The
paddling mags have yearly buyer’s guide issues with many words and
multiple listings on PFDs (Personal Flotation Device/Life Jacket). There are some things they never talk
about which are important to decked boaters.

Did
you know that PFDs affect ease of rolling? It’s not the amount of
flotation, but how it’s packaged. Multi-tubed PFDs, especially those
which you have to roll up at the waistline to clear your kayak skirt,
impede rolling not only because they are rougher and increase the
drag of your torso as you roll, but because they pick up a lot of
water between and under their tubes, which drags you back as you
emerge from the water.

You
might think (as I did once) that lots of flotation helps lift you up
and out of the water. So, why is it easy to roll in the pool without
any PFD at all? Streamlined torso, and minimal water load as you
clear the surface.

I
own a 30 lb. flotation Charlie Walbridge designed multi-tubed PFD,
and at the other extreme I have a 15 lb. flotation Rapidstyle ICF
racing jacket made of just two close-fitting slabs of foam. (Neither
PFD is Coast Guard Approved, which really keeps me awake at night.)
The Walbridge jacket is OK in an open boat, but makes rolling in a
C-1 or kayak distinctly difficult.
[Hey,
Gary, are you saying that rolling an open boat is so easy that the
load of water in the PFD makes no difference? – Editor.]

The ICF racing jacket rolls very easily. I have a 22 lb. Stohlquist
Max, made of just two slabs of foam, which also rolls easily. My 20
year old 13 lb. Flotherchoc, with its multiple vinyl pouches, and my
17 lb. multi-tube Omega both pick up a lot of water and do not roll
easily.

Some
of the later multi-tube designs actually consist of just a few long,
flat strips of foam sewed in such a way that there is little space
between foam and fabric for water to collect. These often have no
flotation below the waist tie. If such jackets fit close, they
should pick up little water and should roll fairly easily.

Those
of you running heavy water should realize that a bulky, convoluted,
multi-tube jacket will make it harder to pull your body through waves
and holes. And even when swimming, a rougher jacket which doesn’t
fit close is going to increase drag.

The
trade-off has been that close-fitting slab-type jackets have been hot
and stiff. I can’t help on the hot part, but with the new Airex
foams, most slab jackets are now acceptably flexible. If you have a
bulletproof roll, wear whatever you want. If your roll, like mine,
has off days, then a simpler, close-fitting slab-type PFD may make
the difference.
[Or maybe you should
paddle one of those easy to roll open boats? – Editor]

On
the other hand, if you’re one of those feckless open boaters who
paddles the Metro Hooch topless because a life jacket is hot and
constricting, please buy a loose, comfortable PFD and wear it.
You’ll look a lot more intelligent.

I’m
not through yet. My second PFD Pet Peeve is that choking feeling I
get in most PFDs when I set up for a kayak roll. It’s caused by the
jacket jamming in the narrowed gap between the spray skirt and my
chin. How do the rest of you live with this? I’m 6’5″, much
longer in the torso than you, and I find it a major annoyance, even
with my Extrasport Squirt jacket, one of the shortest designs on the
market.

I
cured the problem on that jacket by cutting open the nylon below the
chin, removing about an inch and a half of foam, and sewing the nylon
shut again. Probably voids my Coast Guard Approval. I did add about
2 lb. of flotation to the side panels at no sacrifice in comfort.

I’ve
tried on a lot of PFDs lately, and most have this chin clearance
problem during roll setup, even my Rapidstyle racing jacket. A
fairly reliable way to avoid the problem is to get a short jacket
with a front center zipper, like my Stohlquist Max. The lower front
at the top of the zipper often cures the difficulty. I also consider
a front zipper to be a great convenience and a possible safety
advantage, allowing an easier escape if the PFD snags seriously on
something.

My
third PFD Pet Peeve is the lack of any really workable system to keep
PFDs from riding up or even slipping off during a swim. You may
think the waist belt and side straps do this, but if they are
tightened enough to effectively keep the jacket down, they restrict
breathing. They are effective, however, for adjusting the jacket for
more or less warmth, or to keep a load of water from getting under
the jacket when rolling (see above).

For
open boaters, crotch straps are fairly easy to add and will keep the
PFD down during a swim. An alternate approach would be to attach the
PFD to the top of one’s pants. For decked boaters, the spray skirt
and the various combinations of dry tops, etc., make crotch straps
unworkable. It would be possible to attach the bottom of the PFD to
the spray skirt, and put a crotch strap under the skirt. It would be
more comfortable to attach the spray skirt to one’s pants, but this
would require either individual modifications or an extraordinary
amount of cooperation between the various PFD and spray skirt
makers.

I
expect this last problem to go unsolved. Most folks don’t swim that
much, and are willing to ignore those rare instances where a PFD has
been stripped off. This seems to occur mainly where the paddler is
trapped by the foot or leg in a very strong current, but if the
paddler doesn’t get loose, the lack of a jacket won’t matter. So
we’ll all go on fiddling with the waist belt and straps, trying to
get them tight enough, or just leaving them loose and trusting to
luck.

by Gary
DeBacher
From The Eddy Line, February 1997