Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What is a PEE EFF DEE?

Sometimes seemingly basic questions are the best. On a social networking site, someone who sails and owns a sailboat asked me, "What is a PFD and what does it do?"

A PFD or "personal flotation device" is Coast-Guard-speak for a life preserver.
(In Spanish, it would be a "salvavida"; hence the somewhat repetitive slogan, "Salvavidas salvan vidas".) Mostly when we talk about PFDs we're talking about the wearable kinds, though there are also the throwable ones such as life cushions and life rings, one of which has to be on each boat, along with a proper-fitting, easily-reached, Coast-Guard-approved wearable PFD in good condition for each person on the boat.

Wearable PFDs do several things:

* Keep your head out of the water and help keep you from swallowing or breathing water,
* Keep you from sinking if you are too tired or cold to swim,
* Help you save energy and keep warmer in cold water,
* Make you easier to see by rescuers (by being brightly colored and/or by keeping you up higher in the water).

Note that in cold water, most people only retain enough muscle control to swim for as little as five to ten minutes, or less. And some people are so overcome by cold water shock or the "gasp reflex" that they can lose swimming ability almost immediately. But, if they can keep floating, they may be able to survive for one or more hours, giving them a hugely better chance of being rescued.

Some PFDs do special things.

* Kid and pet PFDs often have a handle to help lift the kid or pet out of the water. They may also have a crotch strap to make them more secure. Kid PFDs often have fun, appealing designs.

* "Float coats" and immersion suits are good at keeping you warm as well as floating in cold water.

* Some PFDs have special pockets and clips for fishing gear.

* Inflatables are lightweight and easy to wear and don't get you so hot and sweaty on a summer day, and some have harnesses so you can clip on to a boat if you're sailing on the ocean or in rough weather.

* Some PFDs used by water skiers and jet skiers are designed to be impact-resistant at high speeds and to attach very securely to the wearer.

* Some PFDs, such as the big orange ones on ocean ships, also have special reflective patches that make them easier to find by rescuers and are even specially reflective to radar. Some PFDs also have whistles attached, and have places where a flashing light or even an emergency satellite "personal locator beacon" or electronic "rescue tag" can be attached.

PFDs are classified into types, based on their function and flotation. The wearables are the Types I (with the most flotation and the most ability to turn and keep a wearer face-up) through III. The Type II's are the commonly seen orange "Mae West" vests that can be bought very inexpensively, while the Type III's usually have a more sporty and comfortable look. Although the Type III's have less flotation, they are usually much more comfortable and thus more likely to be worn than the I or II's. The Type V's are special purpose, and the type IV's are the throwables (life rings or buoyant cushions).

Comfort and style are also important to sailors. Although the law requires the PFD to be on the boat and easily reachable, sometimes people don't have time to reach for a PFD. This is especially true for younger or older sailors or people with disabilities, for solo sailors, for sailors on small or open boats, at night or in limited visibility, or in bad weather or rough conditions.

Although people can debate which is the best PFD, it's really no contest: the best PFD is one that's worn.


At 5:17 AM, May 14, 2010, Blogger Pandabonium said...

When I was a kid we just had seat cushions which could be used for floatation. A lot has been learned since then and many more options have become available. In the same period of time, cars went from not having seat belts to having them and also airbags.

Today, I would no more consider sailing without wearing a PFD than riding in a car without wearing a seat belt. Every year many easily preventable tragedies remind us of need to take this simple precaution.

Thanks for an excellent post on the topic.

At 7:39 AM, May 14, 2010, Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Whenever the weather encourages it, the first layer of clothing I add to stay warm is a vest because I like to feel the wind on my arms as long as possible. Another part of my thinking is, being of advanced age, I want to make it as easy as I can to be plucked from the sea by others. Ease of rescue can save lives, too.

At 10:01 AM, May 14, 2010, Blogger bonnie said...

There's been a pretty strong movement over the last couple of years in kayakland to go back to calling PFD's "lifejackets".

The idea being that including the word "life" in the description is important.

At 12:08 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger Pat said...

Yes, I think even the Coast Guard folks realize that PFD is too darn much of a mouthful and could be replaced with life preservers. Safety posters in New Mexico often have the somewhat repetitive slogan in Spanish:
"Salvavidas salvan vidas" -- lifesavers save lives.

At 1:00 PM, May 17, 2010, Blogger Pat said...

Quote from

Cold Shock. An initial deep and sudden Gasp followed by hyperventilation that can be as much as 600-1000% greater than normal breathing. You must keep your airway clear or run the risk of drowning. Cold Shock will pass in about 1 minute. ... Wearing a lifejacket during this phase is critically important to keep you afloat and breathing.

Cold incapacitation. Over approximately the next 10 minutes you will lose the effective use of your fingers, arms and legs for any meaningful movement. ... Swim failure will occur within these critical minutes and if you are in the water without a lifejacket, drowning will likely occur.


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