Soundings - - Contents - BY MARIO VIT­TONE

“Al­ways wear your life jacket” is ter­ri­ble ad­vice, writes re­tired Coast Guard he­li­copter res­cue swim­mer Mario Vit­tone.

When I was in the U.S. Coast Guard, I couldn’t say this; but I be­lieve the phrase “Al­ways wear your life jacket” is ter­ri­ble ad­vice. It’s not that wear­ing a life jacket while boat­ing is in any way a bad thing, but the phrase over­sim­pli­fies a very com­plex prob­lem and “al­ways” – left un­de­fined – is mean­ing­less. When I bring this up to my friends in boat­ing safety, they protest (as many will this time).

Like every­thing in an ac­tiv­ity we loosely de­fine as “boat­ing,” there is lit­tle value in ab­so­lutes like “al­ways” and “never.” These phrases don’t al­low for things like judg­ment and com­mon sense and that makes it too easy for those hear­ing the ad­vice to dis­miss it as less than mean­ing­ful.

“We mean ‘al­ways’ while on the wa­ter on a boat or ves­sel,” they say. I point out that none of them would wear a life jacket rid­ing the Staten Is­land Ferry, on a din­ner cruise boat, or while be­low decks for the night on an an­chored sail boat. There is a pause and then I say, “so not ‘al­ways’ al­ways.”

These se­man­tics mat­ter, be­cause we’ve been say­ing “Al­ways wear a life jacket” for decades to ab­so­lutely no mea­sur­able ef­fect on the sta­tis­tics. In the past 12 years, 2016, the lat­est year for which sta­tis­tics were avail­able at press time, comes in 4th place for num­ber of drown­ing deaths while boat­ing. It comes in 2nd (at 17%) for the high­est per­cent­age of boaters who drowned while wear­ing life jack­ets. That fact — that peo­ple drown in life jack­ets ev­ery year (13% of all boat­ing re­lated drown­ings since 2004) — is rarely talked about, but it un­der­scores the com­plex­ity of life jacket use. It’s not as sim­ple as “al­ways” and then all your prob­lems are solved. You don’t have to al­ways wear your life jacket, but you do have to choose one that you will wear when you need it.

When to Wear:

There are sit­u­a­tions where I def­i­nitely don a prop­erly set-up life jacket.

• When­ever on the wa­ter on a ves­sel of any kind, alone.

• When­ever top­side when the wa­ter tem­per­a­ture is be­low 70 de­grees.

• When­ever work­ing on the wa­ter, fish­ing, or crew­ing a sail­boat.

• When­ever on a ves­sel that calls (or should) “Pan Pan” — or any ves­sel emer­gency.

• In any weather that would be de­scribed as “foul.”

• In any other sit­u­a­tion where some­one gets a “bad feel­ing.”

That last one may seem strange but “bad feel­ings” are of­ten the first in­di­ca­tion of ac­tual dan­ger and should not be ig­nored.

(Of course, non-swim­mers and chil­dren should al­ways wear a life­jacket while boat­ing on smaller vessels.)

What to Wear:

At least as im­por­tant as when to wear a life jacket, what kind can also mat­ter a great deal. Do you go for a sim­ple foam life jacket, or a sleek in­flat­able? Auto or man­ual in­fla­tion? How much buoy­ancy is enough? You are go­ing to hate my an­swer to these ques­tions: it de­pends.

Life jacket type is even more com­plex than de­ci­sions about when to wear and when not to. This is a book-chap­ter, not a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle ques­tion. How­ever, I can give you pros and cons to help you make a de­ci­sion.

Non-in­flat­able Foam Jack­ets: Pros:

• They are sim­ple and al­ways float. Their buoy­ancy is not de­pen­dent on the me­chan­ics of an in­fla­tion as­sem­bly or the in­tegrity of the blad­der and (when prop­erly fit­ted) they keep the wearer’s head above wa­ter in most sit­u­a­tions.

• They usu­ally have am­ple pock­ets that you can put things in and the pocket lo­ca­tion does not change when in use.

• In colder weather and wa­ter they pro­vide some mea­sure of in­su­la­tion for your core that in­flat­a­bles do not.

• In the wa­ter, they sup­port the wearer in an up­right way that al­lows for bet­ter vis­i­bil­ity of the sur­round­ing area and bet­ter mo­bil­ity in the wa­ter. They are eas­ier to swim and move in.


• They usu­ally pro­vide less buoy­ancy than in­flat­a­bles. Over longer pe­ri­ods in the wa­ter this can mat­ter a great deal. -ost sail­ing and race or­ga­ni­za­tions in­sist on higher lev­els of buoy­ancy for this rea­son alone.

• In warmer weather, they may be less com­fort­able on deck. (Though if my friend David Wells­ford can sail the Caribbean in one, maybe you are just a whiner?)

• They don’t look as cool. (This, of course, is a stupid de­ci­sion point, but I felt like I should come up with a third con, and couldn’t think of an­other one.)

In­flat­able Life Jack­ets: Pros:

• They can pro­vide sig­nif­i­cant buoy­ancy, and many are sel­f­right­ing and will keep your head up if you are un­con­scious.

• They are more com­fort­able to wear, par­tic­u­larly in warmer weather.

• They al­low for greater out-of-wa­ter mo­bil­ity.

• There are many op­tions for in­te­grated har­nesses for jack­ing in (it’s a sail­ing thing) which can pre­vent the need to in­flate al­to­gether.


• Sev­eral points of fail­ure. The auto-in­flat­ing va­ri­ety are not al­ways 100% re­li­able and main­te­nance, test­ing, and up­keep are very real con­sid­er­a­tions.

• If not prop­erly fit­ted, they can be so dra­mat­i­cally un­com­fort­able in the wa­ter as to be de­bil­i­tat­ing. For ex­am­ple, I have tested cur­rently avail­able (USC' Ap­proved) life jack­ets that will, quite lit­er­ally, choke the air­way of a per­son with a neck of over 17.5 inches (that’s me). That’s bad.

• In­creased buoy­ancy is a trade off for in-wa­ter mo­bil­ity. A high­buoy­ancy, yoke- type blad­der is some­thing you hang from when in the wa­ter. Swimming and chang­ing po­si­tions can be dif­fi­cult in these de­vices.

• Pock­ets are ei­ther non-ex­is­tent or on the blad­der cover. Pock­ets on the cover of a blad­der be­come very close to non-ac­ces­si­ble when the blad­der in­flates. To ac­cess some pock­ets, I’ve had to ac­tu­ally re­move the life jacket af­ter it was in­flated. These dif­fer­ences, and the pros and cons of the type of flota­tion to wear and when you wear it, mat­ter, and what is “best” de­pends on the sit­u­a­tion.

Fi­nally, con­sider this: re­gard­less of which life jacket you chose, if you have not tried it out in the wa­ter, then you have no idea if it’s right for you. I’ve taught in-wa­ter sur­vival for years. I al­ways in­sist that stu­dents bring their per­sonal life jack­ets to class so they can gain ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing them when it mat­ters. The most com­mon thing I hear from peo­ple af­ter wear­ing their life jack­ets in the wa­ter is “I hate this thing,” fol­lowed by “I need a dif­fer­ent life jacket.”

So what kind do I wear? Not that what an ex-pro­fes­sional res­cuer chooses as a life jacket should sway you, but my go-to life jacket for 90% of the boat­ing ac­tiv­i­ties I en­gage in is a closed-cell foam Type-III life­jacket with lots of pocket space that I have filled with gear. I al­ways take it with me when I’m boat­ing and I keep it close by, but don’t ex­pect to see me wear­ing it when I’m read­ing be­low decks at an­chor.

When sail­ing alone, you should al­ways wear a life jacket.

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