In over 20 years of canoeing and kayaking, I did something recently that I have never had to do before – I had to retire a life jacket from service due to equipment failure. As I was getting my equipment ready before a class, I noticed the tear in the fabric around the neck. I took some photos and then went to grab another PFD’s that I could wear for class.
The very first life jacket that I bought back in 1988 was a cheap fishing boat kind of life jacket that fit just terribly. I quickly put that one in the storage shed at my mom’s house where it could be used as a spare for visiting guests.
My second life jacket, purchased later that same summer, was a light blue ExtraSport PFD made of bulky foam segments sewn vertically inside the nylon fabric of the jacket. It was vintage 1980’s canoe-wear. I passed that life jacket on to my mother-in-law when my in-laws bought a canoe for their cabin in Canada.
I was really excited to get my third life jacket. It was a low profile Stohlquist jacket with thin, flexible foam that contoured comfortably around my body. Unfortunately, it only had one tiny mesh pocket. As I was getting more serious about my sea kayaking and needed places to put all the “kit” that was required in my BCU training, I set that jacket aside as my “pool practice” PFD – a vocation it continues to fill today.
It is my fourth life jacket, purchased in 1998, that finally tore last week. Truthfully, I had already retired this jacket from active service on “big water” like Lake Michigan several years ago due to obvious fading of the fabric. However, I continued to use it for teaching on inland lakes and rivers since it still had all the fabric and closures intact and floated me comfortably during rescue practice. I was actually kind of curious to test just how long this life jacket would last as I had never taken a PFD all the way to material failure. Here in the Midwest where we don’t have to contend with the corrosive effects of saltwater, so it is UV exposure that is the biggest destroyer of fabric. You can see how hard UV exposure is on a life jacket when you compare my jacket on the right to the same brand of life jacket that I purchased for my son at the same time I bought mine. These two PFD’s were originally the same color. My son quickly outgrew his jacket and it spent most of the time unused in our basement out of the sun.
So what’s the point of this little trip down memory lane? First of all, it should be obvious that a life jacket is a pretty durable piece of equipment that will give you many years of hard service, so don’t be afraid to spend some money to get a good one. I wasted money on some of my early life jackets. Although they were less expensive, they either weren’t comfortable or didn’t do what I needed them to do. As a result, I was buying a new jacket every few years during my first decade of paddling even though I was paddling a lot less than I do now. Even if you end up spending $150 to get a good life jacket that fits well and has all the bells and whistles you need for paddling, that will probably break down to less than $20 per year over the life of the jacket for most paddlers. When you consider that according to boating fatality statistics wearing a life jacket is the single most important thing you can do to prevent a drowning death, that’s pretty cheap life insurance.
The other important point to take away from my experience is that you need to be inspecting your gear closely before, during, and after every paddling season. I knew this jacket was going to fail eventually, and towards the end, I only used it in very benign conditions on inland waterways. I also carried a spare life jacket available to use as soon as I saw the tear that marked the end of this jacket’s useful life. After reading a recent article in Sea Kayaker magazine about a rescue that resulted in no small part to a series of equipment failures in old, worn out gear, it’s important to remember that your life may depend on the condition of ALL your gear including your life jacket.
If your PFD is starting to look as faded and worn as mine, it’s long overdue for you to retire it to less demanding service like winter pool practice and get a new life jacket for use out on the water.