odor, or shrinkage of the buoyant materials.
  • Do check and replace spent cartridges in inflatable PFDs.
  • Do put your name on your PFD if you are the only wearer. It will keep you from mistakenly putting on one that is not sized for you.
  • Do test all your PFDs at the start of every boating season.
  • Do discard old PFDs by cutting them up and properly disposing of them. You don’t want someone finding one you discarded and using it.
  • Do give your PFDs all the above checks, plus check their buoyancy in the water, at least twice a year.

PFDs can save your life — Don’t leave shore without one.

Related Articles:
What kind of PFD do I need?
How to Read the Life Jacket Label

Thanks to Michael Carter for his contribution to this page.
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