Aboard Avant, we’re bullish on PFDs. We wear them whenever on deck while underway, and have upgraded them with a few additional gewgaws to help them (pretty much) match ORC safety guidelines and increase their effectiveness. We regularly (annually) look over the Offshore Racing Congress (ORC) guidelines and update our safety gear accordingly.
Your PFD is your primary piece of personal safety gear, and is what will keep you afloat should you slip overboard. Being rescued by the short-handed crew you leave aboard might not be instant, so being prepared to signal and help them find you is likely to be very useful. Having your PFD kitted out to make it more effective than what comes off the shelf is easy, and (we think) worthwhile. Having a few of the nice-to-have-at-hand items on your person is good too, so we add those as well.
We follow the ‘one is none, two is one’ ethos in equipment – if something is important, we like to have a spare or alternate item immediately at hand.
We start with a basic, automatic inflatable PFD with an integrated harness for offshore use. If you’re sailing in your home jurisdiction and want to use it to meet safety regulations, you need to pay attention to local government approvals, but if you’re offshore or going offshore, we feel any approval is good enough to meet the use case (Canadian Coast Guard, US Coast Guard, UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency, European CE, etc.). There are a lot of manufacturers (Crewsaver, Mustang Survival, Revere, Spinlock, Stearns, and many others) and when you look them over, they’re much of a sameness in features and approvals. We buy what’s on sale.
We replace PFDs every 5-6 years and rotate the used ones to spare status, and after 10+ years, they’re binned. We inspect them when they come into inventory as new, and annually thereafter. Annual inspection is visually checking for wear spots, frayed stitches, etc., cleaning and servicing the stuff attached to them, changing batteries in battery powered accessories, and then inflating the life vests and leaving them inflated overnight to check for loss of pressure (leaks) before refolding them for use.
Start with a basic, integral harness, self-inflating PFD.
We add what the ORC calls ‘ride up prevention system (RUPS)’. These can be either thigh straps or a crotch strap. We use crotch straps as we have found them easier to use, they have lower drag, and are cheaper than thigh straps. These prevent you from slipping down in the life vest (or the life vest slipping up on you) and make it easier to keep your head above water. If you’ve ever tried your life vest in the water, you will know the importance of having a RUPS.
We add a knife. The knife should be easy to open (and close), and somehow attached to the PFD so it won’t be lost. A belt clip allows it to be clipped to the PFD waist strap for storage. You can make a string lanyard, but we prefer elastic tethers, which we get at the Dollar store (our fave chandlery). These tethers last a few years before needing replacement. The knife should be at least ½ serrated (for fast cutting) and have a blunt tip or sheepsfoot blade (so it’s harder to inadvertently puncture the PFD bladder with it). A cheap West Marine rigging knife works fine, or a Spiderco Salt if you want an upgrade. If you get a sharp-tipped knife, grind off the pointy tip. Any knife will rust, so we brush ours liberally with wax (like we use on the hull) using a toothbrush and wipe the excess off, which seems to keep rust at bay.
Many PFDs come with a whistle stowed inside the folded bladder. If not provided, add a whistle there. We add a second one outside on a coiled elastic strap around the bladder so it can be used to call up off-watch crew, or signal a nearby boat instantly, without opening the life jacket. The low profile Fox whistles are good for this.
We think you should have a light (minimum 1). We have two (three counting the headlamp). We have one automatic light inside on the inflation tube, and a second one outside on the same coil elastic as the exterior whistle. The interior stowed light is a water-activated strobe. The exterior light is a simple, pocket LED powered by 2032 lithium coin batteries; these are often sold as bike lights. It provides enough light for tasks right at hand, can light your way forward on deck, help you find that thing you dropped, etc. They’re usually available in white or red, and we choose red to try to preserve night vision. We rub a bit of Vaseline on the o-rings when we change the batteries every year. For devices that use AA, AAA, or similar batteries, we use lithium batteries for longer life, better cold weather performance, and less chance of a leaking battery.
For our offshore jackets, we upgraded and use McMurdo MOB-1 Beacons. These have a light, a DSC-VHF alert with an AIS transmitter, and are rigged to go off when the jacket inflates. The beacons alert the mother ship and nearby vessels of a crew overboard situation via both DSC-VHF and AIS. There are other devices that have AIS transmitters without the DSC, and also PLBs (personal satellite beacons). We chose the DSC-VHF+AIS beacons because not everyone has AIS, but DSC-VHF is becoming ubiquitous. PLBs are great but take longer to alert anyone, and they send their alert to a coast guard station thousands of miles away, not to boats on the scene (if single handing, the PLB would be the way to go, though).
Our previous generation alerting devices were McMurdo Smartfind S20 AIS MOB Beacons (which seem to be discontinued now). These transmitted a GPS location on AIS and were good, but we prefer the dual DSC(VHF) and AIS functions the new beacons offer. The old ones are relegated to our backup systems now. These all need periodic servicing just like an EPIRB does.
We also add a signal mirror. These are inexpensive, and provide an alternative long range (up to 20 miles) signalling capability. You can get them in outdoor camping shops. We attached them to the inflation tubes with simple string neck lanyards for cell phones from those fave chandlers, the Dollar store.
We like a headlamp right at hand (it does get dark, pretty much every night), so we add one to a pouch on the belt. If the pouch is zippered, we treat the zipper with wax (like lip balm, also from the Dollar store) to keep it working. Our preference is for waterproof ones with variable output and red light capabilities. You don’t need much light working on deck at night, and bright white ones will ruin your night vision. These can be used to signal as well, should you need to.
We like to have a multi tool at hand at all times – a Leatherman™ (or similar) with pliers, screwdriver bits, and so on. We keep it in a pouch on the PFD belt. If you find something loose and want to tighten it up, it’s convenient to have the means at hand when you discover the issue and save a trip downstairs to grab a tool. The multi tools are also prone to rust, so we treat them the same way as the knife, with an annual liberal brushing of wax, wiping off the excess.
We like to upgrade the reflective tape(s) on the PFD’s bladder. They usually come with a couple of meager-meets-minimum strips of reflective tape, so we add three or five more around the upper edges to increase visibility. If you’re buying reflective tape, get a roll so you can upgrade your LifeSling, Man Overboard pole float, life ring, and other safety gear too.
ORC rules also call for each PFD to be marked clearly with the wearer’s or boat’s name: a few seconds with a Sharpie™ and that’s crossed off the list as well.
With a few changes in how you add, stow and use safety gear on your PFDs, along with a bit of attention, you can make any PFD a more useful survival aid, and the additional weight isn’t really noticeable when in use.