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Starting Out

They're Called LIFE Jackets for a Reason!

By Tamia Nelson

"Life jackets," "Personal Flotation Devices" (PFDs), or "life vests"—whatever you call them, if you're going paddling, you need one. In fact, it ought to be just about the first thing you buy. And don't ever leave home without it! It's a matter of life and death.

Why? That's easy. Every year, canoeists and kayakers drown needlessly. They die because they're not wearing a PFD, and because cold water, big waves, strong currents, or injuries take their toll, leaving even "good swimmers" exhausted and helpless. If you don't wear a life vest each time you go out, you're betting your life that the odds won't catch up with you. This is a bad idea. It never pays to bet against the house.

Convinced? I hope so. Here's the deal. With the exception of a few "buoyancy aids" and "swim floats," the only PFDs offered for sale in the United States are those approved by the US Coast Guard. And they're the only ones worth considering. Period. So far so good, but not all Coast Guard Approved PFDs are equal. Some are intended for blue-water sailors, some are intended for river-rescue team-members, and some are just designed to sell as cheaply as possible.

Chances are you don't want any of these. Specialist requirements aside, there are really only two good choices for adult canoeists and kayakers. For river-running and general recreational paddling, get a short, form-fitting foam panel vest. You'll find examples of this type in every catalog. They'll have a label identifying them as "Type III" PFDs. (Vests intended for rescue personnel, big-water boaters, and rafters may carry a Type V label, but these special-purpose PFDs aren't a good choice for most recreational paddlers.)

PFDs. Don't Leave Home 
Without One

Some foam vests have wide panels and some narrow, but this doesn't matter. Fit does, though. A good vest will be comfortable enough to wear all day. It will adjust, so that you can wear it over either a t-shirt or a wetsuit. And it will stay put when you're in the water. It will also make it easy for you to float on your back with your face up and your legs extended. (This is the recommended position for "swimming" rapids.)

Unfortunately, the only way to determine if a vest fits you is to put it on, go paddling for a couple of hours and then jump in. (Pick someplace warm and safe!) Does the vest chafe you as you paddle? Does it ride up when you're in the drink, leaving your head low in the water? Does it make you fight to stay face-up? Then it's not the vest for you! You'll have to try again. So get some assurance from the seller that you can return any vest you buy if it doesn't fit. This is asking a lot of an outfitter, by the way. He (or she) won't be able to resell a PFD that's been used and brought back. But there's really no other way. If your dealer agrees to a try-out, therefore, be sure you return the favor. Give him first crack at all your business.

I said there were two good choices, didn't I? The second choice is for sea kayakers and inland boaters who paddle big lakes and flatwater rivers. It's a Coast Guard Approved inflatable PFD. Paddlers in the UK and elsewhere have used these for a long time, but inflatable vests were approved by the Coast Guard only a few years ago. They're not a good choice for whitewater paddlers, but they make a lot of sense for boaters who often make long, open-water crossings. For one thing, they're tremendously buoyant—some have more than twice the buoyancy of foam Type III vests. And many will turn an unconscious paddler face-up in the water. You'll be glad of that if you ever find yourself out of your boat with no hope of a quick rescue. Just remember that inflatables don't provide much protection against hypothermia. Dress accordingly.

Here's the bottom line: PFDs aren't cheap and finding one that fits well isn't always easy. But you're worth it, aren't you? It's a matter of life and death, after all. 'Nuff said.

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