Bad Advice: "Simple solutions" are seldom either
“Safety Moments, presented at CCA Stations and Posts”
By Chuck Hawley, San Francisco Station, June 2022
Recently, an article on life jackets appeared on the Sail Magazine daily digital publication which was originally published in Power and Motoryacht regarding the selection of life jackets. This article is so deficient in good advice, that a modest rebuttal, using the bully pulpit that is the Safety Moment, called out to me.
The article, called How to Choose the Right Life Jacket, starts with a description of an accidental immersion in the water, where the author’s girlfriend’s life jacket doesn’t automatically inflate. The author notes that “the CO2 cartridge had been “compromised”, although he doesn’t say what the problem actually was. However, this starts his rant about “auto-inflate” life jackets, which is a term that should more properly be called “water-activated” inflatable life jackets.
Additional problems, according to the author, are that the life jacket is so tight around your neck that it nearly chokes you, although he points out that it’s easy to partially deflate the air chamber. And it’s difficult to put on the inflated life jacket when in the water. Finally, the author points out that it’s hard to swim when wearing an inflated life jacket.
Dissecting this pile of misinformation brings us to a couple of conclusions:
- An inflatable life jacket of any type isn’t a great choice for boating activities where there’s a high chance of going in the water. Once inflated, you have to leave the life jacket inflated for it to be effective or figure out how to quickly rearm the device while paddling your kayak or helming your Laser. Inflatables are appropriate for activities when the chance of immersion is low.
- Inflatables are nearly impossible to don in the water, but the whole idea is that their comfort is such that you are more likely to wear them, and therefore avoid the whole “toss me the inflatable life jacket because I was too foolish to wear it” stage.
- Inflatables are tight around one’s neck to provide freeboard, and to maintain your airway so you can breathe in rough conditions. If the neck is too tight, it takes a second to release the pressure, or to top off the chamber with a puff of air.
- Water-activated life jackets are extremely important when immersed in cold water since the gasp reflex can preclude finding the inflation lanyard. Bryan Chong, one of the three survivors of the Low Speed Chase incident, said that he didn’t feel there was any way he could have manually inflated his life jacket: his water-activated life jacket saved him.
- Finally, the author fails to answer the basic question: why didn’t the life jacket inflate? It’s likely that a lack of maintenance or knowledge of the life jacket was the issue. Maintained inflatable life jackets have an almost certainty of working, as demonstrated at hundreds of Safety at Sea courses over the last decade. In very few cases has a recently inspected inflatable life jacket failed to operate.
Articles like this one end up causing mistrust in proven safety products. They tend to make people think “oh, I heard about one of those (fill in the blanks) that didn’t work, so I would never trust one.” Every safety device has a chance of not working correctly, but properly maintained and deployed, they have a very good chance of saving your life. Attending a Safety at Sea course, and regularly inspecting the gear you have on board, is a good way to demonstrate your dedication to Safe Boating, not just on one week per year, but all year long.
(The original article can be found here: https://www.powerandmotoryacht.com/gear/how-to-choose-the-right-life-vest .
The Cruising Club of America is a collection of passionate, seriously accomplished, ocean sailors making adventurous use of the seas. All members have extensive offshore boat handling, seamanship, and command experience honed over many years. “School of Hard Rocks” stories, published by the CCA Safety and Seamanship Committee, are intended to advance seamanship and help skippers promote a Culture of Safety aboard their vessels