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I like to think that Rebecca and I are pretty diligent when it comes to safety. While we don’t wear life jackets (PFDs) 24/7, we do always put them on at dusk, and when weather or conditionings suggest that it would be prudent. Perhaps when we start sailing on a monohull, we’ll adjust our thinking to wear them more often, I don’t know.

The other day I saw a Facebook comment by one of our online friends, Mario Vitone, where he stated that, after teaching one of his courses, he had some more converts to non-inflatable life jackets. As Rebecca and I both wear inflatable PFDs, that piqued my curiosity. Since then I’ve had a bit of a chat on the subject with Mario, and he filmed the excellent video below explaining his thinking. I have to say, he’s convinced me!

Huge thanks to Mario for giving us permission to share this video on our website!

Note: The one thing that I don’t believe Mario mentions when comparing the inflatable PFDs with the non-inflatable product that he recommends is cost. The Life Jackets that he advocates are less than half the price of the inflatable ones that many people are wearing!

55 Comments

  1. Yeah have to agree with you and Mario. I’ve always had non inflatable PFD’s on my boats. Both the vests (Preferably) as well as they type 1’s for emergency. My reason is exactly what he states above, you are not relying on mechanical devices to save your life, the non inflatables just float and (should be due to prior fitting) already fit to your body.

    I’ve never had to consider the warmth aspect of it, however that also makes sense.

    Good video and perspective, something that should always be driven home.

  2. Great video. Does the mustang have a spray hood? A light? I must say I might feel converted.

  3. I’ve done an awful lot of white water canoeing, therefore I’ve spent a lot of time in rivers swimming in a life jacket. I’m using the same non-inflatable type on my sailboat. Things happen fast in the water sometime and the last thing I want is to mess with inflating a life jacket.

    A life jacket that I’m comfortable paddling all day in is certainly comfortable enough for a sailboat. Of course, not every non-inflatable is that comfortable so it’s worth shopping around.

    • Ditto to that!

      I’m the same, I have been Kayaking forever, and this is exactly my favourite PFD for the same reasons he advocates. I have a retractable-knife , whistle, light, etc in mine. I never understood the inflatables trend beside comfort on board. I attributed it to 2 things: 1) someone never having really tried it in water and 2) a bit of snobiness wearing them (very obvious on the racing circuit).

      So glad that Mario explained it well, and that you (Mike) are re-enforcing this point.

      Thanks!

  4. I might have missed it, but I did not see a spot to put the tether (harness).

  5. Great stuff there. Thanks for sharing Mike. I’ve now decided to follow Mario’s blog and I’m sharing this video on SavvySailor as well.

  6. While I don’t disagree with some of the comments in the video, I still believe that a properly fitted inflatable is a better solution. The ISAF Offshore Special Regulations (Section 5 http://www.sailing.org/tools/documents/OSR2015Complete12012015Colour-%5B18223%5D.pdf) require a vest that meets a specific ISO standard, equipped with a light, a spray hood, a safety harness and crotch straps (to prevent the floatations from riding up around the neck of the wearer). In heavy seas and crashing waves, survival and the ability to get rescued are the key objectives. Properly designed vest have accesory pockets on the waistband where they remain accessible with the vest inflated. The ISO 12402-3 vest will also keep an unconscious swimmer alive.

    • Can you please share a link to a PFD like you are describing? Our Mustang hydrostatic vest is not exactly like that.

      Also, the link in your comment doesn’t seem to work.

    • My apologies for the bad link to the OSR PDF document; here’s the link to the OSR page http://www.sailing.org/documents/offshorespecialregs/index.php

      ISO 12402-3 life vests are more popular in Europe where the national marine safety authorities typically rely on the ISO standard rather than require their own as is the case in Canada (Transport Canada) and the USA (USCG). A popular model available in North America is the Spinlock Deckvest (https://www.spinlock.co.uk/en/categories/lifejackets). Note that it is not TC or USCG compliant, so you still need an “approved” vest on board while sailing in US or Canadian waters but hopefully things will change in the near future as North American standard agencies are reviewing and attempting to solve the discrepancies in requirements.

      The OSR requirements apply specifically to sailboats engaged in racing activities but there are a number of best practices that apply equally to cruising vessels.

      • Thanks, Guy. The Spinlock vests do look superior to the Mustang ones that we have (they look much more cool too! πŸ™‚ ). If I recall correctly, they also cost quite a bit more.

        I can see that they still suffer from some the same issues as the other inflatable ones though (described in the video). For those concerned about comfort, I wonder how many people would be wearing the vest with the crotch straps done up?

        I actually think that the Spinlock vest is what our friends Jason and Gail carry on Two Fish (comment above).

        • Great comments so far: but a little perspective is in order. 1. Sailing racers are a whole different breed. You are NOT the same thing as the average cruiser. I am a bit of a hypocrite, because for ALL of my professional (rescuer) career, I used an inflatable. BUT – I worked in a shop that as designed for…wait for it…maintaining inflatables. AND, I had very (very) nice gear (read: Designed for military, not available in stores, modified by me personally.

          Spray hoods? Great idea. Crotch straps…you bet. Your favorite gear not approved by the USCG? Yeah – weird, and a problem.

          I’m looking forward to getting in to all of this stuff. Thanks for the comments.

  7. When I looked into life vests for myself I found that all the inflatables I looked at said they were not recommended for my height (I’m only 5 feet tall). This means I only looked at non-inflatables and chose the one most comfortable for me. I feel safer and in cold weather it definitely keeps me warmer.

  8. While the Chesapeake Bay is not exactly offshore, it is a big body of water. I frequently fish alone and I’m in the market for a new PFD right now. Thanks for sharing this. It has changed my mind. Will you be sharing future episodes.

    I really enjoy your blog. Thanks again.

    • The worst weather we ever had was in the Chesapeake!!!

      As for the future videos, I’ll share them if Mario gives us permission. Regardless, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for them. Better subscribe to his site, just in case. πŸ™‚

  9. I’ll stick to my inflatable. If I ever find myself in a pinch, I want something to keep my head above water and from wallowing from side to side if and when I’m so tired I can’t keep my head up. I found the coughing downright fake. In fact, I’m diametrically opposed to his logic. In a lake, or even canoeing/kayaking then a vest would be fine…offshore, that’s not for me.

    • For the record, I have NOT (yet) done this but I’m curious, have you spent any time in the water wearing your inflatable? I believe that Mario has. His logic of testing your PFD in the water is sound. I’m sure that’s where his opinions are based, practical experience, not theory. I will do this!

      • Of course I haven’t spent time floating around in my inflatable, or any other life jacket, who has? Perhaps Mario has spent time floating around in his. I don’t believe that Mario has floated to the point of exhaustion in his, though. And, it’s at that point I want to be on my back with my head facing up and not rolling around. There’s no way one can rest in a vest such as he shows. Even in a glass smooth lake, much less the open ocean.

        • For someone who admits to not having tested any of this, you speak very definitively! For the record, I am not trying to convince you of anything. One thing I will say though, I learned through decades of martial arts training that there is theory, and there is reality. The only way to really know which is which is to test it. I have not tested this (yet) but I believe Mario has. That is enough to make me rethink what I thought was true.

          I will admit that your point about exhaustion may very well be valid.

          • Well, Mario’s so-called “test” is “fifteen minutes to a half hour” in a swimming pool. That’s hardly a test to me, but prefer not to argue the point. But, yes, I speak definitively for me only for, likewise, I’m not attempting to convince you of anything. Considering I can’t remember when I learned to swim (I just always could), grew up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and have been a boater all of my life and sailing for 35 years or so I believe I fully appreciate the difference between reality and theory.

            • Super interesting discussion. I testet my inflatable for two hours in open water in +/- 20 knots of wind. An experience I never want to have again. When it inflated I immediately started panicking. Too tight, couldn’t move my head and spray up my nose and mouth. The hood didn’t help because I couldn’t reach it. Crawling into a life raft is nearly impossible. I stopped playing unconscious after a few seconds because even though I was floating on my back I would have died from breathing solid water. … I don’t know which vests are better.

            • Hi Susan:

              I didn’t have time to get into this in an 8 minute video, but what you aren’t considering is what you give up post inflation. You may be in the water after being fatigued and be head up, but after reaching into my well supplied pockets (that you don’t have) I’ll have put up my strobe, lit off my epirb, and be out of the water.

              To be certain, there are too many variables for absolutes. I do not think one type of life jacket is “better” than another in all circumstances. But after half a lifetime of pulling sailors from the sea, or coming back empty after searching for them, or investigating their accidents, it’s my personal belief that given the choice, I’d take my lifejacket over the typical off the shelf inflatable.

              That’s a bit hypocritical as I wore an inflatable for most of my USCG career, but it was a really nice (fully tricked out) inflatable specifically designed for the purpose and I worked in a shop that repaired and maintained inflatables.

              Too many variables for absolutes….and “keeps my head out of water after fatigue” is not the only consideration.

              Now – keeping your inflatable is a perfectly acceptable and not at all a bad idea – of course. But I still suggest you get in the water with it to check how it adjusts when inflated. Then consider what else you wear with you all the time. Nobody plans to fall overboard – if it’s not on you it won’t be with you. Pockets!

              Thanks for watching.

  10. A lot of your comments are very valid but if it is not comfortable you won’t wear it. Where I sail it is also the heat factor.

  11. Exactly. I was involved with some Practical Sailor testing of inflatables and all of them had big drawbacks in the water. He didn’t even mention all of them:

    1. The quick release on the tether is disabled/inaccessible. This has contributed to fatalities on overturned boats. Oh well.
    2. They have been implicated in a number of fatalities where they snagged in companionways, trapping crew in the boat.
    3. Are you sure it does not have a leak? Just sayin’.
    4. The chest strap is too low for a deck harness (can break rib) and too high for a PFD. You can’t serve 2 masters.
    5. Personally, I do NOT find the big lump around the neck comfortable. Just me.
    6. If single handed or short-handed, your going to need to self-rescue. Good luck in an inflatable. Crawling over a side deck or through railings is basically impossible. You are immobilized. Often folks can’t even get into a life raft, and they certainly can’t swim back to the boat
    7. Useless in a kayak. Imagine trying to reboard or roll. They also rub the neck raw when paddling for long periods.
    8. Conventional provides rib protection. Which would you chose for working on the boat from the water? You really need a good kayak jacket (they have more buckles than cheaper jackets).
    9. Finally, a PFD is a poor answer in cold water. Better, have a harness that keeps you on-deck, and consider a dry suit (you can add a PFD, but you float in a dry suit anyway).

    If you give me one, I will sell it. I use harness + jacklines when needed on the sailboat, and a conventional when needed in the dingy or kayak.

  12. And as for the Chesapeake heat and fishing alone (I do both):

    1. A harness is way cooler than any PFD.
    2. A PFD won’t get you back to the boat if you are alone. In the fall rockfish season you will simply take longer to die. I actually have dedicated clip points so that I can walk down the sugar scoops when landing big fish alone; works great.

  13. The one you wear.
    Everything after that is optimization.

    • Respectfully, the “the one you wear” argument is a bit of a cop out. This is a topic worthy of discussion. If I had this info when I first started out, I would not have spent the big bucks on my inflatable. As it is, I’ll likely invest in new ones. I am not trying to convince anyone else to do the same though. Mario may have a dog in this fight but I don’t.

      • Yes it’s easy to say so. After all if you don’t or can’t use the device it won’t help.
        So get the one you are comfortable with, the one you’ll use more often. – If you have different uses by all means have more than one variant!

        Maybe I’m a just bit jaded, PFD vs. jacklines vs. anything at all is a very popular and recurring discussion here in Germany. Really mindboggling stupid. It’s not PFD versus clipping in, its both. [And since we are talking real world what happens is none, one, both – depending on the perceived situation.]

        The goal number one is to stay on board. Recovery is hard. In any weather it’s way harder. So making staying on board the priority is absolutely correct. Use jacklines, have hard points, clip in.

        That said no PFD is no solution either.
        Here is my problem with jacklines, and the ones [not Drew] that promote them as the one and ONLY solution:

        No jacklines on a dingy or RIB.
        Trevor Moore, US olympic sailor & trainer. Went missing Thursday last week, very high profile case. The dinghy was found very quickly with his personal PFD stored. GPS track also recovered, official search called off since but volunteers continue.

        No jacklines in a marina either.
        That recent case got covered here. [And still hurts.]

        Safety is a process, not an event.
        That you think about inflatable vs. rigid shows that you are on the right way.

        No matter which vest the 2 major issues I took away from the various discussions on the Internet about incidents and training are:
        – (sturdy!) crotch strap
        If take your arms up and fall out of the bottom of the PFD, that’s really bad. Why take your arms up? Gabbing something, say the rail of the boat or a rope. Trying to climb if you still can. This is also a fitting issue. You should NOT loose a correctly fitted vest even without strap. If you can grab the vest recovery becomes easier. (Can of worms: Integral lifting point.)
        – spray hood
        If you can’t breath easily things get worse in a hurry. No need to go to the white breaking waves and massive amounts of spray and foam scenario. From various reports all it takes is a session in the wave pool with the lights off to make instant believers. (Not knowing where and when a wave comes, thus not being prepared for it.) Those are recurring reports from a navy training facility occasional open to civil training, so perhaps a bit more cranked to 11 than your STCW95 pool. πŸ˜‰

        Then there is another can of worms to think about since you’ll probably buy new foul weather gear: integral PFD

        But first, foremost and above all else: DO NOT TAKE A P*SS AT THE STERN. Most dead male sailors are found with an open zipper…
        That should remove 2/3 or so of your drowning risk. πŸ˜‰

  14. I am very surprised that the video made no mention of crotch straps. They are stressed by everyone over here as being essential. The RNLI go on and on about them.

    I did once see a demonstration of why crotch straps matter. Note, they do NOT have to be tight and uncomfortable. A volunteer who disagreed with the crotch straps jumped into a swimming pool feet first. He went straight underwater, put his hands up to swim back to the top and the life jacket came almost completely off as he raised his arms. He then got in a tangle with the thing, threw it off and swam to the side. There was no more argument. Crotch straps are essential it would seem.

    Otherwise the video makes sense.

    However I regard Drew’s comments as far more more relevant (as so often πŸ™‚ ). A Harness and lots of fixing points is more practicl and more relevant. Never mind all the talk about going overboard. On a cruising boat you just make sure that you NEVER go overboard, and on a sloping mono-hull that is much harder to achieve than on a multihull. The dinghy is a different matter.

    Mike

    • When we were required to jump into the pool during the STCW course, with a PFD on, we were instructed to cross our arms and hold the life jacket down, presumably to prevent exactly that situation from occurring.

      And yes, Drew always has intelligent, well thought out comments.

  15. In regards to water recues Mario is the real deal! I participated in the ARC Caribbean/Bahama last November and prior to I attended one of his classes in Annapolis. excellent presenter and class! He deployed 2 rafts and had willing students jump in the water with their personal vests, I chose to stay out of the marina water but now wish I had just taken the leap! I remember one gentleman saying he was disappointed with the way his inflatable fit around his head when in the water. Our crew used Spinlocks with harness. They are comfortable and the crotch strap is loose! The harness clips were clumsy to use, I guess if it was easy to fasten it would easily come undone. Clipping in is the important part, especially at night/rough conditions and when moving forward. We fastened small zipper pouches on a side strap to hold our PLB’s, tethered with enough cord to reach the waters surface. We did this based on Marios demonstration. Great topic for discussion! Rick

  16. Interesting. As a commercial maritime trainer I also found this perspective interesting having just bought an inflatable for my own private use. I carry both types aboard my own yacht however and would probably stick with the inflatable depending if I had crew aboard who would most likely be around on deck to rescue me in the event of MOB. But watchkeeping or alone? Probably agree with this guy. I did cringe at the coughing fit though….should leave that bit out of your next presentation I think….

    • I think Mario must have a big (very muscular) neck! πŸ™‚

    • OK – That’s twice now. Let’s clear this up. The coughs were real. One – I actually have a cough right now, but also – that particular inflatable (West Marine Offshore 35) has a 15.3 inch neck hole when inflated….I’m 17.5. I actually choke when it inflates. My Mustang inflatables don’t choke me. My point was – you don’t know until you inflate it. But in any case, I’m not an actor. Though I will try very hard not to let airway occlusion color any future videos.

  17. The crotch strap discussion is interesting. While they are provably needed for inflatables (there were fatalities reports in the Falones Island accident attributable to the PFDs coming off over the head), I think they are NOT needed for a well-fitted and properly worn conventional. Kayak vests never have them, and white water can hand out a real beating.

    Does a chest harness require a crotch strap or leg straps? One one hand it is always possible for even a muscular guy in a tee-shirt to worm out of a chest harness that has enough slack to breath hard (I’ve tested this with climbers). It is quite easy if worn over slick foul weather gear. On the other hand, I’ve winched folks, including me, out of the water wearing a chest harness, and so long as they keep their elbows down it is very secure. If they reach up in a misguided but instinctual attempt to hold the rope they may slide out.

    There is also the fact that a falling on a crotch strap risks not just pain but also serious injury. We are really talking about legs loops.

    However, since this has little to do with staying on the boat, I’ll skip the leg loops. Yes, it is a cop-out, but realistically I’m not going to wear it if there is a crotch strap, so I go without.

    I will recommend, like in the video, that each sailor try being restrained and pulled from the water in a harness wearing foul weather gear and make there own decision. Many find it hard to stay in the harness if their arms are over their head, as though someone were pulling on the line while they themselves are reaching overhead to grab a railing. Try it.

    • “We must trust to nothing but facts: these are presented to us by nature and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.” Antoine Lavoisier

  18. I like my kayak jacket the best. Very adjustable, and pockets on the front for a handheld radio and other items.

  19. Personally I would not wear a non inflatable life jacket for offshore passages, particularly in the tropics as they will be sweaty and restrictive in your movement on deck.

    He has a valid point about over inflation but you can let some air out to make it more comfortable.

    The life jacket he favoured did not appear to have a harness point, we always harness on at night or in bad weather so we are not leaving our boat unless we are taking to our life raft, also it did not have any crutch straps to stop the casualty slipping out of the life jacket if they have to be winched aboard if they are too tired or unconscious and can’t assist with their recovery

    We are changing our PFD’s this year and favour to the spinlock deck vest.

    • Yes, it did have a harness/tether point. But as soon as it was inflated, the bladders covered, making it impossible to release. This is true of every inflatable I have seen tested.

      http://www.practical-sailor.com/blog/-10747-1.html

      And this from the WindNutz accident (multiple fatalities):
      “Of the seven crew in the water and attached to the boat after the capsize, only Mark, Suzanne and C.J. had tethers with quick-release snap-shackles that would qualify as β€œcapable of being quickly unclipped from the harness under load.” C.J., wearing an auto-inflating life jacket and being pulled under by his tether, tried but could not release his quick-release shackle. He said the inflated tubes made it difficult for him to reach the snap-shackle. His cousin, Stuart, eventually pulled the quick-release lanyard and set C.J. free. ”

      It is quite sad that sailing safety equipment is not actually tested in the water, the way you would think it should be. Climbing equipment, for example, is extensively tested in real mountain and falling situations before going to market; if not the climbing community would hunt them down. And yet we continue to buy dysfunctional PFDs.

    • https://vimeo.com/94842405

      There is David Wellsford – sailing the tropics – living quite the enviable life…in his non-inflatable PFD. I’ve never seen a guy look more comfortable.

      (Notice the radio in one pocket and the fully stuffed other pocket.)

      Also notice this. He always wears it while underway – and he is always jacked in when he can be jacked in.

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