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Time to check your PFDs!

Your PFD (Personal Flotation Device - otherwise called 'Life Jacket') is your first line of defense on the water...your lifeline when you need it most.  Yet, it’s surprising how few people treat them with the kind of respect a piece of gear that’s expected to save your life under the worst of conditions deserves.  The least you can do is give it a little care and maintenance from time to time and now, just before the season, is when most of us should be thinking about doing just that.

Inflatable PFDs like this SOSpenders version need regular maintenance.

PFDs, especially the inherently buoyant ones (i.e., not inflatable), are often tossed in a locker after use, exposing them to dirt, abrasion, moisture and mildew.  Lifejackets, especially inflatables, should never be stored under anything heavy, oily or wet.  Heavy objects can damage the sensitive mechanisms, compress or damage the fibers, and make the PFDs difficult to retrieve.  Oil, if it spills on the PFD, can change the buoyancy.  Moisture can expose the fabric to mildew and can degrade the automatic inflation mechanism on inflatables…not only causing a potential problem for inflation when you need it, but also causing the PFD to inflate when you don’t want it to, which we learned first hand!

We had a particularly wet spring one year.  Of course, that did not stop us from going off cruising.  The torrential relentless rain wreaked havoc on our foul weather and safety gear.  One time, we were so wet at the end of our weekend cruise that we just took everything off, including our inflatable PFDs, hung it all in the wet locker (i.e., head), and went home to warm up and dry off.  Unfortunately, we inadvertently closed the door to the head when we left. 

When we came back aboard, we found everything semi-dry but mildewed…and the PFDs inflated.  One was still fully inflated and one partially, causing us to wonder if it was leaky. We tested both of them, first by using the tube to manual inflate them to capacity and waiting overnight to make sure there were no leaks in the bladders.  Luckily there didn’t seem to be any loss of pressure.  When I went to replace the cartridges, I noticed the bobbins had virtually melted.  A couple of replacement pins and CO2 cartridges later, and we were back in business.  Now, we make sure we dry them off with towels and hang them in the center of the cabin, and so far so good. 

Replacement bobbins for inflatable PFDs


We routinely replace the bobbins and pins on our automatic inflatable PFDs at least once a season.  Seeing the condition of the bobbins that melted made me realize just how vital this is.  It’s so easy to do, and it will preserve the expensive CO2 canisters much longer.  Plus, if you disarm the firing device during the replacement (you have to remove it anyway), it gives you a chance to inflate the PFD manually with the oral tube supplied with most inflatables to check for leaks and test comfort and fit.  If you find a leak, make sure to send the jacket in to an authorized service center. 

Repacking an inflatable vest correctly is essential to minimize abrasion later.  If you lost the repacking instructions supplied with the PFD, contact the manufacturer to get a replacement sent to you. Before repacking, be sure the vest is thoroughly dry and completely deflated.  To deflate it, you can use a pencil or pen to push open the valve while you press the air out by squeezing and rolling.

If your PFD is exposed to harsh conditions (saltwater, rain, or humidity) often, you may need to replace the arming unit more frequently.  CO2 cartridges should be good indefinitely as long as there is no corrosion. Inspect the cartridge for signs of corrosion and check to make sure the nozzle has not been punctured by the firing needle. Speaking from experience, that was pretty obvious when we saw the PFDs inflated in our head!  If you see corrosion or suspect damage to the nozzle, replace the cartridge.

Rearming and repacking a PFD is easy if you follow the instructions carefully. Include a strobe and whistle.
Then again, some of us stow our lifejackets in zippered cases and bury them deep in a lazarette from which they are particularly easy to retrieve – not!  We used a zippered case for extra jackets but keep several under the nav station seat where they are easily accessible (not under the spare anchor). Some time later when we went to access these PFDs, the zipper had corroded making access difficult at best. Now they are loosely packed under the seat, where they also get some ventillation. Otherwise, we have enough on deck and handy for every guest aboard. Children, of course, are required to wear them at all times.

We also bought a tiny orange PFD for our black cruising kitty, Onyx.  Unfortunately, every time we tried to put it on, she lay down and refused to get up. The brand name is “Fido” and Alex's theory is that she isn’t very happy with that. We were quite concerned about her when she was a kitten but she's got such great sense and sealegs now, we are quite confident that she won't go anywhere near a dangerous situation on her own. (she has been cruising with us for over 13 years now - including three Atlantic crossings) Luckily, she prefers to sleep below or snugly under the dodger while we’re underway, but we do have it should we need it.

PFDs are your lifeline...wear them and be sure they'll work when you need them.

PFD Rules

We have rules aboard our boat as to when PFDs are to be worn. That way, there is no question and the procedure becomes routine.

  • If one of us is alone on deck, the rule is we wear a life jacket - with harness - and clip in to jacklines on deck no matter what the conditions.
  • At night underway, we both wear our life jackets and clip in no matter what the conditions.
  • If we think about reefing, we don our life jackets before going forward on deck.
  • When going forward we always clip in.
  • If there's any reason for concern, we get those life jackets on. It's a simple thing to do, and the inflatables are so comfortable under any conditions there there is no excuse.

And then there is the dinghy ride ashore:

  • It is law in most places and a rule on our boat to always wear a PDF when dinghying ashore, or even over to another boat.

When doing longer passages we have added additional rules:

  • Anyone going up the companionway (going topsides) must wear a PFD and alip in prior to stepping into the cockpit.
  • Nobody leaves the cockpit unless there is someone else on deck.

Preventative Maintenance

A few simple precautions after each use can prolong the life of your PFDs. If your lifejackets are exposed to saltwater, rinse them well after each use. If they were exposed to dirt, oil or chemicals, wash them in soapy water or a mild detergent before rinsing.  Just remember to remove the bobbin and firing pin on an inflatable PFD before washing or you’ll have a surprise inflation to deal with.  Always allow your lifejackets to air dry thoroughly before stowing them or they’ll mildew.  Never expose them to direct heat or high heat as in an automatic dryer.

Each time you don your lifejacket, inspect the webbing, stitching and buckles for wear and abrasion.  Check metal buckles and other hardware for rust or corrosion that might hamper getting the lifejacket on or off quickly, or might jeopardize the strength of the metal.  If you have a built in harness, be sure to inspect it thoroughly along with the tether.  Treat your PFD as though your life depended on it.  You may one day be very glad you did, because your life does depend on it.

Further Reading

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