The morning I should have drowned was a chilly Fall day.
It was wicked early. I was in my launch. Checking buoys for a race.
By myself. Flat water. The launch wet with dew.
I grabbed for a misplaced buoy.
I reached. I slipped. I fell overboard.
Cold water. Full dressed. Pockets loaded with tools.
I didn’t drown that morning because of a decision I made years before
Immediately after college I began work as a whitewater raft guide.
It became second nature to wear our life jackets (aka PFD—personal floatation device). Oftentimes I wore mine 10 hours per day, or more.
Over the years, I saw hundreds of rafters survive falling in raging rivers and were able to go home with a great story to share, thanks to their PFDs.
Because of those years guiding I made a decision to always wear my PFD when coaching.
It saved my life that morning.
You make your decision to wear a life jacket—or not
I don’t share my story to talk or guilt you into wearing a PFD.
But if you do wear one (fingers crossed you do) I wanted to share a few tips about keeping PFDs ready to go for your season.
You are required to have life jackets
Depending on where you coach, regulations probably require you to have PFDs.
For example, I coach in Maryland in the States. I am required by the the US Coast Guard (USCG) and Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources to have one PFD for each person in the launch. And if my launch is longer than 16 feet, I must also carry one throwable life jacket (Type IV).
But that’s in my location. You may have different requirements.
Do some research and figure out what you MUST have.
But not just any life jacket will do
For example, I must carry life jackets in my launch—but there is also an EXACT type of life jacket I need to carry.
It’s a little different throughout most of the rest of the world, with life jackets regulated by the CE standard of Europe.
Accord to Marc Messing, at the excellent site RowSafeUSA.org, “The principal difference…is that the US standard is designed to provide floatation for a 330 lb person, while the CE standard is based on a 220 lb person. As a result…PFDs outside the US are generally lighter, less bulky, and often more comfortable.”
In the States, there are numerous types of jackets, ranging from Type 1 to Type V. Each designed a bit differently.
You can see there are some variations of Types below.
Not only are there different TYPES they come in different SIZES, ranging from child to adult.
So again, you need to do some research. You should know not only the number of life jackets you need to carry, but also the exact TYPE you need, and then the sizes.
Are your rowing life jackets in good shape?
It’s one thing to have the correct number, type, and sizes of life jackets, but those PFDs need to be in good condition.
Which means you will need to inspect your life jackets. I inspect ours at the beginning of each season and I use the two-pile system. Specifically, I check:
- The fabric—for rips, deterioration, and exposed foam
- The straps and buckles—are they adjustable and do they function
- For signs of mold and/or mildew
- For water logging, or crushed foam
Another item I check is the date. Some jackets will have dates stamped on the inside label. And if the date is not there I will write the date when we first get it.
That way, when we inspect them that’s one thing we check—not because there is a specific expiration date, but instead to get an idea of how old and serviceable the jacket is.
And a few tricks to extend the life of your PFD
To keep your life jackets in good shape, and extend their lives, here are a few tips from the USCG:
- Don’t kneel, sit on it, or stack items on it. A PFD will lose buoyancy if the foam in it is crushed
- Keep jackets dry, to ward off mold/mildew
- Stow jacket in well ventilated area
Life jackets that aren’t in good shape should be removed from the boathouse and disposed of promptly.
Do you have the amount of life jackets you need?
When I coach, I wear a Type III. It is comfortable, gives me plenty of floatation and visibility. I require anyone else in my launch to wear a life jacket, and I carry a PFD for each rower I am coaching (in USRowing Kippy Kits). It’s a system that has come in handy many times.
If you need to buy a PFD, buy the best you can afford. Several companies make nice shortie-vests with reflective tape, and they’re functional, comfortable, and very unobtrusive. Great for coaching, and will keep you warm on cold days.
A good fit is critical for all rowing life jackets
A PFD on your body is a good thing. A PFD on your body that’s been correctly adjusted is an even better thing.
To get a good fit, buckle the fasteners and adjust the straps around the PFD so that the fit is comfortable. Then grab the shoulder area on the jacket and pull up—the jacket shouldn’t rise to cover your face.
If it does, tighten the straps and test again. When it’s correct, tuck in the side straps so the are out of the way.
You should have each member of your team adjust and test their PFD in the same way.
(Oh, I have my coxswains wear PFDs in cold weather, both for floatation/safety and because it helps keep them warm.)
Let me float this by you…
There are two types of rowing coaches: those who HAVE fallen overboard and those who WILL fall overboard. When it happens (not IF it happens) the situation can quickly become life-threatening.
Give some serious consideration to having (and wearing) a rowing life jacket. Wearing mine saved my life that cold morning. It might just save yours.