The Old Sea Dog’s Gear Locker [33]

Personal Flotation Devices

Staying afloat in the water is a prime concern for mammals such as the OSD. As the Tibetans say, “Breathe out. If you can’t breathe in, you’re dead.” It’s easy enough to keep breathing in the cockpit of a sea kayak, but every once in a while kayakers are forced by circumstance to forsake that warmth and comfort for the wet, cold embrace of sea water.

When this happens, keeping the breathing apparatus operating becomes extremely important. Hence the multitude of flotation aids available on the market (and required by LAW.) A few rebelliously independent sea kayakers refuse to wear such equipment and rely instead on their luck and/or swimming ability. Most, however wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD.)

Waterways (The NSW boating regulatory body) states that, for canoes and kayaks:

“Occupants must wear a PFD except when the craft is:

  • propelled by paddles and oars in enclosed waters during daylight,
  • not being used as a tender,
  • so constructed as to stay afloat if capsized, and
  • not more than 400 metres from the nearest shore.”

The OSD wears one all the time anyway, out of habit. He finds that the PFD keeps him warm in winter and is a comfort the rest of the time. He has had several immersion events on the infamous Tuross Bar and has been very glad to receive the comforting support of his faithful PFD.

Like all bits of gear, there are various types of PFD’s. Waterways requires a PFD 1 for each person on any vessel operating in the open sea. The PFD 1 is commonly called a lifejacket. It has a high collar which is designed to float an unconscious person face up, so they can breathe. The PFD1 is a bulky item and makes any type of useful activity very difficult. In West Australia, sea kayakers have to carry the brutes, which they do by stuffing them down a hatch or tying them to the deck lines. Of course, they are thus absolutely useless in an emergency. The Letter of the Law requires a PFD 1 for sea kayaks in NSW as well, but common sense has generally prevailed here and PFD 2’s seem to be unofficially accepted. Incidentally, PFD 1’s cost from $21.50 up to above $80.00.

Most sea kayakers use either a PFD 2 or PFD 3. The 2 and 3 models are called buoyancy vests and, according to Waterways, are designed for use on protected inland waters. However, they allow jet skiers to use a PFD 2 offshore. The NSWSKC is lobbying to have the same exemption officially applied to kayaks. In order to be effective, the PFD 2 requires that the wearer be awake and mobile and able to keep upright by swimming motions. It is a big help in surf.

The PFD 3 is just like a PFD 2, except that the 3 doesn’t have a covering in the officially approved colours, “safety orange” or “safety yellow.” Waterways says, “PFD 3’s are not recommended for general boating use because the colours are less visible in search and rescue operations.” In addition, “To be acceptable by Waterways, the PFD must be designed and manufactured in accordance with Standards Australia specifications and bear the appropriate stamp of that organisation.”

So, what should sea kayakers use? The OSD actually recently bought a snappy blue PFD 3 to replace his ancient PFD which may once have been “safety yellow” but which had faded to unsafe, dirty gray over the years. The reason he bought a PFD 3 instead of a PFD 2 had more to do with fit than colour.

Fit is an all important consideration for paddlers. Often a PFD feels good in the shop, but chafes badly under the arms once on the water when the spray deck pushes the PFD upwards into the arm pits. Most PFD’s are made with arm holes which are far too small for active kayak paddling. The arm holes can be enlarged, but it is better to spend a few more bucks and get a PFD which is specifically suited to paddling.

One good design, made by ULTRA, has triangular flotation cells front and rear which leave a great deal of room for the arms. The model is called “The Edge” and is elegantly simple with few straps and buckles. It is pulled over the head to wear and costs $115. ULTRA (An Australian firm which has it’s factory in Fiji) is coming out with a new model called “The Pinnacle” in March. It will have a side entry, neoprene waist, open mesh front pocket, adjustable shoulder straps and a whistle holder and will sell for $119. This is about $20 to $30 more than the average PFD 2 or 3, but the extra expense is worth it in comfort. ULTRA PFD’s are rated as 3, but come in orange and yellow colours which are as visible as the officially sanctioned hues.

For the ultimate in comfort and compliance with regulations, inflatable PFD 1’s are available. They can be inflated either by pulling a lanyard attached to a CO2 cartridge, or, alternatively, by allowing the PFD to self inflate through contact with sea water. The second option would be of little value to the average spray-soaked sea kayaker. These inflatables might be convenient, but the price of $190 is daunting.

The chronically impoverished OSD is leaning in the direction of the ULTRA Pinnacle, in spite of the cost and the fact that he just bought another PFD 3. After all, at his age, he deserves the most user-friendly gear he can find.

Happy floating!

(I recommend paddlers go into their nearest waterways office and get a free copy of the “NSW Safe Boating Handbook”. Its got some useful information in it – Ed)