“Safety first” can sound like an annoying cliché, but on the water it really means something. Everyone knows what a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is. We usually call them life jackets or life vests. It’s that annoying, floaty thing that nobody likes wearing. The puffy vest that keeps you from drowning. You know what I’m talking about.
Despite the inconvenience, a properly-fitted PFD is the best insurance you can buy for the water. Now Coast guard regulations state “All recreational boats must carry one wearable lifejacket (Type I, II, III or Type V lifejacket) for each person aboard.” Since a paddleboard outside the surf zone is classified as a “vessel”, this means you legally must have a PFD with you. If you are caught without one, local law enforcement will do more than yell and tell you you’re a bad person. They can fine you right there on the water. These fines are defined by individual jurisdictions, but they’re normally around $100, and sometimes as high as $250 or more. Yes, and this has happened. Consider this the second-best reason to wear a PFD. (For reason number one, remember that word “drowning”.) To be clear, the Coast Guard doesn’t actually require you to wear one. You just have to have it on your board somewhere. But don’t listen to this ridiculous rule. Wear it. Your flotation device isn’t doing you any good except when it’s attached to you.
Consider also how a PFD makes falling much less of a hassle. It will prevent you from going fully under, plus it floats you higher. This makes it easier to pull yourself back on your board after a fall. Reason number three to wear a flotation device. By the way, in cold water, this is a very important thing. No matter how thick a wetsuit you’re wearing, you don’t want to go under in hypothermic water. Many areas with an active winter make wearing a PFD use mandatory during cold months, which is a very sensible precaution.
Evolution of Safety Equipment
Thankfully, flotation devices have come a long way from the Mae Wests of World War II. Your paddling PFD will also be a far cry from the blocky and awkward “life vests” you see lining the walls of any commercial vessel. While you are required to use either a Type I, II, or III personal flotation device, in practice you will be using a Type III. Classified by the Coast Guard as a “Flotation Aid”, these PFDs are, “Designed so that wearing it will complement your boating activities.” What this means in English is that a Type III PFD is not designed for off-shore accidents. It’s for active use, which makes them perfect for kayakers, windsurfers, and stand up paddlers.
Before buying your PFD, I would suggest going to your local watersports store and trying on a few. People’s bodies have different shapes, so the ideal PFD for your buddy might be completely wrong for you. As stand up paddling has become more and more popular, companies are making PFDs specifically for the sport. These usually cost a little more than a bargain basement PFD, but the comfort is worth it. A paddling-specific PFD is designed to reduce friction in the armpits and shoulders. On a short paddle that might not make much difference, but one day it will. Then you will ask yourself, “Is this painful chafing worth the money I saved on this PFD?” Your armpits will answer with a resounding “No!”
When fitting a PFD, the correct answer to, “Does this PFD make me look fat?”, is “Yes!” It better. That’s because most of the floaty material needs to be in front. This design lifts your face and chest above the surface of the water. You end up in a slight “leaning backwards” position. This is especially important if you become unconscious or disoriented.
Before you wear your PFD for the first time on the water, put it on while wearing your bathing suit. Adjust the straps for a nice fit. Walk around a little. Try the pockets. Go shopping. Wear it on a date. (Just kidding about those last two.) Just make sure the vest is comfortable and you have a good range of movement. You want any fitting problems to happen now, not after you’ve fallen in. You also don’t want the PFD to be too tight. It should allow enough freedom for every kind of stroke you need.
When shopping for a PFD, I suggest that you buy one in a loud, obnoxious color. Suave and stylish hunter greens, navy blues, and basic black are not great for safety equipment. A big part of safety is being seen by the people around you. Considering how small and fragile a paddleboard is, you really want to be noticed. If you have the bad luck to need a rescue, a yellow life vest is a much easier to spot than an urbane gray one. That said, there are some very nice orange and bright blue PFDs that satisfy the needs of both safety and fashion. Shop around. (This means the answer to the question, “Does this PFD color make me look goofy?” should also be, “Yes.”)
PFDs have another use besides floating humans. Most come with pockets, which are handy for the little things you want to take with you. My PFD has held energy bars, a waterproof camera, my iPhone in a waterproof case, energy gels, car keys, candy, water bottles and money. That key thing is especially important. That’s something you want to keep close to you, and there’s no place closer than your chest. Please make sure you snap or zip the pockets of your PFD before you start paddling or you might end up losing your stuff after a fall.
PFDs for Children
A word about child PFDs. These are designed a little differently than ones for adults. You’ll notice extra float cushions around the head. These make your child’s head is held upright and not allowed to go floping around. You’ll also see an uncomfortable-looking strap that attaches from front to back, under the crotch. While it might hurt if tugged hard, that strap must be attached. Please. You don’t want your child slipping out of the PFD in deep water — that’s a nightmare situation. The strap doesn’t have to be tight, but it shouldn’t be loosey-goosey either. Snug but comfortable is best.
One trick I’ve found for getting kids comfortable in a PFD is to put it on at the beach. Through natural play, your child will get used to it and enjoy being able to float. By the time you take them on a paddling trip there won’t be any problems wearing one. Your kid will probably be jumping off the board without your prompting, or asking, or even wanting. You want your children to be relaxed in the water. When I paddle with my kids, I fit them with a straight leash while I wear a coiled one. The straight leash gives my kid a nice radius to swim while my coiled leash stays nicely out of the way. All this fun, courtesy of the PFD.
The Argument Against PFDs
Ever since the U.S. Coast Guard classified paddleboards outside the surf zone as a “vessels” and required each paddler to have a PFD, members of the stand up paddling community have thrown up resistance. Their strongest argument is that a paddler wearing a leash is already attached to an immense flotation device, the paddleboard itself. Furthermore, forcing experienced paddlers to wear a PFD is an intrusion on a person’s right to paddle how he or she wants. If a paddler drowns, then that’s nobody’s problem but the paddler’s.
While these arguments have some validity, a few things need to be said. The most important being that you truly are safer wearing a PFD than not. Also, no matter how you feel about the law, it is the law. Stand up paddlers have been fined for going on the water without them. Another point to consider: it is job of the US Coast Guard to search and rescue people in American coastal waters. While a PFD might seem intrusive, they make it much easier for the Coast Guard to rescue you. A PFD may also protect a paddler from drowning during freak accidents or a sudden health crisis like a heart attack, things no one expects, but which do occasionally happen. Yes, PFDs may be annoying for some paddlers to wear, but better a little awkwardness than to not return home at all.