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Pros and Cons of Personal Safety Gear

In late February, there was a spirited discussion amongst the CCA Safety and Seamanship Committee about personal safety gear. Many members suggested actions that the CCA might take to either investigate the causes, or train our members about the correct use of life jackets and safety harnesses.

I thought it might be helpful to describe how I discuss this with Safety at Sea audiences when the subject comes up. I think there are two challenging choices that wearers of personal safety gear have to make: whether or not they wear a water-activated life jacket, and how secure their quick-release shackle is on their safety harness tether. 

Regarding manual vs. water-activated life jackets: As others have pointed out, there may be types of boats that are not suited to the use of water-activated life jackets: personal watercraft and Hobie Cats are an extreme example. But what about multihulls with large expanses of netting between the amas? Playstation had nets about 46 feet across, and approximately 100' long. If you're caught in the middle post-capsize, it's not obvious that you could swim from under the net under any condition. We carried a large diver's knife with a serrated blade so that we could cut up into the net as it pressed us underwater, so as to make a hole from which we could extricate ourselves. I know this is an extreme case, but my point is that some vessels will have very specific requirements that are not universally applicable.

I ask my Safety at Sea audiences why they think that I think we should wear water-activated life jackets. Universally, they say "if you get conked on the head, your life jacket will automatically inflate and you'll survive." Actually, I think that the chances that an unconscious PIW will survive after a blow to the head are exceedingly rare. What is likely is that you'll suffer from cold shock and will gasp when you enter cold water, and gasping with your head underwater is the first step in drowning. So, I think you wear a water-activated life jacket to reduce the chance that the gasp reflex will kill you. Relying on YOU to find your jerk-to-inflate lanyard is too risky. 

Second, we know of instances where someone has not been able to release himself from a sinking or inverted boat, and we know of instances when someone has released his/her tether accidentally. Both are to be avoided: the gear didn't perform like the wearer intended or anticipated. There may be a perfect tether release mechanism, but there's still that darned human element that can muck things up. We know of many different lanyard pull designs on the market, so there's no universal solution. When I tested tethers at my former employer, I found that it took 10% of the tension on the tether to release the snap shackle: 500# on the tether required 50# on the lanyard. And 50# is about as much as I can pull laterally with one hand. If you're dragged with more than 500# of force, you won't be able to disconnect.

Bottom line: safety gear is a compromise. Too foolproof, and it may be either too expensive or too difficult to use. Too heavy, and people leave it below decks. Too much maintenance required, and it may not work when it is supposed to.