Marine News from the Great Lakes

Be Vigilant About PFDs

Published: Friday, December 29, 2017
By: Capt. Fred Davis

Releasing a new PFD to the marketplace is a lengthy task that consists of testing each of its materials. The completed product is then submitted to and tested by UL (Underwriters Laboratories). Printing or tagging must be approved and only then is a Coast Guard number of approval assigned. After all these steps are completed, which can take years, the product may be introduced to the public.

I am familiar with the rigorous testing. Several years ago, I conducted an independent test of inflatable-style PFDs and worked with UL to resolve a defect discovered. If you make certain to purchase a lifejacket with a Coast Guard approval number imprinted on it, you should have a product that 
will last a good length of time, if properly maintained.

Maintenance varies though. Kapok style jackets can be washed with mild soapy water. After washing, or after a day of boating and getting sea spray on them, lay them out in the sun to dry thoroughly. If they are not totally dry before placing them in a closed container, they will mildew.

When cleaning, do not use bleach or mildew remover with any type of chlorine content. Chlorine will weaken the material and threads and render the jacket unsafe. Try lemon juice, scrub lightly, and set the jacket in bright sunlight to dry. If this does not remove the stain, it should at least kill the bacteria and mold and reduce the chance of the mildew spreading.

If your PFDs have metal or plastic zippers or snaps, spray them periodically with silicone to prevent the fasteners from sticking.

Most inflatable lifejackets come with specific instructions for use and care. Some recommend returning them to the manufacturer for service. To use these extremely reliable, yet comfortable PFDs, you will be required to follow specific steps for maintenance to ensure your safety.

My objective for this article is not only to remind readers to check and maintain their PFDs but also make you aware of a problem concerning them. A grandfather brought a youngster aboard my charter boat for a fishing trip several years ago. I informed him it was the law that his grandson wear a PFD while on the boat due to his age. When I questioned the two about the jacket the child was wearing, the youngster said, “This is my own lifejacket” and the grandparent had no idea the jacket was not intended to be worn as a PFD. The sewn-in label was difficult to read, and gave an appearance similar to a Coast Guard approval label. Instead it was an “assistance” product.

“Swim assistance” products were first introduced in the form of blow-up arm supports that assisted in helping beginners learn to swim. These products soon became available in the form of a jacket. Even though I am very experienced, having used all types over the years, they even look like lifejackets to me.

The swim assist products come with a tag or printing etched inside that reads: “Swimming aid vest, warning — use only under competent supervision; not to be used in boating; do not remove foam blocks; ensure zipper is securely fastened before and during use; conforms to as 1900:1991.” The text is somewhat unclear but does warn that a child wearing the device should be watched closely.

What I found concerning about the swim assist product’s warning that I examined was the manufacturer’s name. The name is one that is recognized with water sports products and their logo was printed in bold letters on it. Of greater unease was that the device could easily be mistaken for a lifejacket. I would have expected this manufacturer to be more clear. Unfortunately, over the years, I have seen them in use and observed, as noted above, that parents and grandparents do not realize they are not PFDs.

Some manufacturers describe their kid PFDs with the terminology “USCG Approval Type.” This statement does not mean the PFD carries an approval number. The Coast Guard is amending their system of identifying PFDs by Type Number beginning this fiscal year, however my inquiry to the Division of Life and Safety, Design and Engineering confirmed that the approval number system beginning with 160 will remain the same.  

If you cannot find such a number on a PFD you intend to use for life saving, do not purchase it.

tags: Kids & Pets, Safety

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