Soundings - - Contents - BY MARIO VITTONE

40 per­cent of those who fall over­board will never be seen again — dead or alive. Stay on the right side of this statis­tic with some ba­sic PFD rules.

When peo­ple fall over­board, more of­ten than not it’s at the ma­rina when board­ing or step­ping off the boat. They slip or trip and end up in the water. The sur­prised swim­mer is usu­ally un­harmed, ex­cept per­haps for a dam­aged ego, and is quickly re­cov­ered and made fun of. Fish­ing is an­other ac­tiv­ity that sees a lot of un­planned ex­its from the deck. But most peo­ple fish with friends, and the wet crew­man is usu­ally quickly re­cov­ered, un­harmed, and made fun of.

Fall off a ves­sel that’s un­der­way, how­ever, and ev­ery­one quits laugh­ing, fast.

The most dan­ger­ous part of boat­ing is an un­ex­pected fall over­board. How dan­ger­ous? If those left aboard lose sight of you, there is a 40 per­cent chance you will never be seen again — dead or alive. Read that again. I’m not try­ing to take the fun out of boat­ing, but when to wear a life jacket and what to carry in its pock­ets is the most im­por­tant dis­cus­sion I have with boaters. Af­ter a life­time of look­ing for PIWs (per­sons in the water) and usu­ally com­ing back empty, I’ve de­vel­oped some rules about life jack­ets and their use. Fol­low them, and your chances of be­ing res­cued go way up.

Rule 1: Wear a life jacket with pock­ets

Life jack­ets have pock­ets for a rea­son, and it’s not to carry snacks. The best jack­ets have loops of web­bing or tabs in­side the pock­ets for ty­ing in gear (I’ll come back to that). The idea is that if you don’t carry sig­nal­ing gear and other sur­vival tools in your life jacket, you won’t have them if you fall over­board. No one ever said, “I’m go­ing over! Toss me a strobe light!”

Life jack­ets with­out pock­ets solve only half of your prob­lem if you end up in the water. Sure, you have to stay above the sur­face to stay alive, but pock­ets hold gear that will solve the other part of your prob­lem: be­ing found.

If your PFD doesn’t have pock­ets (this is true of many in­flat­a­bles), you can of­ten buy them to at­tach to the web­bing belt. If you can’t, you’ve got the wrong de­vice. Get a new one.

Rule 2: Pack more than one thing but al­ways pack a res­cue bea­con

I’m of­ten asked what’s the one thing boaters should al­ways carry. My first re­ac­tion is to say a life jacket with more than one thing, but if I had to pick one it would be a per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­con, set up and reg­is­tered cor­rectly.

A PLB that’s ac­ti­vated and at­tached to your life jacket is the best guar­an­tee —

no mat­ter what else hap­pens — that some­one will be in your gen­eral area look­ing for you. AIS can’t guar­an­tee that; it re­quires other boats to be close enough to get the sig­nal and be AIS-equipped. A hand­held ra­dio can’t guar­an­tee that. Your cell phone def­i­nitely can’t.

Sure, PLBs cost more than most life jack­ets, but if you should have to ac­ti­vate it while you’re alone in the water, you’ll think it’s the best money you ever spent.

Rule 3: Be­ing found is about be­ing seen — pack sig­nal­ing gear

A brightly col­ored life jacket can be a sig­nal, but only dur­ing the day. You want some­thing you can ac­tively use to at­tract at­ten­tion. Carry at least the fol­low­ing sig­nal­ing gear: s , IGHTS ) T S BEST TO HAVE A WATER AC­TI­VATED STROBE AT­TACHED TO THE up­per shoul­der of your vest, though keep­ing one in a pocket is bet­ter than not hav­ing one. At a min­i­mum, stuff a few 12- hour chem­i­cal lights in the PFD. s 3IGNAL MIR­ROR ) T MAY SEEM LIKE A LAST CHANCE SUR­VIVAL DE­VICE but a mir­ror is light­weight, in­ex­pen­sive and small, and it has un­lim­ited range and never runs out of bat­tery power. Like whis­tles, a mir­ror falls into the no- good- rea­son- not- to- carry- one cat­e­gory. Coast Guard-ap­proved mirrors are too big (4 by 5 inches, on av- er­age) to fit into most pock­ets, but the sun doesn’t know the dif­fer­ence when it re­flects off a smaller one. s 7ATERPROOF FLASH­LIGHT 4HIS IS MY fa­vorite. I carry two. Noth­ing turns a he­li­copter around like a wav­ing flash­light. Strobe lights have a range of about 3 ½ to 4 miles, but the fo­cused beam of a strong flash­light can reach al­most any­thing on or above the water.

Rule 4: Make sure hands aren’t re­quired

You will be open­ing pock­ets that are un­der­wa­ter, and you MIGHT BE WORK­ING IN THE DARK 4HE GEAR MUST BE TIED INTO OR ONTO THE VEST ) F YOU DROP SOME­THING IT S GONE 4HE # OAST ' UARD HAD us tie our gear in with 36- inch lengths of ny­lon cord. It al­ways served me well and seemed like the cor­rect length.

De­vices such as strobes and PLBs must be se­curely at­tached as high above the water as pos­si­ble. You won’t be able to hold ei­ther de­vice for long, and just be­cause some bea­cons float doesn’t mean THEY WORK WELL WHEN FLOAT­ING 4HE AN­TENNA MUST BE HIGH TO EF­FEC­tively trans­mit a sig­nal.

Fall­ing over­board is the most dan­ger­ous part of boat­ing. Choose your life jacket and set it up as if you knew you were about to end up IN THE WATER 0LAN ON IT 4HE GEAR YOU LEAVE ON THE BOAT WON T BE ANY help once you’re swim­ming, so—most of all—wear that jacket.

“If those left aboard lose sight of you, there is a 40 per­cent chance you will never be seen again — dead or alive.”

Mario Vittone teaches the proper use and setup of life jack­ets and sig­nal­ing de­vices.

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