Harken Derm

If you want PFD safety

Published on December 10th, 2018

Scuttlebutt encourages commentary from our readers, and while we may not at that time be able to include them all in the publication, we hold on to some in hopes we can. This letter from Tim Tunks comments on inflatable PFDs:


I wrote a story in the Mariner Magazine (#129 Nov. 2013) about the Uncontrollable Urge tragedy in The Islands Race held off the coast of Southern California. It illustrated a common rarely mentioned fatal design defect in many if the inflatable PFDs.

The boat’s crew ended up in the water drifting toward a rocky island shore in heavy surf and several suffered the same crisis when one of the inflated bladders re-positioned itself on the same side as the other one, slipping over the wearer’s head when rolled in the surf. The deceased victim’s body was recovered with his PFD in this position.

The problem is at the back attachment point behind the wearer’s head. The PFDs that didn’t fail had a broader support base across the shoulders that didn’t permit this to happen. This problem was mentioned in the ASA report of the incident but not widely discussed elsewhere.

Sailors can easily check their own PFDs to see if they have this flaw.

First observe the bladder attachment behind the neck to see if it is narrow or wide. Then, wearing the inflated PFD, have a friend see if they can lift one side over the wearer’s head. This will seem like a difficult maneuver, but imagine yourself rolling violently in the surf.

When underwater, your flotation exerts considerable buoyancy to pull it to the surface. If your body happens to be on its side then both bladders will be pulling in the same direction, so considerable force is required to keep them on their separate sides. Visualize the dynamics of the two bladders floating like a hull and your body hung below like a keel.

The other little regarded important PFD feature is the crotch strap, hardly ever seen in use. Without a crotch strap, it is easy for the PFD’s waist belt to slip up under the armpits, which deprives the wearer of freeboard to keep his head above water.

So the caveat is—if you want PFD safety, check your equipment’s design and wear the silly looking crotch strap.

NOTE: We encourage Scuttlebutt readers to submit stories, letters, or feedback to the editor. Please send to editor@sailingscuttlebutt.com.

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