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There is a huge thread on Sailnet concerning the use of PDFs (Personal Flotation Devices, or life jackets). The question asks who wears them and when?

There are many people who insist that they be worn all of the time. Others only wear them when leaving the cockpit. Still others only when it is stormy or they are single-handing.

Perhaps we didn’t have great role-models for this but surprisingly we were never required to wear PFDs while doing our sailing/cruising course. Also, David and Jackie, the previous owners of our Cat said they had only ever felt it necessary to put on PDFs on two occasions while sailing Katana. It is pretty easy to see why when on our boat as the cockpit is super protected, the decks are wide and the boat doesn’t heal. Still, we will need to establish some guidelines, and invest in some new gear before venturing much offshore.

The gold standard these days seems to be auto-inflating vests with built-in harnesses, for tethering yourself to the boat. We don’t yet own these but do plan on purchasing a couple of Mustang ones, once they go on sale (yes, we are trying to be frugal).


  1. During daylight hours most people (in the UK and Med) don’t wear lifejackets as a matter of course but put them on when the weather gets ‘bad’, which means different things to different people, so it’s a judgement call. Maybe it’s similar to reefing – as soon as you first think about it, it’s time to do it. And if the skipper puts one on, everyone puts one on – no arguing!

    It’s common practice for everyone to wear a lifejacket at night as soon as they step into the cockpit. Most skippers will insist on this. Whichever lifejacket you choose to wear or buy, make sure it is fitted with a light (bright and preferably flashing) and a whistle, to attract attention. It’s scarily easy to lose sight of someone in the water, especially in rough weather (try practice MOBs with a fender tied to a bucket with even small waves and in daylight to see what I mean).

    Lifejackets with built-in harnesses are a must and anyone stepping outside the cockpit at night or in rough weather should clip on. Couples often insist that the on-watch person should be clipped on even in the cockpit at night and that they don’t step foot outside the cockpit unless the other person is on deck too. I think that’s good practice.

    To clip on you’ll need a tether. The three-point tethers are best. One clip for your harness, one for your current clip-on point and one for your new clip-on point *before* you unclip from the old one. That way you are always clipped on to at least one attachment point, even when transitioning from the cockpit to the deck, etc. Remember the whole idea is to stop you from going overboard, so don’t buy a tether that is too long!

    Manual or auto inflation? It’s a personal choice and each has its proponents. If you’re hit on the head by the boom** and fall overboard unconscious then obviously only an auto will save you. On the other hand I heard a case where someone was trapped in an upturned and flooding hull and unable to get out as their lifejacket auto-inflated and stopped them from escaping, so they had to take it off, and then had no lifejacket once on the outside. I’ve also heard of several unwanted auto-inflations, when a wave made it’s way into the cockpit, for example, and I once heard of someone going overboard and their auto-inflating lifejacket didn’t operate. In my very humble opinion, on a cat, with a protected cockpit, with the boom above head height (unless you go forward on deck) I would be thinking along the lines of manual. There’s very little risk of accidental inflation and as soon as you pull a cord and it inflates in seconds. Having said that, I’m sure someone will be along soon to tell me I’m wrong 😉

    **You know how to rig a boom preventer, right? Always a good idea, especially when on a run with the wind well aft.

    • All logical guidelines Keith. The top-of-the-line Mustang inflatables supposedly won’t inflate until they are immersed so no accidental inflation via waves, etc. Being trapped inside sounds like a pretty remote possibility. I would be more worried about it NOT inflating when I want it to, but I think they can all be manually inflated somehow.

      I do know what a preventer is and its use but we have never had to use one. As of yet we have not had to run directly down wind. When going downwind we usually sail on a deep broad reach to avoid any accidental jibes. Pretty sure I could rig one on our boat if necessary.

  2. I’m going to agree with OE only because as the mother of a Boatie Chic, you know I’ve asked the questions and basically gotten the same answers back from her. Her last passage was from Ft. Lauderdale, north to Providence RI, non stop. She did 4 hour blocks of night watch, she said “I’m always jacketed and clipped in at night.” She also once told me “don’t be scared Mom, unless the Captain puts on a Lifejacket….” That was on my first sail, at night, in calm seas, off the coast of Key West, where our greatest danger was bumping into one of the other 50 boats out on a sunset cruise.

    I would also think it wise to become a really good open water swimmer. The first time I saw Jolea swim 20-25 yards in open water, 4-5 foot swells, from the boat we were on to it’s sister boat to ‘pillage’ some bagels, I was impressed, and a little calmer, when she came back. I had also threatened to choke her captain to death by his gonads if anything happened to her. To which he told me, “I wouldn’t have sent her had she not been able to do it…. evidently you’ve not seen her swim in open water. She’s more confident than any of my crew and it takes confidence. “

  3. I have to agree with your choice of the Mustang vest with the hydrostatic inflation system. With the stability of a catamaran, it seems as though the only time you are going to leave the boat is due to some wacky, if not violent (seas, boom strike, etc) reason. Therefore, it follows that you might be disabled in some way and having the auto-inflate will be a welcome feature.

    Fair Winds,

  4. No Mikey, not just swim…. really swim. Go out and kick ass in some undertow or something.

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