Here's a summary of a lively debate on PFD/Lifejacket use for sea kayakers off of the CASKA bulletin boards:
I am a little surprised that there are 10 respondents that do not feel a PFD should always be worn. Would anyone want to comment on this stance?
I originally posted a comment on Keith Wikle's Facebook page linked to a picture on his Go Kayak Now blog of a kayak surfer on a huge wave but apparently wearing no PFD (it can sometimes be hard to tell, as competitors often wear a colored jersey over their PFDs for easier identification by the judges). That photo brought to mind an experience I had back in the early '90s
I took a trip to Northern California for a WW Instructor workshop and afterwards went to paddle with a guy named Steve Sinclair in the small town of Elk in Northern California. Steve was the pioneer of "Storm Sea Kayaking". He would routinely take his ski out into massive winter swells. He never wore a PFD. I asked him about why and he said that in the really big stuff you need to be able to dive under water to avoid getting hammered by the tons of water crashing down on you. In his opinion, in those conditions PFD use would get you killed. Steve was a former life guard and water polo player, so his swimming skills were far above average. The other advantage of not wearing his PFD was that he would hop off his ski and dive for abalone which he cooked for us back on the beach!
I would never recommend someone not paddle with a PFD but there are also circumstances when I would not chastise them for going without. When I paddled in Belize many years ago, we never used PFDs, it was extremely hot, we were paddling inside the reef, and we were frequently climbing out of the boat to go snorkeling. Having said that, I have never paddled on the Great Lakes without a PFD and have only ever run 1 river without one.
Paddlers who never or rarely use PFDs: marathon and sprint paddlers, surf skiers, SUPers. Additionally, some big-time folks chose not to use PFDs; Peter Bray's Atlantic Ocean crossing, Hans Lindemann's Atlantic crossing, Ed Gillette's, Pacific Ocean crossing and I understand Freya did Australia without clothes let alone a PFD.
As with so much else with paddlesport it is about risk assessment. What is the likelihood of needing a piece of equipment and what are the consequences of not having that piece of equipment. What I take with me for a solo sprint around Skokie lagoons should not be the same that I have with me for a crossing of Lake Michigan.
The best argument for PFD use is as an aid to body recovery should things not turn out well. If nothing else it gives reasonable assurance that your survivors will have something to bury and that resources will not be wasted searching for your body.
On that happy note, let the enlightening dialogue begin!
I'll bite. I'm one of those 10. I can certainly see that there would be time and persons of skill that might not need to wear a pfd all the time. I'm certainly not one of those and may not ever be. Freya just paddled around Australia and there are plenty of pictures of her paddling solo with no pfd on. Each person has to make the call if they are at that level or if they are comfortable paddling with a person not wearing a pfd. I will be wearing one for quite some time for both my safety and the peace of mind of those paddling with me.
While I agree with and promote the use of a PFD while kayaking, I also appreciate the freedom to choose. In many ways, it might be compared to a motorcyclists choice whether or not to wear a helmet.
While racing or fitness paddling, wearing a PFD can be a hindrance to free motion and cooling. For some it is quite common to not wear one in those conditions. Inflatable PFD's that are worn similarly to a
belt have become popular amongst open water racers (perhaps mainly to satisfy the legal requirement to have one).
Ever been to a pool session? I've seen a number of people exercising their right to choose there. Personally, I'd choose my helmet over my PFD in a pool. Ocean surf kayakers often do not wear PFD's as it is sometimes much safer to dive under the water than it is to get pummeled by a giant ocean wave. As with many things in life, there are plenty of grey areas where we can walk a thin line between safety and overkill.
The preferred term is again 'lifejacket' to emphasize the potential life-saving qualities of the garment.
I hardly ever wear a lifejacket in my daily paddles. I don't suggest it is the best practice for anyone else, but for me it works. A 'daily paddle' for me is a training run on a flat river or pond. I also rarely wear one on expeditions on rivers unless conditions are threatening and the water is very cold. I spend a lot of time on the Mississippi and only wear a lifejacket when leading a trip and then only to be a good example.
Here are my reasons for not needing a lifejacket, not in order of anything:
1. My daily paddles are usually on Cornerstone Lakes in West Chicago, which are never deeper than five feet.
2. When my daily run is on the Fox, the river is deeper but still flat. The biggest waves I have ever seen on the Fox were less than two feet. Well within my abilities to handle with my eyes closed and no paddle.
3. A lifejacket such as most of us wear will not float anyone face up, so it is truly useless if the wearer is not conscious and not rational. Even when conscious I'm often not rational, so there goes that. and I paddle alone, so if I'm face down in the water, the lifejacket is only good for body recovery.
4. I can swim to the bottom of a swimming pool while wearing my whitewater lifejacket, so it isn't going to do much beyond my swimming abilities anyway. I have seen people in big whitewater spend a lot of time under water in whirlpools and such. That said, the extra flotation of a lifejacket can be the difference to save one's life and I would never be in whitewater without one.
5. I have never in my life tipped over in flat water in a slalom boat, which is
what I use for my daily runs.
6. I was a professional lifeguard and collegiate water polo player, so I can
swim really well as long as I'm conscious. If not conscious, see number 3
7. I raced kayak slalom for fifteen years and have paddled whitewater for more than thirty years and have a very reliable roll.
Finally, no one should ever be out in conditions that are or could be challenging for them, for their ability, without a lifejacket. Unless the weather is warm or you're surfing huge waves, there is not usually a downside to wearing a lifejacket. And in hot weather I wear an inflatable, which covers
very little skin.
When in doubt, always wear it!
Thanks to everyone who contributed to this excellent discussion so far! Many excellent points to consider...
For the most part discussion so far provides support for the option not to wear a PFD. Let me suggest that more important than whether you wear it or not, is the conscious and informed decision each one of us has to make about it every time we go out. Don't do what the Jones's do, just to fit with the crowd--safety conscious or macho. Make up your own mind based on your own risk assessment.
However, as long as you are not equipped to balance the pros and cons of this safety gadget yet, you should wear it, period! Making a habit of always wearing the life-jacket is not such a bad habit to have when conscious decision-making fails in a hurry or under other pressures. The worst that can happen (unless you're surfing 50' waves and get your head ripped off when you fail to dive under a wave) you may be a bit too hot and somewhat restricted. PFD cannot hurt
you. Consider the other side: it may just save your life!
In the face of so many good arguments to paddle without a life-jacket and at the risk of stating the obvious, let me try to summarize the some of the benefits of PFD in case someone who is just starting out stumbles on this thread.
Life-jacket is a very good idea in ROUGH water and in COLD water.
Swimming is harder when water is turbulent--failing to elevate above water is more likely. Possibility of injury that will further compromise your ability to stay above water is higher in rough conditions, again, drowning is more likely.
Cold water can quickly compromise your ability to stay up. Swimming in cold water is frequently a bad idea unless you are very certain you can make to safety. Most of the time you will be safer just floating and conserving heat. In addition to flotation, PFD will provide some insulation if you end up on the cold drink as well!
It is probably true that a life-jackets most kayakers wear will not save you from drowning if you are unconscious and in the water. Conversely, very little conscious control over your body is required to be able to breathe with a PFD on.
Another benefit of a foam-filled life-jacket is protection from impact. In dynamic surf conditions or on a fast moving river a PFD will protect your chest area from other kayaks, tree branches and other floating hazards.
Did you consider where you will store all of the gadgets if you don't wear a PFD?!
Finally, on the personal note, I think that swimming is more hazardous than kayaking everything else being equal. Since we don't require everyone to swim in life-jackets, asking that all paddlers wear them at all times does not seem reasonable. For me there are combinations of personal skill levels, knowledge, equipment, and environmental conditions that justify paddling without a PFD.
IF IT DOUBT WHERE YOU FALL ON THIS BALANCE SCALE, ALWAYS WEAR A LIFE JACKET!
This time of year I have another reason to wear my lifejacket. It keeps the wind off while I might be wet while putting things in the car after a paddle. As soon as I take the lifejacket off I get cold pretty quick on a breezy day. I often to wear it until I have to strap down the kayak on the roof (I would still wear it if it didn't get in the way of reaching the straps).
I'm a newbie and have been lurking a while; this is my first post. I plan to eventually join CASKA and have been kayaking for a few years but have had no formal training as of yet - I'm hoping to be able to do that in the near future as well as meet new people this coming spring for some kayaking.
I just wanted to comment, as a beginner, on this PFD thread. I read the arguments against its use in all cases and as someone who has always had the contrary pounded into her head, I thought to myself, "Huh?", but I can certainly understand such a position for those veterans who are experienced enough to know when it's in their best interest to use it or not. The thing is, what if we find ourselves suddenly rendered unconscious by something beyond our control, such as a cardiac event, low blood sugar, etc.? Sure, even then, we'd probably end up face-down, but if we came to, then at least we'd be floating (provided we were able). Yes, a lot of "ifs" but I suppose if there's that chance I'd float rather than sink, even face-down, regaining consciousness or not, at least someone would at least be able to see me to possibly help me. If I'm completely submerged, then dramatically lessens my chance of survival. That's why the marines trained us to tread water before anything else in the water and to never go under if we can help it, under any circumstances.
The attached post really clarifies everything and thank you for posting it. As a former US Marine, my training has always been basically in accordance with the general gist of Haris' post: be as prepared as possible and tilt the scale in your favor; one of the ways this is accomplished is to conserve energy at all costs when possible.
While a PFD may not float face-up an unconscious person. I guess if an accident or health problem that one does not have control over renders one rapidly unconscious and floating f floating face-down and in trouble, and unless she comes to in time, the trouble becomes grave,
However, my thinking, like that of Haris, is that so many factors can play into whether I get to that unconscious level if I haven't been struck suddenly unconscious and am simply contending with the elements (extreme cold, heat, unexpected inclement weather), fatigue (nothing will zap one's energy like both of those combined as we all know), and plain ol' *panic.* I've seen all three of these factors come into play in the Corps and I gotta say, panic alone can drain a person's energy and common sense as fast as the rest. I'd venture to say a person without a PFD in a suddenly unexpected scenario would panic more than one *with* a PFD.
I read about Freya Hoffmeister paddling solo around Australia (amazing feat I can only imagine)! She set out to break a speed record so I would imagine she didn't want to be restricted or weighted down by a PFD (I read too that she didn't wear clothes as well?); however, I asked myself, "Was she accompanied at any time by a motorboat for added safety or was she alone?" I don't know what the verification requirements are for a kayaker attempting to break a speed record, i.e., if witnesses must be present taking either still or moving photographs, a GPS of coordinates must be maintained, etc., or if the individual can literally solo the journey and provide her own GPS coordinates so that it's on an honor system (maybe someone can fill me in on the rules)?
Anyway, if Hoffmeister didn't need to be accompanied for safety and/or verification reasons and wasn't, I'm glad she didn't suffer a cardiac event or something similar while not wearing the PFD. While not "likely" for a woman so fit, we all know that even very fit people, depending upon their medical histories (often, it's found only after an event that risk factors exist), can have sudden cardiac and other events. I'd want to err on the side of caution, for sure, if I was alone. If accompanied at all times, however, in the event I *do* experience a medical emergency, I'd probably forego the PFD if speed was my main concern.
I'm also an ultramarathon runner. A few years back, I was running with someone (a then 38 year old male) who collapsed in the middle of our conversation. He had a heart attack. He was in exceptional physical condition. It was by the stroke of pure luck I was with him, as we were on a remote trail. Throughout the years, I've known of several runners with similar experiences; some survived and some didn't (both accompanied by others and not).
I have learned a lot from this discussion and appreciate the contributions.
From my perspective I think the best things that have been said are along the lines of 'what's wrong with being as safe as possible?' and I have to admit that I haven't supported that sensible philosophy.
I wear a lifejacket unless there is a reason not to do so. I have a large bunch of reasons not to, but none of them are good enough to suggest that anyone else should endorse them. I have no doubt that the circumstance could occur where a lifejacket would actually save my life. If that is the bottom line, I should always wear a lifejacket.
The fact that in more than 6000 days of kayak paddling my lifejacket has never, ever, saved my life doesn't mean it won't some day.
My helmet has saved my life a few times. I truly believe that my sprayskirt is the most important safety device I have.
The fuss over lifejackets is a good one. I promise to wear mine more often.