No one expects to go overboard, but what if you did? Would you have the right gear on to survive it? 

PropTalk staffers Chris Charbonneau and Zach Ditmars wearing vest-style PFDs during the Fish for a Cure tournament in November.
PropTalk staffers Chris Charbonneau and Zach Ditmars wearing vest-style PFDs over winter gear during the Fish for a Cure tournament in November. 

It’s cold. It’s dark. And you’ve fallen overboard. What should you be wearing? What can keep your head above water, help you keep your wits, and aid rescuers? From lifejackets to personal safety gear accessories, there are several recommended items you should be wearing, including personal flotation devices (PFDs) and personal locator beacons (PLBs), to strobe lights and reflective tape. We outline the myriad of options available, with a focus on coastal and offshore boating. And we’ve enlisted the help of retired United States Coast Guard captain and U.S. Sailing Safety at Sea instructor, Kip Louttit, to help us select the best overboard dress code. 

Naturally, at the top of the list is choosing and wearing a PFD. There are several types of PFDs on the market ranging from offshore lifejackets for extended survival in rough, open water, to flotation aid vests that work well for flat water boating, day sailing, and kayaking (see sidebar for Coast Guard rated PFDs).
 
“A PFD helps you get back to surface quickly so that you don’t inhale water due to gasp reflex in cold water,” Louttit said. Many of the offshore and coastal varieties are designed turn you face-up in the water. 

Buoyancy first

Louttit focused his discussion on inflatable PFDs, as they tend to be the lifejacket of choice for cruisers and powerboat racers. They are much less restrictive, offer excellent in-water performance, and are compatible with harnesses, he said. The difference between the offshore and coastal varieties is the amount of buoyancy, or the ability to keep your head out of the water. He suggests buying an offshore jacket with as much buoyancy as possible. For inflatables, that is 34 pounds.

“More buoyancy is better,” Louttit said, noting that severe line squalls blow through the Chesapeake can bring high winds and rough water.

The leg straps are integral to the PFD’s performance in that it keeps it down near the torso once it inflates.

“Otherwise it’s like having a doughnut around your head,” he said. “Ten years ago, leg straps were all retrofitted to PFDs, but now they are integrated. They have come a long way,” he added. 

The inscription on the inflation bladder shows proper replacement cylinder. Image courtesy of Kip Louttit
The inscription on the inflation bladder shows proper replacement cylinder. Photo courtesy Kip Louttit

Most boaters prefer a PFD with an integral harness as that makes it easier to wear than having a separate PFD and harness that don›t always work well together. And the higher-end offshore PFDs will include a small zippered pocket, safety whistle, strobe light attachment point, and reflective tape. Mustang and other brands tout the comfort factor of these modern PFDs—designed to be lightweight and comfortable for maximum mobility and soft neoprene that won’t chafe your neck.

When you wear your PFD is a matter of choice, but the experts suggest wearing one if the weather is rough, the temperature is cold, you are not a confident swimmer, or you are alone on deck, or it’s nighttime. 

Automatic v. manual

There’s also the matter of how these inflatable inflate, either manually (not a good option for someone who has been knocked unconscious), or automatic with a water-soluble bobbin or hydrostatic pressure. The latter will automatically inflate when submerged in a certain water depth, while the PFD with the bobbin inflates when it come in contact with water. These have been known to inflate with a good wave or splash.

Louttit suggests using the hydrostatic technology because they are very unlikely to accidentally inflate and also save you from needlessly re-arming the cylinders located in the PDF bladder. While a manual-inflate version requires less maintenance and will never accidentally inflate, Louttit suggests auto-inflate ones because once overboard, a person could be disoriented and forget to pull the trigger to inflate it. 

Personal safety gear

Other necessary accessories to include on your body, either in a fanny pack, pouch, or attached to the PFD, are a strobe, knife, flashlight, light sticks, and a whistle, which is much easier for rescuers to hear than a human voice. He also stresses the use of reflective tape that can be place on your jacket or horseshoe.

“That stuff is magic and works amazing well. There’s no maintenance, and it lasts a long time. From my experience in the Coast Guard, I have seen it help out in man overboard situations.”

An AIS locator beacon allows both the mothership and nearby vessels to identify your exact location using an AIS set or chartplotter, while a PLB (shown here) sends your location to the Coast Guard.
An AIS locator beacon allows both the mothership and nearby vessels to identify your exact location using an AIS set or chartplotter, while a PLB (shown here) sends your location to the Coast Guard. 

Louttit said he’s carried a personal locator beacon or PLB since they came on the market, but wanted to stress the difference between them and an AIS locator beacon. The latter allows both the mothership and nearby vessels to identify your exact location using an AIS set or chartplotter, while the PLB sends your location to the Coast Guard. Your crew can then retrieve your lat and long from the Coast Guard. Louttit said the AIS beacon is much simpler given that it can be rigged to the PFD inflation tube and hence automatically activated when the lifejacket inflates.

Test runs

A test run will give you an understanding of what it’s like to be in the gear and be able to function. Louttit strongly suggests jumping into the water dressed with all your personal safety gear.

“This is critical,” Louttit said. “You need to know how you float in your PFD, what it’s like to screw the flashlight on, how to get into a life raft or back into the boat. Can you get your whistle out? Can you hit the button on your strobe with your cold hands?”

Louttit’s parting advice is to keep warm with layers of polypropylene, fleece, and wool, warm wool hats, and more to stave off hypothermia. 

“Being warm could help keep your wits and prevent and overboard situation.”

An inflatable PFD with personal equipment: PLB, streamer, mirror (for signaling), whistle, strobe light, flashlight, and knife. Perhaps add personal pen flares for offshore passages. Photo courtesy Kip Louttit
An inflatable PFD with personal equipment: PLB, streamer, mirror (for signaling), whistle, strobe light, flashlight, and knife. Perhaps add personal pen flares for offshore passages. Photo courtesy Kip Louttit

PFD Types

  • Type I: Offshore Lifejackets. Best for all waters: open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming. Though foam types are bulky, inflatables ones are not. They have the most buoyancy, reflective tape, a bright color, and can turn most unconscious people face up in the water.
  • Type II: Near-Shore Vests. Calm inland waters, where a quick rescue is likely, is the intent of these PFDs. They will turn some unconscious wearers to the face-up position, but not all of them. Foam Type II’s are bulky, but less so than foam Type I’s.
  • Type III: Flotation Aids. These are suitable for most sailors where there is a chance for a quick rescue. They offer freedom of movement and the most comfort for a conscious person. Foam type III’s are designed so wearers can put themselves in a face-up position, but they may have to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in water. Inflatable type III’s generally float a person head back.
  • Type IV: Throwable Devices. Cushions or ring buoys are designed to be thrown to someone in trouble and provide backup to a PFD. They are not for non-swimmers, rough waters or the unconscious. The USCG does not require these for dinghies, canoes, kayaks.
  • Type V: Special-Use Devices. These are specialized PFDs for specific activities. To be acceptable by the USCG, they must be used for the activity specified on the label. Varieties include sailing (w/harness), kayaking, water skiing, windsurfing, hybrid vests, and deck suits.

This is the first in our three-part series. Find the second installment in the March, 2019 PropTalk.