PFD’s, Buoyancy Aids and Life Jackets explained

What is a PFD? A Personal Floatation Device is a generic term for literally anything that can be used to assist in keeping an individual afloat.

Article by: SUP North Wales Social Group

ALL of the below are PFD’s;

Your actual Stand Up Paddleboard can be considered your primary and best form of PFD, hence one of the reasons we tether ourselves to the board with a leash. 

Buoyancy Aids, BA’s

Buoyancy aids are a personal flotation device used most commonly by kayakers, canoeists, dinghy sailors and, more recently, stand up paddleboarders. They are designed as a flotation aid with mobility in mind to allow the wearer to move more freely. Many BA’s are sport specific and it’s important to get the right one for your specific use.

An example of this would be a sea kayaking BA. I use a Palm touring BA that would be totally unsuitable for SUP’ing. The buoyancy within the jacket is loaded at the front as a kayaker would be sat in their vessel on a seat with some form of back rest/support. It has numerous pockets at the front for holding snacks, VHF radio, knife, whistle and whatever other easily reachable tools etc., you may want to pack into them. If I wore the same BA for paddleboarding it would be totally inappropriate as it would destroy my paddling technique due to its bulkiness. It would also hinder my self rescues, even more so if the pockets were crammed full.

Buoyancy Aids come in a variety of forms; over the head vest style, waist coat style with front zip, a combination of the two with a side zip or a waist pack. The majority are filled with permanent foam buoyancy, some are self inflating/inflatable and some are a combination of the two. Clearly, a BA with permanent buoyancy is the most common and practicable as the buoyancy is there the minute you end up in the water without you having to take any action. This is important if you are relying on that buoyancy to counter the effects of cold water shock.

What they will ALL have in common though is a minimum of 50N (Newtons) of buoyancy. “What does 50N mean?” I hear you ask. In simple terms, 10N equates to 1kg of buoyancy, so 50N should keep afloat a 5kg weight. Clearly, we all weigh much more than 5kg, and this is the important thing to remember about BA’s, they are designed to “assist” a person to stay afloat! Officially, they are recommended for use by those who are competent/confident in the water and who are near to land, or who have help close at hand. They are neither designed nor certified to have sufficient buoyancy to protect a person who is unable to help themselves, nor to turn a person onto their back from a face down position in the water. A lot of 50N buoyancy aids will have more than that level of buoyancy, some in actual fact measure over 70N, the stamped rating is a minimum. You can, however, purchase BA’s rated up to 70N for larger people. One point to note on buoyancy aids, and a common misconception, they are NOT designed to flip you onto your back if unconscious/incapacitated! If you fell into the water wearing a BA in an unconscious state, you are just as likely to float face down as face up!

There has in the last couple of years been an influx of cheap, unrated BA’s from China, and these are being widely sold by importers online. British Canoeing recently published a list of a considerable number of such BA’s that were being sold on Amazon and which were found to be way below standard. I cannot stress enough the importance of purchasing a buoyancy aid from a reputable retailer or supplier. You may be saving a few quid, but is it worth it at the cost of your own safety or that of your loved ones? Every buoyancy aid being sold HAS to be marked with either ISO 12402-5, EN 393, or both. Unfortunately, the cheap Chinese BA’s are being stamped with these even though they have not met the required standard. An experienced eye may catch one of these cheap imports but the majority would not know the difference between a genuine BA and a sub standard import.

Another reason to buy from a retailer is the fit of the BA. If it doesn’t fit correctly it might not function as it is supposed to, may be uncomfortable to wear and could impeded your paddling efficiency or even cause injuries. Good quality BA’s will have a size chart with them giving recommended sizes for chest measurements and weight.

So what should you look for in a BA? As you’ve already noted, the correct safety standard markings. You also need to make sure you are comfortable in the BA, that it is appropriate for SUP’ing, and that it fits correctly. Avoid BA’s with “fussy” front panels, the more buckles and pockets on the front, the more chance of snagging them on things or making remounts harder. Believe me, if you have big pockets you WILL stuff them full of things. Look for a BA that has adjustable shoulder straps. Just as we all vary in weight, we also vary in height, and it’s really important from a comfort aspect to have the BA sitting correctly on your person. Additionally, for women, adjustable shoulder straps means that the top of the BA’s front panel/panels can be pulled in snugly if pushed out by a larger bust. Also, think about what you might want to be wearing to paddle in year round and whether the BA would still be suitable for your winter wear, vest type BA’s can be a nightmare to get on over a bulky drysuit. Think about the colour! It seems that black is the sexier choice for safety gear these days in all forms of outdoor pursuits, but if you are in a position where your BA is having to do what its designed to, i.e. help you to survive, you WANT to be seen! Go for a bright colour, it’s not through chance that life jackets are yellow or orange! Look for a good quality of material on the outer surface of the jacket that will last and be resistant to tears.

The price of your BA will determine what “extras” you get with it, such as SOLAS reflective strips, built in emergency whistles, pockets at he back designed to hold drinks bladders etc. 

When you put on your buoyancy aid, first of all loosen all the straps. Put the buoyancy aid on, zipping it up if it has a zip. Once you have it sitting correctly, start to tighten all the straps working form the bottom of the BA upwards and finishing with the shoulder straps. To test for fit, get someone to take hold of the shoulder straps and pull upwards. If the BA rises more than about 5cms, the jacket is either too big for you or incorrectly fitted. Try a smaller size or readjust the straps.

Waist Pack Style BA

I’ve mentioned the waist pack type of BA, and these certainly have their place. I suffered a shoulder injury some years ago and my collar bone is held in place by a number of screws and wires. Unfortunately, these screws are situated in exactly the spot where the shoulder straps of a BA rest. The motion of paddling and associated movement/friction of the straps against the skin over the screw heads can actually cause the head to break through the skin, which can be a bit of a nuisance! For that reason, on long paddles, I am much more comfortable wearing a self inflating waist pack. As an watersports instructor, I feel the effects of cold water shock regularly, sometimes several times a day. I know what to expect, how to deal with it and don’t panic, so I know I can safely deploy my self inflating BA if needed once the effects have subsided. If you do go for one of these devices, make sure you know how to use it. Actually inflate so you know what will happen and assure yourself that you will know how to operate it in the heat of the moment. Here are some images demonstrating how such waist packs operate.

A Final Note

Once you’ve selected your preferred BA, look after it. Always rinse with clean water when you get home and allow to air dry. Store it, preferably by hanging, in a dry and airy environment. Do regular checks, looking at the out material for rips or tears, check the stitching on all attachments, webbing and belts. Check the zipper (you can purchase purpose made lubricant) and fastening/tightening buckles. The buoyant foam in your BA can deteriorate over time, or if compacted whilst storing. It’s easy to do a float test as advised by British Canoeing, just attach a 5kg weight to the BA and drop it in the water, if it floats it’s fine. If you find any damage, repair or replace. On a self inflating waist pack, check the gas cannister for rust and make sure it is still in date.

NB. Although I’ve pointed out that BA’s have a minimum of 50N of buoyancy, there is an exception to that and that’s in relation to children where, for small children, the buoyancy rating may be less. A decent child's BA will also be fitted with a crotch strap to literally stop the child from slipping out of the jacket in the water.

Life Jackets

From the get go, let’s make the point that lifejackets are totally are totally inappropriate for paddling boarding with a few exceptions, so I’m not going to go into great detail. Lifejackets can be either of a fixed foam or self inflating type. They Vest type buoyancy aid Waist coast type buoyancy aid Self inflating waist pack Self inflating waist pack after deployment will have a minimum buoyancy of 100N but are more commonly found with 150N. Offshore workers wear up to 275N due to the fact they could be wearing a myriad of weighty equipment on their person. These are designed to keep a helpless person afloat in offshore conditions and flip a helpless person onto their back to keep their airway clear of the water. Due to their very nature, the permanent foam type are very bulky, they will have a collar going around the back of the neck also filled with foam, crotch straps, whistle, SOLAS approved reflective markings and strobe lights. Clearly NOT conducive to paddling.

The self inflating type, which can be either automatic or manually activated, can often be seen worn by “yachties”. They are a simple, easy to wear design and are fantastic for that type of environment, but it’s really a one off piece of safety equipment. Once deployed and you have resolved your predicament, the lifejacket has to be deflated and repacked into its protective covering and a replacement gas cartridge fitted. Here’s a video demonstrating how the self inflating lifejackets work. Lifejackets will be marked with the following approval markings; EN395 / ISO12402-4 for 100N jackets and EN396 / ISO12042-3 for 150N jackets.

The only exception I can see as appropriate for paddle boarding would be an adult paddler carrying a young child that is not old enough to paddle and isn’t a competent swimmer where a 100N lifejacket may be considered the best option.

Article by: SUP North Wales Social Group