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Inflatable PFDs-Are Inflatable Life Jackets Right For You?

As spring thankfully approaches, it is time to start discussing on the water safety and compliance topics. For many recreational boaters and fisherman who ply their craft from a vessel, the wearing of an approved PFD is mandated by law. For others, an accessible and approved PFD/life jacket for every individual on board qualifies as compliance. Check your local regulations frequently as the laws are often changing. An example would be the recent introduction in New York state of legislation requiring any person aboard a water craft, including motorboats, canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and sailboats, of less than 21' to wear an approved PFD at all times between November 1st. through May 1st. Marine safety is a broad and important field but today's topic will be a general overview of inflatable Personal Flotation Devices or PFDs as they are commonly known. This focus is on the typical near shore and inland recreational boater and fisherman.

In 1996, after more than ten years of study and debate, The United States Coast Guard (USCG) approved the use of certain inflatable life jackets for on the water usage. USCG-approved manual inflatables have been available for several years and as advances in design and safety features have been developed, additional models of manual/automatic inflatables have been approved by the USCG. This means that with a little research, approved manual and manual/automatic PFDs can be worn to meet a boater's USCG requirements for life jackets.

Inflatable PFDs are significantly different from traditional foam-filled life jackets. Besides being more comfortable (an important factor for fisherman and others who ply their trades on the water), inflatable jackets and vests are light in weight, often provide more buoyancy, and tend to be much cooler in hot weather or warm climates. A better mousetrap? Perhaps, but inflatables are not for every boater and every situation. They are not recommended for children and, in some locales, may be illegal for kids under a certain age. Certain types of inflating PFDs may also not be suitable for holding an unconscious personís head at the proper angle while in the water. Again, check with your local legal entities responsible for enforcement. Regulations as to usage and laws regarding children can vary.

Price is another factor when choosing PFDs. Lets face it, the increasing cost of on the water activities has risen in recent years and for some boat owners, traditional USCG approved life jackets are a good choice. Inflatable PFDs require a level of maintenance not found in foam-filled buoyancy vests. Inflatables life jackets contain a CO2 cartridge that inflate the vest. Combination manual/automatic models can be inflated by hand with a ripcord, and/or also inflate automatically upon contact with water. Strictly manual models require the user to pull a ripcord to activate inflation. This cartridge must be properly installed and replaced with a new one after the vest has been inflated. Standards require indicators that show whether the CO2 cartridge is properly installed and ready for proper use and deployment.

Today's combination manual/automatic inflatables PFDs are very different from their earlier, unapproved brethren. New models includes an extra CO2 cylinder and cap contained in an inside pocket, providing the wearer to rearm the unit after an accidental inflation. Often the additional CO2 cylinder will rearm the PFD as a manual model, meaning it can be re-inflated by pulling the ripcord. This function is intended for emergency use only and not a means to stretch the functional life of the system. Keeping a complete rearming kit on board for each inflatable is a good idea. This will allow a mariner to rearm a unit completely and restore itsí manual/automatic ability. Improved designs have made re-arming a simpler procedure. Reputable manufacturers, such as Mustang, include detailed, easy to decipher illustrations and written instructions on their PFDs. Oral inflation tubes are also included in these products, allowing for a person to stay afloat for extended periods of time.

Manual inflatables are usually classified as Type III PFDs. Manual/automatic inflatables are classified as a Type V, with Type II or Type III performance. PFDs are categorized by Type, i.e. Type I, II, III, IV or V. Types I, II and III are commonly worn by recreational boaters, while Type IVs are throwable devices such as life rings and flotation cushions. Type Vs are labeled for special uses but hybrid manual/automatic units fall under this category. Presently, all approved manually (non-hybrid) inflated PFDs are designated as Type III by the USCG. In another article we will discuss the various USCG Types with a look at the pros, cons of each.

While not ideal for every situation, inflatable PFDs provide a comfortable, safe, and legally compliant option for many boaters. This is especially true in the case of inshore and freshwater fisherman, often bound by local and/or tournament regulations to wear an approved PFD. While fishing, the comfort level versus traditional life jackets is unmatched. No matter your choice of Personal Flotation Device, be smart and safe while enjoying our waterways.