By Veronica Hinke
It’s not hard to be chic and safe on the water these days.
Personal flotation devices — you probably call them life vests — now come in many different varieties beyond the standard heavy, orange vests that most of us remember from childhood. They’re lighterweight, more portable and also come in different colors.
In short: No excuses for not wearing one while boating.
"Eighty-seven percent of fatal boating accident victims (in 2006) were not wearing a life preserver," said Bill Gossarb, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. "We’re trying to save lives and great, new, comfortable stuff is available now to help do that. The key is, you never know when you’re going to need it. If you don’t wear it, it can’t do its job."
And with so many cool looks to choose from, it shouldn’t be too hard to find one to wear.
For example, If you don’t like the feel of conventional vests — even the lightweight ones — take a look at inflatable personal floatation devices. The devices are designed to inflate when they hit the water.
They come in three basic styles:
• An all-weather jacket or vest. You won’t feel like you are wearing a personal floatation device — often called a PFD. Discreetly hidden underneath the jacket is a vest that can be activated automatically or by inflating it orally. (New York’s Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Office, which watches over the upper Hudson River, recently outfitted its marine patrol with such jackets by Float-Tech.) A civilian model retails for around $300.
• Fanny pack or belt pack. These are worn around the waist and inflate into a large horseshoe shape. Stearns sells a navy blue model that can be activated automatically or manually for $110.99. The camouflage print upgrade costs $119.99. A smaller version which can only be inflated manually costs $72.99.
• A third, V-patterned model has become commonly referred to as "suspenders" style, because they resemble a pair of men’s suspenders. Mustang Survival’s Type V model costs $189.
Inflatables are generally more expensive than conventional PFDs, which can cost $50 or much less, depending on their composition. And inflatables are U.S. Coast Guard-approved only for boaters age 16 and older, but not for those engaging in-water activities like water skiing or wake boarding.
Albany, N.Y.-based Master U.S. Coast Guard Cpt. Harry Van Wormer said he experienced a vest’s inflation while on a personal boating excursion last season.
After he hit the water, the vest activated in about 3 seconds when a spring-loaded pill dissolved, firing a pin into a CO2 canister. (A kit containing a new CO2 cartridge can be purchased to re-arm the activation device.) Full inflation came in about the promised 7 seconds, he said.
"I’m 250 pounds and it held me up no problem at all," Van Wormer said.
To minimize unintentional activation, Mustang Survival last year added hydrostatic inflation technology to its inflatable vests. Listed at $370.25, their Auto Hydrostatic PFD boasts a CO2 inflation mechanism, but is designed to keep from activating unintentionally in waves, rain, humidity or spray. It only needs to be submerged in four inches for hydrostatic pressure and a valve will open to release a firing mechanism, the company says.
A Boating Writers International judging panel awarded an "Innovation Award for Safety" to the device last year.
"The problem with inflatable life vests can come when waves go overboard into the boat or the vest becomes wet from weather conditions, it inflates inadvertently," said Roger Marshall, a veteran boater who lives in Jamestown, R.I., who chaired the committee. Regular vests are useless until the activation device is re-armed, he said.
Marshall said he has tested the stream of varieties on store shelves, and his favorite are the suspender-style devices.
"They are more robust, reasonably comfortable and provide excellent reliability," he said. But he cautioned boaters to wear a T-shirt underneath the suspenders style to avoid chafing.
And for boaters who want some back-up, but are short on space, Mustang released a throwable inflation device last January. Their Rescue Stick is a 14-inch nylon baton weighing less than 1 pound. It can be thrown 100 feet or more to someone at risk of drowning.
It claims to increase in weight from one to 35 pounds of buoyancy to support a person at risk of drowning within 3 seconds upon impact with the water. Mustang says the average person needs 8 pounds of buoyancy to float.
"It’s the easiest thing going," said Mustang spokesman Jim Hartt. "People can keep it in their boat, vehicle, backpack or back pocket." The stick sells at most sporting goods stores for around $160.