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Life Jacket Performance

In 2017, US Sailing Yachtswoman of the Year Timmy Larr asked me to participate in a series of life jacket tests in Tampa Bay, about ¼ mile from the University of Southern Florida. These tests were reasonably similar to other life jacket testing that I had done, with a few exceptions.

  1. We were in choppy water, with about a foot of wind chop and 10-12 knots of breeze.
  2. We had a professional rescue swimmer in the water at all times.
  3. Our test subjects were all sailors with disabilities, having either limbs missing, paralysis in their extremities, or cognitive challenges due to traumatic injuries.

One of our “testers” was Brad Kendell, silver medalist in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the Sonar Disabled class. Brad is a double above-the-knee amputee made it especially important to have a life jacket that would float him upright, without using his legs to stabilize him, as he sailed without any prostheses in the Sonar.

Last week (February 2018), Timmy was giving a presentation about life jacket performance at the Sailing Leadership Forum in St. Petersburg, Florida. After testing 29 different life jackets, on sailors with and without disabilities, her study pointed out stark differences between both Coast Guard-approved and non-Coast Guard-approved life jackets. Many of these differences have been discussed in the past, but as the US and Canada begin to change the life jacket standards in North America, some points deserve to be emphasized.

  • Buoyancy, for the most part, increases freeboard, and frequently increases righting moment. Lower buoyancy life jackets like the non-US approved “flotation aids” from Europe, with only 11.2 pounds of buoyant force, resulted in the testers’ mouths being only an inch or so above the calm waters of a pool.
  • Vests with symmetrical buoyancy, like flotation aids and Type III life jackets, provided very little righting moment when testers went “limp” in the water. All required upper-body effort to get the testers’ faces out of the water.
  • Higher buoyancy devices allowed the testers to assume the HELP posture in the water, with knees tucked in and arms at the sides. All testers reported a feeling of cooling when they went from the HELP posture to being spread-eagle in the water, despite the Floridian temperatures of the pool water.
  • Timmy wore a European-spec inflatable with 150 Newtons of buoyant force, a sprayhood to allow her to breathe in rough conditions, a built-in light, and other survival features. While perhaps overkill in the resort pool, it was the obvious choice for offshore sailors in less optimal conditions.
  • Finally, leg straps worked extremely well to hold life jackets in the correct position on the testers’ bodies, resisting the tendency for ride-up and consequential loss of freeboard.

What was less clear from our testing was the selection of the “best” life jacket for the sailors with disabilities. Due to the variations in buoyancy, mobility, and many other factors, it’s difficult to select a life jacket for someone who has a disability using some form of “rule”. In-water testing of life jackets, before purchase if possible, would seem to be the only way to reliably select a life jacket that works for a particular disability.