The Battle For a Better PFD
The Battle For a Better PFD
New low-bulk PFD designs, while popular overseas, won’t pass U.S. Coast Guard muster. But that’s not stopping sailors from making the switch. "New Gear" from our May 2011 issue.
At the 2011 Rolex Miami OCR, foreign sailors wore buoyancy aids instead of Coast Guard approved life jackets, which all U.S. competitors were required to wear. Why are only the international sailors allowed to wear the more comfortable, less restrictive, and lower-profile PFDs? Because in international events, sailors are allowed to wear what’s legal in their country. This discrepancy puts U.S. dinghy sailors at a distinct disadvantage. Since almost all countries except the United States permit the use of buoyancy aids, U.S. sailors are required to wear larger, more restricting lifejackets approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.
There is a workaround for sailors of bigger boats. At the Melges 32 World Championships in San Francisco, for example, many teams wore buoyancy aids while storing approved PDFs inside the boat. As long as there’s one for each crewmember onboard, they’re safe.
No doubt, the regulations are being ignored these days as buoyancy aids are becoming more and more prevalent as the sole flotation devices aboard boats at other regattas throughout the United States. But as far as we know, it hasn’t been an issue in the protest room. However, unless you are carrying a Coast Guard-approved lifejacket as well, it could be, because U.S. SAILING prescriptions require boats to conform to “government regulations that apply in the racing area” (Part 4, Rule 40). High school and college racing programs are sticklers about the use of Coast Guard-approved lifejackets.
What’s the difference between the U.S. Coast Guard requirements and those of other nations? A big part of it comes down to the amount of buoyancy, which is measured in Newtons (1 Newton equals .22 pounds of force). The Coast Guard states that keeping someone’s head out of the water requires about 11 pounds of buoyancy, or 50 Newtons. That’s exactly how most buoyancy aids are rated. Yet, Coast Guard-approved lifejackets must rate at least 70 Newtons, providing 15.5 pounds of flotation. Perhaps in recognition of that difference, all buoyancy aids come with a written caveat stating that they are not life jackets and they are designed for those who can swim and are in situations where “help is close at hand.”
How many other countries sanction the 50-Newton buoyancy aids? None of the manufacturers we spoke with could provide a specific number, but the information sheets that come with the vests reveal instructions in at least 27 languages, and all indicate that the products are CE certified.
“It’s a European standard,” says Mike Krantz, from Zhik NA, which sells many of the popular models now available. “However, if you go to South America, Australia, etc., they accept that standard. There’s a reciprocity there.” Krantz adds that there’s a big push to come up with an international standard. “Pretty much everybody in the world has agreed that it’s a great idea,” he says, “but the Coast Guard has said, ‘No. That’s under our jurisdiction.’”
Still, there are efforts to get buoyancy aids, or at least a version of them, approved by the Coast Guard. Gill, Zhik, and Spinlock are trying to get their products approved, but it’s a daunting task. Each size and each color must be tested, which not only includes buoyancy evaluations but other tests as well, such as for fire retardancy. For most manufacturers, that means at least three tests—one for each size, small, medium, and large—and double that if you have an additional color, which is the case with Zhik. The cost for each test, according to Krantz, is between $10,000 and $15,000. And that doesn’t include the man-hours and out-of-pocket costs, which Spinlock’s Tim Robinson estimates easily eclipse $50,000. “It’s a nightmare process,” says Robinson.
On top of that are communication issues, says Krantz. “Every time I submit something to the Coast Guard, it takes between six and nine weeks for them to respond.” Gill has been trying to get one of its new designs approved for two years now. Jerry Richards, from Gill, is hoping their new product will be available around mid summer. But, he says, “We’re not sure because it has been delayed so many times.”
Krantz says Zhik has been in the process for nine months and thinks it might be several more years before they get approval. So, why would you want to wear a buoyancy aid, assuming you can do so legally by carrying Coast Guard-approved lifejackets onboard as well? As European crews have known for years, they’re a lot more comfortable, more streamlined, and allow much greater freedom of movement that than the traditional bulky lifejackets. And, some will argue, given the choice of wearing a Coast Guard-approved lifejacket or going without, many will choose to go without. But add the possibility of wearing a buoyancy aid, and competitors may suddenly discover there is a way to increase their safety without sacrificing performance.
For this article we collected a few available samples from the major manufacturers. All of them meet the CE standard of 50 Newtons of buoyancy, and none are Coast Guard approved. To gauge how comfortable they really are, we put them on sailors at the Etchells Midwinter Championship in February, and collected their responses.
Gill Pro Racer and Compressor vest
Gill is the only vest manufacturer we looked at that offered two very different designs. Their pull-on Pro-Racer buoyancy vest, which is similar in design to common PFDs, is comparable to the Rooster and Zhik designs, except that it has a side zipper for ease of entrance and exit. The jacket also has a large, front storage pocket, adjustable shoulder straps, and a webbing strap around the bottom of the vest. However, it is Gill’s Compressor vest (at left) that represents a significant departure from the other products. At first glance, the pullover Compressor might appear somewhat confining, but once on, it seems more like a second skin, moving with you rather than restricting your movements. It’s billed as being “streamlined” and “low bulk,” which means it can easily be thrown under rash guards, drytops, etc., It is also cut high enough in front that it can be worn under a trapeze harness, providing extra padding. Plus, especially aboard high-speed dinghies, where spectacular crashes are the norm, the Compressor provides impact protection. It includes an adjustable, webbed belt. Pro Racer retail: $80. Compressor Retail: $140
Pro Racer Comments
“It was great. I hardly knew I had it on. And just wearing this, instead of wearing no lifejacket at all, meant just a little more weight on the rail.”
Gill Compressor Vest Comments
“I thought I wasn’t going to be comfortable in this because it looks a bit bulky. But once on, I didn’t even notice it was there.”