The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Spinlock Lifejacket


One of the many things that attracted John and I to each other is that we are both gimped. John has one leg shorter than the other and a slight scoliosis and I have congenitally flat feet and knock-knees. John walks like a duck and I walk like a penguin. It is a match made in heaven!

But there is a downside to being the gimp twins: carrying heavy packs for long hikes is out (meaning no overnight camping trips without a Sherpa) and wearing traditional lifejackets during multi-day passages, especially with the added weight of an integral harness with attached tether, which we wear most of the time, has caused us both untold hours of neck and back discomfort.

However, when we visited the London Boatshow in January 2008, we came across the Spinlock booth and had a long chat with the rep. He was so convincing that when it came time to replace my old Sospenders lifejacket, I purchased a Spinlock, despite its higher cost.

And, let me tell you, I haven’t regretted spending those extra dollars for a minute. In fact, last spring, while I drove the car, John wore my lifejacket on a two day passage and, right after his arrival in Nova Scotia, he retired his Mustang lifejacket and bought a Spinlock too!


The difference is that the Spinlock, if worn properly with the easily adjusted chest strap cinched tightly, creates absolutely no forward pull on your neck, due to its horse collar design. Additionally, Spinlock has fashioned the integral tether attachment from an almost weightless high tensile fibre instead of heavy steel.

The one problem that I have found so far with the Spinlock is that the cover material is very thin and so has chafed from the Velcro tabs on my foul weather gear jacket. To protect the bladder I have sewn a small patch of elk hide inside the covering. We will keep an eye on John’s newer model jacket to see if the same thing happens.

NOTE: If you purchased a Spinlock lifejacket, with inspection window, prior to early 2010, check the Spinlock site, as your jacket may be on a recall list. Contact Spinlock for more info.

Do any of you have experience with the Spinlock lifejacket? Do you wear a harness? Let us know what you think.

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Paul Mills


When Hazel and I commissioned Sakari last year we bought each other the Crewsaver equivalent to your Spinlocks. We had seen a guy wearing his Spinlock last summer for days on end, and they looked great and comfortable. However when we looked at both at the 2010 Boat Show the Crewsaver came out on top for us. From recall I think that one of the factors was that by then Crewsaver had started doing a higher volume one, which we bought with integral harness, hood and auto inflate. After a full season’s use we think they are great, very comfortable and easy to use/adjust.

For us a real factor was that we have our two boys (5 and 8) on board, whom we need to wear their lifejackets full time – hence choosing to spend the extra money for us was being good role models… whilst remaining comfortable for extended periods.

Speaking for myself I also wanted the security of knowing my jacket had ‘all the bells and whistles’, as being relatively weak crewed, I knew that if I went in it might result in a longer swim than with a fully crewed race boat for example.

I would recommend these contoured jackets unreservedly and suggest the extra money is ‘small potatoes’ in the true cost of cruising and the extra security/comfort they provide.

John Harries

Hi Paul and Hazel,

Thanks for the tip.

I took a quick look at the Crewsaver site and it looks like they have really upgraded their product to be a worthy competitor for Spinlock. Great to have choices.


I’d like to know what model life-jacket you are discussing for Spinlock. I have put off buying a new life-vest because of the discomfort and weight around my neck so I’m excited about some wearable options.

John Harries

Hi Bette,
Our Spinlock lifejackets are the 150 Hammar.

Joel Taylor

I wear a Mustang auto inflater with harness while teaching basic cruising and undertaking deliveries. It fits snugly and flat to my clothing and rarely gets in the way, but it is heavier and pulls on the neck and shoulders slightly. It also lacks a spray hood.

On the positive side, the rearming kit and CO2 cylinders are easily available in all countries. Flying with an armed PFD could be a problem for some security agents. If they have issues, you can just replace the arming kit. My research showed that the Spinlock rearm kit is not as widely available.

John Harries

Hi Joel,

Yes the flying with a CO2 Cylinder issue is a real pain and the Hammar release is less available than some others. On the other hand, the Hammar is, I believe, more reliable and much less prone to accidental inflation in the event of getting drenched while working on deck.

Nick Kats

Let me compare PFD pros & cons to a vest type foam jacket (the kind water skiers wear).

PFDs are NEVER 100% guaranteed to go off. The failure rate may not be insignificant. The failed PFD may have negative buoyancy which does not help the swimmer.
A vest jacket is ALWAYS 100% guaranteed to float.

PFDs often inflate when not wanted, eg a wave breaking over the cockpit, a heavy downpour, a PFD wearer lying on deck in the rain.
These are not possible with a vest jacket.

PFDs need regular maintenance/checking.
Vest jackets don’t.

PFDs require extra CO2 cylinders at sea. Otherwise in the event of an accidental inflation, the PFD is useless until a CO2 replacement can be bought.
Vest jackets need nothing.

PFDs are subject to corrosion.
Vest jackets aren’t.

PFDs cost more than vest jackets, the fancy ones are 2-4x more.

PFDs, once inflated, jam the head forward & the chin is against the chest – very uncomfortable. No good for swimming.
Vest jackets leave the head mobile. Swimming no problem.

In the water PFDs are not streamlined. Again, unsuitable for swimming.
Vest jackets have good streamlining. Much better for swimming.

PFDs provide no warmth.
Vest jackets are warm (this is my main reason for wearing one. Very handy to have this extra layer when I get cold).

Non inflated PFDs don’t get in the way of arm/shoulder mobility.
Neither do vest jackets.

PFDs support the head in the water, eg unconscious from hypothermia, or knocked overboard by the boom.
Vests don’t support the head. But if hypothermic, the PFD wearer is going to die of cold, while the vest wearer will die by drowning. The PFD wearer will take longer to die than the vest wearer, but in most cases the extra time is irrelevant. In case of being knocked unconscious AND into the sea, the PFD wearer has a definite advantage – the remaining crew can return & pick him up. This is the only advantage I see to PFDs over vest jackets. That and the fact that PFDs are fashionable.

In short, I see PFDs as overdesigned technology, vastly inferior to a simple vest in all but one way. PFDs are yet another way to rook people.

I have never understood the craze for PFDs.


John Harries

Hi Nick,

Thanks for the comment. All good points. My problem with the water skier vest would be that I have never seen one with an integral harness and I’m just not coordinated enough, particularly at a 2:00 am watch change, to fumble with yet another piece of gear (separate lifeline harness).

Nick Kats

Hi John
You could have a sailmaker sew a harness onto the water skier vest.


But do keep in mind if one modifies an approved PFD it voids the approval. The only exception I know is ownership marking.
Having said that, we have modified them in the past and kept minimum un-modified equipment aboard to satisfy inspection requirements.

Marc Dacey

Why not have both? When I solo sail my 33 footer, I don’t wait for light air…I will frequently bash the boat out there and green water over the winches is not infrequent. Because I accept your criticisms of the PFD (auto-inflate style), when solo I wear a garish purple and yellow kayaker’s floatation vest. If I need to tether on, I wear an elderly but intact Lirakis harness which pokes out D-rings halfway down the vest’s zip.

Another advantage to the foam vest besides warmth is that of protection…I lurched heavily against my Barlow winches one time and to judge by the bruise it left through the vest, had I been wearing just an uninflated Mustang or Stearns PFD, I would have bent or broken a rib or three.

When with the family, I opt for the PFD confident that they’ll at least attempt to get me back aboard…I hope! I do find them less burdensome than a vest in summer weather…but I would say there can be no real objection to carrying both style and using them as preferred. I would think that the vest might have a few advantages during night watch, when one is unlikely to leave the cockpit without rousing a member of the off-watch (or at least that’s my policy). The PFD does feature more freedom of movement, handy for daylight deck work.

Alan Teale

Hi Phyllis, We bought a couple of the Spinlock Deckvests when they became available and have never regretted doing so. The Deckvest is very comfortable and the absence of metal parts around the midriff saves the woodwork at the chart table. The one downside that I see is the thigh straps. It is argued by a number of authorites that something to keep the vest down when you are in the water is essential, although I have heard it said that the close fit of the Deckvest serves the purpose. I am not entirely convinced of the latter, but I find thigh straps very uncomfortable and restrictive. For me a crutch strap is preferred. That said, I wear my deckvest, but without the thigh straps. If Spinlock swtiched to a crutch strap I think they would have a perfect product. Alan

John Harries

Hi Alan,

I agree, the thigh straps are near useless. I really can’t see myself messing with them at all, never mind at a 2:00 am watch change when I’m not, shall we say, at my best. On MC we simply make sure that the chest strap is snug and don’t worry about thigh or crotch straps. Yes, I’m sure it would be better to use said straps, but I also think that if we make these things too difficult to use, then people won’t use them at all.


Some additional grist for the mill.

We do use inflatables.

But, having read the specification for inflatable Type Vs (46CFR160.176) from end to end with an engineer’s eye, I was struck by the fact that the word “reliability” does not show up in relation to inflation. Test lot criteria do not include “failed to inflate” as a rejection criteria.

Having been a SCUBA diver since 1962, I compared the inflation mechanisms for the inflatables with the similar mechanism on my buoyancy compensator. Accordingly we waited about ten years for them to get it right and fore-swore the “pill” type in favor of hydrostatic.

I wore military LPU when flying surveillance over the Pacific, and we were trained to expect we would have to orally inflate them or top them off.

We keep harnesses and regular life jackets aboard to back up the inflatables, as the inflatables are essentially unrepairable underway (and unworn do not meet SOLAS/US Federal PFD requirements at all).

I keep a urethane foam filled Type III work vest aboard for use as a “flak jacket” when going aloft in boisterous conditions.

John Harries

Hi Chris,

All good points, thanks. The Hammar inflator used by the Spinlock is, as I understand it, hydrostatic and more reliable than the dissolving pill type.
Also, I particularly like your idea of using a Type III as a “flak jacket” when you go aloft.

Nick Kats

Being able to orally inflate a defective PFD is a must-have feature.
But let me look at the practicality of doing this.
So one is in the water wearing boots, maybe wearing foul weather gear.
Boots make the feet utterly useless for swimming (ever try it? The swimmer is probably desperately paddling with both hands just to stay afloat).
A lot of the time he will need something to hold onto while orally inflating the PFD. Without support he will be a goner.
Very easy to panic.
Throw in a choppy sea.
If knocked over by the boom & stunned, forget it.



I think I may have been inarticulate.

I simply found it interesting the USCG spec had zero on inflater reliability and several paragraphs on oral inflation requirements. Whether intentional or not (reliability testing is expensive and requires considerable statistical inference), the USCG has conveyed via the spec, “We don’t expect these to be reliable, and you shouldn’t either.” [Were it left to me, inflatable bladders would be augmentation to some basic non-inflation dependent flotation. In cold weather, I wear a lined 3mm wet-suit vest under my other gear for this purpose.]

For some years, I taught SCUBA diving to NOAA and NSF marine scientists and engineers (diverse conditioning and body types). We required them to swim 300 meters before classes began to get them muscularly tired. We needed them to know what being on the edge felt like (in a controlled hostile environment). We used both heated and unheated pools. We required them to do all kinds of things we hoped they’d never have to do, so they might have a chance should fate roll sevens.

One of the things we taught them was how to orally inflate a completely empty BC (we called them vests then). The technique is to “Bob.” Bob up, breathe in. Sink, breathe out using short breaths and stop breathing out before you go underwater.

The bobbing does three things: It calms your subconscious and focuses your conscious mind; it regulates your breathing which is generally irregular, gasping and shallow; and it keeps you upright in the water column, which helps keep your head out of the water until the flotation kicks in. Four to six breaths was all it ever took to get positive buoyancy (no wet-suits for this). A few more breaths were needed for safety flotation.

Our students were required to do this at the end of each lesson when they were tired and on open water checkouts. We required three open water check outs for certification, one in calm water, one in near zero visibility and one with no less than one foot waves, preferably two foot (the kind of thing that could blow up in the middle of an hour dive).

One of the things I find odd about sailing is for the most part people do not seem to practice with any of the safety equipment on which they spend so much. I would recommend that all who venture beyond the dock parking lot read the engineering specs to know what the “performance floor” is. Then buy something engineered well above that floor by a company that has safety as its sole focus (not a splinter line of business in a larger enterprise). Then take it out and practice with it (to the extent the law allows) or find a suitable surrogate such as the life raft deployment and boarding classes.

A side note on boots. We follow the local watermen’s lead and wear our boots one size large to make them easier to shed. We clomp when we walk, but so what.

Nick Kats


We agree on concerns re PFD unreliability.

How to address this?

Apply KISS (Keep it stupid & simple). Think of people as dumb & lazy. Murphy’s Law is a constant.

The elegant technique you describe is specialized. It is probably too dangerous to teach myself first in a swimsuit then progressing to wearing sailing gear in the water. I can’t see PFD owners in their thousands taking courses to learn this technique.
Most PFD owners are not going to augment flotation with a 3mm wet-suit vest.
A lot aren’t going to go up a boot size.

These suggestions don’t go to the heart of the matter, PFD unreliability.

Just replace the PFD with a foam vest.


We each have to decide for ourselves. Isn’t it nice we can.


My view is not popular, but I think cruisers need to remember that you can count on one hand the number of people who drown in the U.S. in one year off of larger boats like ours. Then if you subtract the number that were drunk you get pretty close to zero. So the chances of falling off a big boat and drowning are ridiculously low. Then for the typical two-handed crew if you did somehow manage to fall overboard the chances are pretty close to zero that anyone will know or be able to find you. How many cases of someone falling overboard offshore and then being rescued have you read of? So, stay with the boat in the first place. The harness provides 99% of the protection. Use the lifejackets when in the dinghy or in a dangerous harbor situation, where people do fall in and drown, but offshore I really think they do nothing but get in the way and possibly make you less safe. I tell any guests on my boat that they are responsible for staying onboard and that if they fall over they are dead. Yes, we will try to save you, but assume you are dead because that is the reality.

John Harries

Hi John Kettlewell,
Great comment, thanks. We agree pretty much entirely. In fact I always tell new crew in our safety briefing to imagine that there is a 1000-foot drop the other side of the lifelines.

Like you, our primary safety strategy is to stay on the boat and the Spinlock makes the best and least uncomfortable harness I have ever worn, with the additional benefit that if we do have to suddenly do something, like get in the dinghy or scramble up a slippery wharf ladder, the life jacket is already on.


I just looked up the USCG statistics for 2009. In boats over 40 feet there were 2 drownings. In boats 26-40 feet there were 18.


Hi Kettlewell,
Your statistics are unassailable, but as long as multiple governments out there can stop us and inflict financial pain for mal-equippage, we might as well have stuff that is comfortable and at least functions to the level paid for. Right?


You should always carry the required equipment, but don’t just use it blindly. I personally carry a variety of non-inflatable lifejackets that meet all laws, and are occasionally worn when conditions merit. For example, while riding out a hurricane within a somewhat sheltered harbor it made sense to me to wear one in case I blew off the deck. I felt I had a reasonable chance to then float to shore. Also, the statistics in small boats are much worse—that’s where people really do fall overboard and drown, so it makes sense to have lifejackets with you in the dinghy, which is generally required by law. Offshore it makes more sense to me to stay tethered to the boat. If I was getting into the liferaft, I would don a lifejacket, but I wouldn’t want one that depended on inflation equipment at that point. Spoke to a guy who was aboard a sinking sailboat and as it went down his inflatable jacket popped as he was trying to get out of the companionway. He rose up into the bimini top where he thought he was going to die because the inflation was holding him against the canvas as the boat went down.

Nick Kats

Hi John (Kettlewell).

Makes sense about the sailor who got caught against his bimini. This may have happened locally a few months ago. A sailor was found dead underneath his upside-down inflatable which was tethered to the stern of his boat. Something happened after he returned to his boat, tied up & tried to board. His PFD worked. Complicating factors were that he was very drunk, and that he died of drowning rather than hypothermia (autopsy), and it is difficult to work out what may have happened.

PFDs have far more buoyancy than needed. Couple this with the PFD jamming the head forward onto the chest, thus severely restricting overall agility & upper body strength, and you can see why your sailor had such a struggle getting out from under his bimini. Never get caught under an inflatable or anything wearing a PFD.

I disagree about wearing PFDs in dinghies. The absolute priority is not flotation but to spend as little time as possible in the sea. The life jacket that meets the needs of someone in a dingy that is awash or capsized:
Enough flotation to stay afloat, no more.
Full freedom of head & neck. This maximizes mobility & upper body strength.
Streamlined, to swim thru the water.

On all of these counts the PFD fails miserably. It has far too much buoyancy. It severely restricts head motion & upper body strength. In the water it is like a snowplow – it greatly reduces swimming speed.

Racers of small boats that frequently capsize don’t wear PFDs for reasons that include the above. They wear vest type foam jackets which meet the criteria I outlined above. They know from experience.

In previous comments here I have summarized the drawbacks of PFDs. No one has seriously objected. Apparently my remarks stand. There is enough here for people to figure things out for themselves. Time for me to move on!




Nick: I agree with you 100%. Long ago I raced International 14 dinghies and several times we managed to capsize the wrong way while attached to the trapeze so that the sails came down on top of us, trapping us under the boat. The only good way out was to unhook and dive down to get out from under the sails and the tangles of lines and rigging. Wearing any sort of lifejacket would have made that very difficult. How much flotation one needs in a dinghy may also be a matter of how good a swimmer you and your passengers are, and how warm the water is.

David B. Zaharik

Had exactly the same experience in 5 years of Hobie Cat sailing…. often in the water, often under the trampoline, often pitch polling… an inflatable would have killed me. It’s knowing the right tool for the job.

Joel Taylor

I have a point in favour of PFDs being worn aboard any vessel.

There are several situations, especially in small boats where you could enter the water violently and unexpectedly. In these cases you are likely to have a condition called “Cold Shock” for up to three minutes (in 12 Degree C water). During this period you are likely to aspirate water. Cold Shock also results in muscles contracting tight.

Both aspirating water and muscle contractions eliminate your own ability to keep your head above water. During this period you will need enough flotation to hold you up above waves and choppy water. Aboard tenders/cruisers auto inflating PFDs are the best way to provide lots of flotation in a compact wearable package. And for sailing dinghies a dinghy specific PFD.

Then there is being stunned or knocked unconscious as you are knocked off the boat. In this situation flotation will help keep your head above water and prevent drowning.

Basically, if you want to stay afloat long enough to have any hope of being recovered in either of the above situations, you must wear flotation.

John Harries

Hi Joel,

A very good point. During our two winters in Norway at least three people were drowned in the harbour in exactly this way.

Even in the summer in Norway, the danger of cold water shock does not go away: While we were there a man fell off a yacht in harbour and was rescued in minutes. However he died the next day, despite all the efforts of a modern hospital, from a condition that was diagnosed by his doctors as “near drowning”. A major component of this syndrome is the aspiration of water due to cold shock.

Of course I can’t guarantee that any of these people would have survived if they had been wearing lifejackets, and Nick’s (and others’) point that an inflated PFD severely restricts your ability to rescue yourself is well taken.

Like so much in risk management, this is another area where there is no clear right or wrong. After weighing the risks and taking into account that the Spinlock acts as the most comfortable and easily adjusted lifeline harness we have ever worn, Phyllis and I opt to wear them.

However, just a year ago I wrote about a situation where not wearing an inflatable PFD, or in fact any life jacket, seemed to be the right one.


Interesting topic, I normally wear an Inflatable PFD/harness (Aussie design Stormy Seas yoke). But what I really want is a hybrid, with enough flotation to enable me to survive and swim, but with an inflatable part to boost buoyancy if needed. Have toyed with modifying mine by stuffing some camping mat foam into it. But Nick has got me thinking… I always wear and use a harness/PFD at sea but Snow Petrel is small, and I am often alone. I wonder how I would go about getting back on board or waking up the off watch crew… Best to hang on.

The seaboots/wet wx gear question is interesting, I recently did a wader safety course. They turned the waders from a liability into an asset, by trapping the air in them and using them for flotation.

The trick was to use a belt around the waders and tuck your legs up quickly, trapping the air, the worst thing you could do was tread water. I must try that with wet weather gear, possibly the trapped air would be a benefit for a while, and if wearing a cold weather boot like my much loved Dunlop Thermo Pluses, there is massive amounts of buoyancy there.

Before I go off again I will get a set of waders for running shore lines, dinghy work and for rough weather use. Much cheaper than a dry suit, and quicker to get into and out of.

Over here there is a big push to get people to have the inflatable PFDs serviced annually. Probably a good idea I think.

Flying with CO2 cartridges is a bit of a pain, over here you have to get a letter and a Dangerous Goods number from the airline, but it is only a phone call or if you are lucky they can do it at the check in.

Christopher Barnes

A decade ago I had an interesting experience on an advanced avalanche training course in the mountains. Having evaluated the snow-pack for stability and on the verge of skiing down a slope that could theoretically slide, the instructor asked us all to turn OFF our avalanche transceivers (standard and required safety gear in avalanche terrain for companion rescue). The situation is analogous to going overboard in that it happens very infrequently but the consequences are very high (1 in 6 people caught in an avalanche are dead before it stops moving).

I have subsequently used this logic repeatedly when faced with making decisions where some portion of the situation is related to the use of “safety” equipment. Faced with a pitching fore deck and a reef to put in – I envision either not using or the failure of the safety equipment – and now I often find myself more concerned with staying connected to the boat than the assurance of having an auto-magically inflating PFD around my neck – to the point where I now prefer the simplicity and light weight of a traditional harness far more and take comfort in not being lulled into something foolish, like forgoing clipping in to the boat in a rough sea as I move forward because “I have a PFD on”.

This said, I love these life jackets for using around the harbor or coastal cruising in non-extreme conditions and they do have their place.

One can do a lot better than the typical water ski vest for comfort and functionality for a traditional PFD. The rafting and kayaking world have a broad range of very high quality PFDs that are light-weight, non-restrictive, very durably built, functional pockets, and USCG approved in the various Type III, IV, V categories (e.g. search Astral Buoyancy.)

Note the rescue models have harnesses but I suspect they are not appropriate in that they are meant for pulling another boater/swimmer on a tether, not holding the weight of the wearer with their head above water etc. Also for those with kids on board there are some fantastic kids life jackets that are comfortable, easy to put on, and non-restrictive.

For tasks such as dangling over the side clearing a lobster pot warp with a boat hook I like to be in a real PFD. Faced with a tough beach landing or launching I can’t imagine wearing anything else – as one can actively respond to the situation physically unhindered but still have the benefit of buoyancy. Having gone for a swim in these PFDs in Class 4 rapids (much like spending time in a very big laundry machine), I am a believer in their functionality and vast superiority – folks who complain about the constriction etc. of a life jacket just don’t have a well fitting high quality one (do try them on with lots of layers etc so they fit over what you will be wearing).

So we have a quiver of PFDs: #1 is being physically connected to the boat via a harness & tether (not USCG approved but the best in our book, especially for kids); #2 inflatable harnesses combo PFDs used frequently but for lower intensity environments; #3) a few high quality PFDs; #4 a few cheapo USCG compliant ones that live strapped to the underside of the dinghy thwarts and in the lazarette.


John, Phyllis,

There may be an issue with these vests.

Sent you a separate email as well. Chris

John Harries

Hi Chris,

Yes, one of ours was on the recall list. Spinlock fixed it a few months back and paid for shipping both ways.

Thanks very much for the heads up, we might not have seen it.

Phyllis also mentions the recall in her post above.

To us, this affair just shows a company that is committed to their product. In our experience, all companies make mistakes but what differentiates the good from the bad is how they handle their mistakes.

George Woodward

I think there is a great deal of sense to plan not to go overboard in the first place! Surely short lifelines and central jackstays must be a first priority. OK there may be problems getting round the spray hood etc but surely worth making. “Keep the crew on the boat” is a priority before assessing the relative merits of various PFDs.

John Harries

Hi George,
We agree entirely that staying on the boat is #1. But to do that well, you need a good harness and the Spinlock is the best we have found at being a harness, and it’s a PFD too, the best of both worlds for us.

You have reminded me that we need to do a post on our jackline and tether system, thanks.

Not sure how you would do center line jacklines in a way that would allow us to stay on them from cockpit to bow. Not on our boat anyway. Having said that, it’s an interesting idea and one I will look at next time I’m sitting around on a long watch.

We agree on relatively short tethers, but would not make them too short because that would necessitate a lot of un-clipping as you move around the boat trying to reach things.

Our system is that the crew don’t have tethers, each part of the boat or jackline has its own tether…but more on that in the post.

George Woodward

Hi John
How’s the post on your jackline and tether system coming on? My own jacklines (stays)need replacing but I am hoping to have the benefit of your experience before I do this.

John Harries

Hi George,

Sorry, it just has not made it to the top of the heap this year. Probably some time this winter.

J Steinmetz

The biggest reason I decided on the Spinlock PFD is comfort. Sure we can find reasons or situations Spinlock PFDs are not best suited for. However, my understanding is that THE BEST PFD or “Vest Jacket” is the one that is consistently worn. You can talk for hours about one versus the other, but if you don’t have it on at the moment it is needed – it does not matter. For me comfort is king in this situation.

Nick Kats

35 comments on this, Lordy, who needs another!
In the 3 yrs I’ve had my boat on the west coast of Ireland I’ve seen PFDs inflate by accident 4 times. (All on other sailors travelling with me, never myself as I don’t use PFDs, see my earlier comments.) Once when green water hammered down onto the wearer who was standing in the cockpit. Twice with heavy spray. And once when the PFD was lying in the cockpit in the heavy rain.
Of these 4, one was a Spinlock, and it was due to heavy spray. Which contradicts the Spinlock guarantee that it won’t inflate unless it is in solid water.
This inflated Spinlock looked pretty flimsy, though I didn’t finger it, just seemed like it was fragile & would puncture easily. Cheap looking plastic whistle & other plastic gewgaws hanging off it. Any of you Spinlock owners ever see yours inflated?
Anyway, here’s a moral: those of you with PFDs might want a few replacement cannisters, or a PFD that inflates orally, no pun.

John Harries

Hi Nick,

Good point on the issue of accidental inflation with automatic PFDs. I have had it happen to me, twice. Just about gave me a cardiac arrest! However, the new Spinlocks have a hydrostatic release which is not prone to this problem.

I know that the bladders in most PFDs look pretty flimsy, but in over 15 years of using them I have never had one fail an inflation test and I tend to keep mine for at least five years.

And, of course you are right that every owner should regularly inflate their PFD. We do ours twice a year and leave them inflated for 24 hours.

Finally, all the automatic inflatable PFDs I have ever used have had an oral inflation tube as well.

Joel Taylor

Hi Nick

My Mustang PFD has a hydrostatic valve as well. I have been out in some serious rain fall and a storm or two and it did not activate. Were the PFDs that accidentally activated equipped with hydrostatic valves?

Is needing to carrying an extra activator such a problem? It sounds like common sense to me. If you fall in and your PFD activates, then you are obviously going to have to replace the activator.

When my arming kit needed to be replaced this year I decided to test it by jumping in with it. It was a lot slower to fully inflate than I had expected but it did pop open and keep me buoyant.

Check out this link to the video of my activation test:

Joel Taylor

John Harries

Hi Joel,

None of the inflatable PFDs that I have seen or experienced activating inappropriately used the hydrostatic release, all used the older dissolving “pill”. I have now been using jackets with the hydrostatic release for about five years and have yet to experience an accidental activation, despite being drenched, both by rain and waves on several occasions.

I would also agree that carrying an extra activator, as we do, is just common sense.

Thanks for the link to the video, very interesting. I’m guessing that the PFD might have activated more quickly if you had jumped from a higher perch and gone further underwater, as you would in a fall from a boat’s deck, since the hydrostatic triggers work by sensing water pressure—the deeper you go, the more pressure.

Nick Kats

Joel & John
The crew with the Spinlock that inflated in heavy spray said his is the older Spinlock, with no hydrostatic release.
PFDs seem to be an increasingly complex product. The more components & systems, the more potential for failure there is. The principle KISS is forgotten here.

John Harries

Hi Nick,
Good to hear that it was not a hydrostatic that inflated at the wrong time.

Actually, I’m not sure that the change to hydrostatic release constitutes an “increase in complexity”. Hydrostatic releases are pretty mature devices that have been around in commercial use for the automatic deployment of life rafts and EPIRBs on commercial vessels for decades.

Hans Jakob Valderhaug

Old but very interesting thread. For completeness: Swedish manufacturer Baltic make a 50N flotation device with integral harness, models Baltic Offshore 5510 and 5511.


Hi, all!

I just posted a thread about using a Galerider drogue to haul an injured/weak crewmember aboard. Whatever kind of PFD one uses, you still have to deal with being incapacitated by cold, fatigue, and injury while in the water. This might be the ticket for such a situation.

John Harries

Hi Chad,

Yes, you are right, the Galerider could make a fine option to get someone injured out of the water. Galerider use is not on our person overboard protocol on Morgan’s Cloud. The reason is that our number one goal, because of the cold water we sail in, is to get the person out of the water quickly, and rigging a Galerider and getting it under the POB could take some time. Since we are always wearing PFDs with built in harnesses the quickest way to get the POB out of the water is a halyard or tackle to the harness, or to the Lifesling if the POB has managed to get into it.


I hear you. But what if—due to cold or exhaustion or injury, they cannot clip their harness into the halyard, or maintain enough grip on the lifesling float to withstand the massive pressure of being hauled up from the water? We have all these stories where people die alongside their boat due to exhaustion etc.  Plus, while I have had our little lifesling block and tackle close at hand in the cockpit, I really think that by now always storing the folded Galerider on the top of the lazerette, it is actually a faster deployment (one stainless caribiner to clip into the end of the halyard), and then a pretty much guaranteed scoop and board—hardly anything required of the victim by way of action.  We will experiment this summer and let you know!

Best regards,


John Harries

Hi Chad,

Makes sense. I would be interested in the results of a test in say a 6′ swell and 20 knots of wind. My concern is that while it may be easy to get the person into the Galerider in calm water or a chop, it may be a lot harder, or impossible in an ocean swell.

Of course a dummy should be used for any testing. I’m thinking that you could probably make one out of a large sail bag, some old life jackets and sand.

One thought, if the POD did not make it to the Lifesling very quickly, in cold water and a sea, they are dead anyway since the chances of one remaining crew (our situation most of the time) picking them up, are slim to none. If they made it to the sling, we only have to winch them up a bit to clip into their harness.

It’s an interesting discussion and one that has a lot of ramifications and no easy right or wrong answers. For example the Brits teach that you should use a parbuckle to retrieve so you don’t have to bring the POB aboard vertically, which can lead to hypothermia shock. On the other hand, US Sailing, says get them aboard fast at all costs with a lifting tackle or halyard.


And…as far has ever having to put a second person in the water to render aide, it sure seems a safer way to go—especially in heavy seas.

John Harries

Hi Chad,

I would certainly not suggest putting a second person in the water in a POB situation. Having said that, at sea flexibility is king in an emergency. Some years ago a man went overboard in rough weather in the Gulf Stream from a famous ocean racer. The boat was not able to get right alongside the POB, so a friend of mine, who is a very strong swimmer, went in after him and brought him in to the boat where they were both retrieved. All or the participants agree that if my friend had not done what he did the POB would have died—there are no hard and fast rules at sea, only common sense and seamanship. In this case, with warm water and a very strong swimmer available, going in after the POB turned out to be the right call.


Yes, I really think that there is potential for this use of a Drogue which could really save some lives. I have read someone who suggests using the boom to lift the POB, rather than a masthead halyard.

In regards to the idea of putting two people in the water, I would agree that it is so dangerous as to be beyond consideration by any but the most fit and skilled rescuer. I actually added it because of the picture of it on the Galerider site. IF one had to go into the water in heavy seas, for POB or some other equally serious emergency, the idea of being lowered and staying (!) inside the galeride basket (to pull someone in with you etc), would be my choice


Another thought just occurred to me. Another reason to keep this option (or some similar “scoop/ride” type option) readily available, is for boats where ALL crew does not wear a harness ALL the time. Unless you are going to maintain that practice, for guests and all alike, with military precision, there may be times when a harness is not worn. What will be my plan for POD retrieval then?

The thought occurred to me because forthe past few years, we have taken about 10-15 guests (children/adults) aboard for a holiday “lighted boat parade”. While all wear pfd’s, most do not have harnesses built in. Up to now I have mentally relied upon my Lifesling option, and I still think that is a decent one if the POB can get into it in such a way as to not slip out while being hauled up.

I guess I just like that I have another option that seems more sure fire (relatively!).

John Harries

On “Morgan’s Cloud”, while offshore, everyone wears a harness all the time while on deck, no exceptions, ever.

I guess a boat parade in calm sheltered waters would be different. But in calm water, everything is at least an order of magnitude easier than offshore in a swell, and that includes POB recovery.

In calm water, we would just flip our inflatable dinghy (stowed on the foredeck inshore) into the water, a matter of seconds, and haul the POB into that.


John, in reading that great story you mentioned, above, I note that the two POB crew, one apparently a skilled, fit rescue swimmer, were not able to attach the halyard to their harness. While they were very fortunate to be hauled on deck by a combination of the plunging boat motion and a bunch of strong crew, it would seem that this would be a good example of how something like the Drogue option might come in handy!

John Harries

Hi Chad,

All good points, although all of this is conjecture until there is a real test in adverse conditions. We will look forward to hearing the results.

One point that I would not want anyone to lose track of in this discussion: The chances of being rescued from the water in adverse conditions offshore by a short handed crew are very slim indeed, no matter what gear is available or how well trained the crew. And if you go over in the dark, off a shorthanded boat in any sort of heavy weather (when it is most likely to happen) you are almost certainly…dead—prevention is more important than cure.


Totally agree. Especially downwind. I remember flying downwind around Pt Arguelo (near the Channel Islands) going double digits (in an 18 ton Hans Christian!) with a poled out jib, and trying to imagine…in the mere 15 ft seas pushing us along…just how long it would take to get back and pick up a POB. In daylight it would have been a very slim chance.

George Woodward

Hi John
Did you get to do this post? Maybe I missed it?

“we need to do a post on our jackline and tether system, thanks.”

John Harries

Hi George,

Sorry, not yet. It is in the hopper and will happen at some time, but the editorial schedule is very full, so not sure when.

Jeff Dusting

Thanks so much for the review – had been comparing these with the Kru jackets from the UK.

But there were no Australian retailers – but I just found an online retailer in Australia now which is great –

steve wrye

Hi John,
I’m getting ready to buy new PFD’s but can no longer find the Spin lock 150 hammer at marine stores. Do you know if they replaced it with the 5D 170 N Hammer?
Also the Crew Saver 290N looks interesting.

What are your feelings of the soft hoop safety line attachments on today’s modern PFD? I’m so used to two stainless steel D rings to clip into it’s hard to imagine one soft hoop could be as effective or as safe.
Thank you