September 30, 2012

What kind of lifejacket?

HOW FAR DO YOU THINK you could swim in cold water with a lifejacket on?  If you capsized the dinghy, for example, could you swim back to your boat?

I ask because the kind of cold water we experience year-round here in the Pacific Northwest has to be taken into consideration when you choose a type of lifejacket.

Many people find it almost impossible to swim in the normal position, that is, face downward, when they’re wearing a lifejacket. This is especially so when you’re wearing an inflatable device that provides maximum flotation, but at the expense of turning you into the Michelin Man. It is usually possible to swim on your back by flailing your arms a bit but it isn’t easy and you won’t get anywhere fast, especially if you’re trying to make way against a stiff wind. You’ll also find it very difficult to board a boat while wearing an inflated lifejacket.

The point to take note of here is that experts claim most people who fall into our waters have only 10 minutes to swim anywhere in any case. After that, the cold starts affecting you so that you mostly lose control of your fingers, arms and legs.

Inflatable and other lifejackets are designed to roll you face-upward and keep your head clear of waves so you can breathe even if you’re unconscious. They weren’t designed for ease of swimming — just to keep you afloat until rescue comes.

There are buoyancy aids shaped like vests, and lacking collars, that offer you more freedom of movement for swimming. But if you choose one of these you should be aware that if the boom hits you on the head and sends you overboard unconscious, a so-called buoyancy aid won’t turn you onto your back and it won’t have as much flotation as a full-blown lifejacket.

If you are conscious, and a reasonably good swimmer, you can partially deflate an inflated lifejacket so that you can turn onto your stomach and use your arms to swim, after a fashion, which you might want to do if you are very close to shore or your yacht. And I mean very close, certainly within 50 yards. You can always inflate the bladders by mouth if you run out of steam and need to rest on your back. If you’re farther away from safety, you should await rescue and conserve heat and energy by curling in a tight ball.

Cold water of the kind we sail in, usually about 45 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, is a sure killer, so it’s important to give a lot of thought to the kind of boating you do and the best kind of lifejacket to go with it.

Float coats make a lot of sense when it comes to conserving body heat in and out of the water, but they’re expensive and not ideal to swim in. The best defense against drowning or hypothermia is not to fall overboard in the first place, which calls for harnesses and tethers, but even sailors who have them don’t always wear them. What’s not always appreciated is that people also fall overboard in calm weather when there doesn’t seem to be any threat, or any need for a lifejacket. If the water’s cold, there definitely is a threat, a constant threat.

So give it some thought and decide what kind of lifejacket is best for the kind of boating you do. And if you need some facts and figures to help you, and maybe frighten you into action, here’s a very good website to visit:

Today’s Thought
Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.
— Shakespeare, Henry VI

“What happened to Gloria?”
“She swallowed some coins and had to go to the hospital.”
“Wow. How’s she doing?”
“The doctor says there’s no change yet.”

 (Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree

not sure about the self inflators anymore - especially as I sail alone