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Picking a PFD.

Byline: MIKE STAHLBERG The Register-Guard

ONCE UPON A TIME, life jackets came in one color and two styles - orange and bulky, and orange and even bulkier.

Then, in 1976, the U.S. Coast Guard approved a new category of personal floatation device (PFD). The new Type III PFDs weren't as buoyant as the old "Mae West" style. They wouldn't keep an unconscious person face-up in the water. And they had other potential shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the number of boating-related drownings dropped dramatically after 1976 for the simple reason that more people were willing to wear the more-comfortable and more-stylish Type IIIs. Previously, many people would put on their Type I or Type II lifejacket only after the captain sounded "abandon ship."

The U.S. Coast Guard says the approval of Type III PFDs coincided with a sharp drop in boating fatalities (from about 1,500 a year in 1971 to about 500 a year now). Given the significant increase in boating over that span, the actual savings of life was even greater, the agency says.

In 1996, the Coast Guard made another concession to comfort - one that it hopes will lead to another drop in drownings.

It approved inflatable life jackets for recreational boaters.

Among the fans of the new PFDs is Larry Pierce, a retired Coast Guardsman who now serves as commander of the local flotilla of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a volunteer group that focuses on boater safety and education.

"The most comfortable PFD to wear is an inflatable, without a doubt," Pierce said. "You hardly know it's on."

Indeed, many people who see Pierce aboard his 12 1/2 -foot Zodiac runabout wouldn't know he had a life jacket on, either.

His PFD looks like a pair of wide fabric suspenders with some extra straps attached.

If it's ever needed, Pierce need only pull on a handle at the bottom of the jacket to activate a cartridge of compressed gas, which inflates the lifejacket almost instantly.

Pierce says he paid about $80 apiece for the SOSpenders brand PFDs he bought for the Zodiac.

"There's a significant price difference (compared to inherently buoyant PFDs), but the convenience is really worth it," Pierce says. "You put it on and you don't even know you're wearing it - as opposed to walking around like you're in a space suit."

More and more manufacturers are now making inflatable PFDs. Some require the gas cartridge to be fired manually. In others, the gas inflation is automatically triggered upon entering the water. (The later, however, are not recommended for rainy climates such as Oregon's).

In addition, continuing technological developments have led to inherently buoyant PFDs that are lighter, less restrictive and more comfortable than many of the original Type IIIs. There are even hybrid models - which combine foam floatation with inflation capability - on the market.

There are now five different U.S. Coast Guard-approval types of PFD, all of which come in a variety of shapes, colors, sizes and materials.

As a result, picking a PFD might seem confusing and complex for consumers gearing up for what should be an active boating season in Oregon. (Drought-depleted rivers and reservoirs slowed boating activity last summer, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is predicting most of its reservoirs in the Willamette Valley will fill by May 15 and remain full until September this year.)

The law requires all recreational boats to carry at least one wearable Coast Guard-approved PFD for each person aboard.

But marine officers say only about 25 percent of the people on the water actually wear their PFDs - even though the Coast Guard insists that 90 percent of all boating drownings would be eliminated if everyone wore a PFD.

Thinking that you can put on a lifejacket if you need it is like thinking you can buckle your seat belt if your car is about to crash, according to the "Small Craft Advisory," the magazine of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Thus, the single most important consideration in shopping for a PFD is to buy one you're willing to wear because, "It can't save you if you don't use it."

The truth of that boating-safety mantra was proven again last month, when four people drowned in Oregon boating mishaps.

Three of the four fatalities occurred in Douglas County. Two anglers died on the South Umpqua River and one on the North Umpqua - all while fishing from drift boats. Another person died in Netarts Bay when he and a companion ventured too close to the small bay's treacherous mouth and were swamped by a breaker.

None of the four victims wore a life jacket.

"This time of year especially, I can't think of any waterway where you shouldn't be wearing your life jacket," said Randy Henry, the Oregon State Marine Board's public information officer. "It doesn't matter how experienced you are.

"It doesn't work if you don't wear it."

According to a report on the Coast Guard's Internet site, the performance level of your PFD is secondary when compared to not wearing one on at all.

The agency analyzed 500 boating-related drownings in 1996, when 450 people died "apparently because they didn't have a PFD they were willing to wear."

About 55 people died that year while wearing PFDs.

"In only five to 10 of those cases is there any indication that a higher-performing PFD might have prevented the drowning," the report says. "In the other 45 to 50 cases, other contributing factors (such as being trapped in an overturned boat, becoming hypothermic or being held under a boulder or log by strong currents) would have overcome the benefits of any PFD."

Not all PFDs, however, are approved for all situations. And all have some limitations.

For example, the manually fired inflatables are recommended only for adults who are competent swimmers, as someone who falls into the water wearing one must keep his wits about him enough to pull the handle.

"The problem with the manually firing inflatables, of course, is if you conk your head and are knocked unconscious, it won't activate," says Marl Carter of the Staff Jennings boat dealership in Eugene.

But many Type III PFDs won't hold a person's head out of water if they're unconscious or automatically turn them face-up in the water.

"The perfect life preserver, lifejacket or PFD has not yet been designed," says the Coast Guard, which recommends that people match their PFD to the boating activity.

Water-skiers, for example, need "high impact" PFDs that will withstand the force of crashing into the water at high speed. And PFDs designed for white-water paddlers have a very "open" cut to provide plenty of freedom of movement, with most of the foam floatation placed around the midsection rather than around the shoulders.

To help consumers make informed choices, the Coast Guard publishes a guide to PFDs entitled "Think Safe!" That pamphlet comes attached to every Coast Guard-approved PFD sold.

In addition, the Coast Guard Auxiliary plans to have a PFD display - and to be available to answer questions about PFDs - at the Lane County Boat Dealers Association's 12th annual All-Family Boat Show and Sale," to be held April 5-7 at the Lane County Fairgrounds. Show hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. April 5 and 6 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 7. Admission is $2.


That's not even in question, as illustrated by recent Oregon boating fatality statistics:

Year Total fatalities Wearing PFDs

2001 14 1

2000 14 1

1999 16 3*

1998 20 7

1997 19 4

* One victim's PFD was not buckled.

Note: For one victim in 2000 and one in 1997, the use of a PFD was listed as "unknown."

- Oregon Marine Board


The cutline goes in this very spot. NICOLE DEVITO / The Register-Guard
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Title Annotation:The best personal floatation device is the one you'll "buckle up" on the water; Recreation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 21, 2002
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