Pros and Cons of Inflatable PFDs

A drowning recently occured a few years ago when a SUP renter was found struggling in the water and soon submerged. He wasn't wearing a leash but did have a deflated inflatable PFD around his waist. Like many deaths of this sort, it was a mystery to why he went under as he was in his mid 30's, a good swimmer, and in good shape. But, if he had been wearing a Type 3 PFD (vest) and/or leash could this incident have been avoided?

Many get into SUP for the minimalist pov and the feeling of simplicity. Several have told me kayaking always looked gear intensive, expensive, and harder to learn. This is one reason why SUP is taking off so quickly.

Keeping with the minimalist approach, C02 triggered inflatable belt style PFDs have become popular. Folks use because they don't like the feeling of a full vest style PFD and/or because it passes the Coast Guard requirements for PFDs thus keeps them from getting a ticket. SUP racers love them for the above reasons as well. I use one for freighter wave surfing to get to a break on Puget Sound which requires paddling through a section of flat water.

Type 3 Vests are commonly seen tied or strapped to SUPs for rentals. This is as effective as not wearing any floatation at all. Many shops duct tape them to the boards - goodluck removing it in a situation. Have you tried the rental shop vest on, does it fit you? A shop by me puts on kids vests on all boards, probably cheaper?

Many feel PFDs are not needed at all if you're using a leash. There is some logic in that and some error as well. A SUP paddler drowned in Oregon recently after falling and hitting his head on his board, was knocked out, and despite having a leash, drowned anyway. In 2016, a man in San Diego drowned after having a heart attack on his board. Possibly a vest PFD may of helped him stay afloat after falling in.

Some argue that a SUP is an inflatable device. In rare cases, if your leash breaks, you just lost your floatation. It'll be interesting to see how these arguments shake out in coming years as the sport matures.

Pros of a belt style C02 PFD system:
- It provides the minimalist feeling of having less gear on or to deal with.

- To some, it's less obtrusive while racing, surfing, etc.

- An option for those in hot temps or humid conditions.

- May be beneficial for those with a large belly. We've seen larger folks struggle to get back on their board with a vest pfd. If this is you, make sure an inflated C02 will fit on you properly before inflation. Do this by removing it from the bag.

Yoke Style C02 Systems - 
Most commonly seen on boaters, the yoke style unlike the belt is already on your body. All you have to do is pull the string to deflate. Some paddlers feel the neck section of this style is uncomfortable.  MTI makes one that triggers once it hits the water. Downside is it may trigger too early if wet. Good article on yoke style PFDs worth checking out here.

Cons of a belt style C02 PFD system:

- Most who have one haven't test fired it.  It's not as easy to put on as you'd think.

- They don't offer core insulation.

- They may block your peripheral vision and may be difficult to swim in. Try it!  I fire one off during our PSUPA instructor certification courses on water.

-In the case of the above mentioned drowning, if a unskilled SUP paddler gets a cramp and/or is fatigued while swimming and is treading water to stay afloat and are most likely panicked, there's little possibility of them being able to use one arm to find the pull string, pull it, and put on the inflated vest (or use it as a float)?

-If a paddler has a shoulder injury such as a dislocated arm, will they be able to use the other arm (while treading water) to find and pull the string to inflate the vest?

-If a paddler falls and hits their head on the board or another obstruction and is knocked out, the deflated PFD is of no use.

-Many wear their belts loose. A few have found that the belt slides up under their arms when they fall in the water. Try inflating it from this position.

-In my area, the saltwater rarely gets above 55F even in summer. Immersion for longer than 20 minutes can lead to numbness in your fingers quickly. Many are going out without wetsuits, even in winter. It's difficult to find and pull the pull tab with numb fingers.

-A few weeks ago, I noticed that renters once on the water took their belts off and attached them to their kayaks and SUPs to be free of the belt.


Tips on using the belts:

- Don't give them to SUP rental customers with no paddleboard experience. They'll be more likely to fall off and swim in their first days on the board. Beginners can be overwhelmed with standing, balancing and basic strokes, keep it simple for them.

- Test prior to use.  Many struggle to climb back on their boards, especially 6" thick inflatables. Try to get on your board before you get into deep water.

- If you do use one yourself or allow rentals to use the system, make sure training is involved prior to getting on the water. Fire off a sample to show it it works. Explain cons (above).
Have you actually tested your belt? Pulled the string, saw how it inflated, and put it on?

-If paddling in corrosive saltwater, clean your belt with freshwater after each use. Repack the PFD once a month.

Pros of a Type 3 PFD / Vest (not tied to your board):
- Doesn't get in the way while paddling. Whitewater kayaking is far more physical than any SUP paddling. Get one that is design for whiteater such as Kokatat, Astral, Solquist, etc. I use MTI.

- Provides good insulation in colder temps.

- Assures floatation while immersed. But not always face up if unconscious. The PFDs with the floatation behind the neck are ideal for 100% upright floatation.

- Provides pockets to put energy bars in, a night light, hydration pack, a VHF radio, etc.

- Provides impact protection if surfing or paddling in shallow water.

- Great for boater or rescue visability. Some come with silver reflective strips or you can add your own.

- You can use it as a seat while on shore. Keeps your bum insulated.

Tips for Type 3 (Vest Style) Use:
- Make sure it fits properly.  Do a Shake Test.  Should be tight enough to breath but slide up to your chin while in-water.

- Leash gets in your way?  Attach it to the straps on the front or side of your vest style PFD.  We attach it there for river and some surfing use for easier access.

Problems of getting on SUP with Type 3 Vest on?
Kick your feet in the water as if you're swimming. Do so vigorously to be effective.  This will raise your body to the surface, then slide on horizontally to the board. If you don't to this, you'll be going up and over to get on, possibly catching your PFD on the board.

For our business, we use MTI PFD's, their APF vests for (fits most) and the Cascade for me (more pockets to store a VHF, extra hood, go pro, sunblock and minimalist first aid kit for teaching. Try before you buy and check out kayaking stores which usually have a better selection than SUP/surf shops.

Read More:
Paddle Board Tips for Big People - Low Profile PFDs

Any questions give me a holler: salmonbaypaddle@gmail.com / 206.465.7167
Check out our SUP classes - beginning to advanced instruction and PSUPA Certification.

Updated 9/16


Comments

Sketchbox said…
Article came right up in a search for "inflatable PFD belts". I'm chasing down a new supplier, as my preferred source just ran out of warehoused inventory for the remainder of the year! Good points all around. We always send our renters out with Type III Stohlquist or Kokotats, and nobody gets a pass on wearing one. If it's a rental, it gets worn.
Bill, Owner - Dig Paddlesports
Mitchell King said…
I think another issue with inflatables are that people see a "cost" associated with using them... and may be reluctant to inflate right away. They will wait and wait trying to get out of their negative situation and avoid having to pay $15-20 to buy a new charge. By the time they are ready to give in, it might be to0 late. Standard PFD's are passive, and are always working... once you put it on you don't have to worry about activating it.
Cinder Chutes said…
I use a belt PFD in the surf because a full vest won't let you get under the water in the surf if you need to submerge to avoid your board becoming airborne or being hit by another surfer. At most surf beaches they recommend the waist PFD. I use a full vest on lakes simply because it is warm and very inexpensive to buy. They also provide more assurance you are going to float if you hit your board and knock yourself out.