Should We Wear Lifejackets or Harnesses, Both, Neither?

Usually, by the time I put my fingers on the keyboard to write, I'm reasonably sure of my position on the subject. But this chapter is different since I'm conflicted on pretty much every aspect of:

  • When should we wear lifejackets?
  • Should they be self-inflating?
  • What about lifejackets with built-in harnesses?
  • Would a simple harness without a lifejacket be better?

The one thing I'm certain about is that blanket rules like:

  • everyone should always wear a lifejacket;
  • a lifejacket with harness is always best;
  • a harness without a lifejacket is always best;

will not keep us safe and can even be counterproductive in some circumstances.

Or, to put it another way, the most important piece of safety equipment we have is the one between our ears—rational thinking beats dogma and other people's rules every time.

But, on the other hand, I also believe that each of us must come up with our own set of rules.
And those rules must be rigorously enforced on our boats on a day-to-day basis.

It's fine to sit down in a quiet moment in a crew meeting and modify our rules and procedures in light of new experience, equipment, or information, but no winging it in the heat of the moment.

So, with all of that out of the way, here are the rules that Phyllis and I currently apply to the lifejacket and/or harness question, as well as some other related issues, and our reasoning.

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Denis Foster

Hello,

Like you we chose Spinlock Deckvest.
I try to fasten crotch straps. But I feel there are not good.
When you flex the thighs they often get caught in something ( like a cockpit winch) and open supprisingly very easily.
I am surprised that Petzl that makes climbing harness with adequate thigh straps haven t made this available for the deckvest.
At the end …. we seldom wear the deckvest with the crotch straps like you.

The rest is good and we now have Sart AIS fitted to. Probably the ideal would to have bothe Ais and Plb.

Regards

Denis

Rikki

How about a chapter on routines for single handed sailing?

Marc Dacey

I have actually fallen overboard while wearing an auto-inflatable vest (a Sterns; we all wear Deckvests now) I was in a docking situation in early June, 2010 (water temperature a nippy 12 C or so) and was standing outside of the shrouds on the toerail and (unobserved by me) right over an aft-leading spring line. The line went taut and I was impressively flung off the boat. My backside smacked the dock on the way down, and, to judge by the vivid bruising that resulted, had it been my head, it would have burst like a ripe melon. I went about three metres down (it was cold) and I could see the prop in gear), and the vest inflated. I shot out of the water like a porpoise and luckily, the rest of the crew were able to get the motor in neutral and the boat fended off and I swan, abashed and bashed, to the ladder.

I did not aspire water. I believe I had enough time “airborne” to hold my breath instinctively.

There were about four deadly outcomes in that anecdote, which probably looked amusing from the dock, I managed to avoid. Never assume your plan will keep you out of the water if your plan doesn’t account for plain bad luck or a random configuration of factors. Lifevest use is standard on our boat and will remain so, even with high pipe rails and substantial gunwhales. It’s too easy to not anticipate the weird series of events that might see you in the water.

Ken McCallum

We’ve taken safety one step further by wearing an Ocean Rodeo Ignite drysuit along with our inflatable life jackets with crotch straps and tethers when the weather picks up or at night. Yes, we also wear a personal EPIRB. The Ocean Rodeo suits are awesome.

Richard Hudson

Hi John,

Very realistic article, great explanation of why blanket lifejacket/harness rules are not always appropriate. Interesting hand-over-mouth idea to prevent cold water shock–I will have to remember that–it definitely sounds like it could be life-saving.

My rules are harnesses offshore or when sailing in waves, PFDs getting in and out of the dinghy, and docking. My boat has high liferails (90cm / 35″), which help keep people aboard.

When I’m on small boats with knee-high lifelines in protected, but cold, water, PFDs are worn when underway.

For PFDs, I use the wearable foam types, or flotation coats/suits. I really like float coats/suits in cold places. When the float coat is too warm for rowing, a PFD is more appropriate (of course, one has to consider this before leaving the boat to bring the right one 🙂 ).

As a teenager, I recall once having to jump into cold water and swim 5m to the dock to get a shoreline on in a docking-under-sail attempt that didn’t quite work. I was so glad to be wearing a float coat!

I have climbed into an inflatable dinghy from the water, wearing a float coat and clothes–it requires arm strength and handholds, but it is quite possible.

When dinghying ashore in a float coat, I take the coat ashore with me. When dinghying ashore with PFDs, the PFDs are generally left in the dinghy. Once, in a hot country (I can’t remember where), the PFDs we’d left in the dinghy were stolen when we were ashore. It wasn’t an area where replacements could be bought, and after that–in warm waters (not cold!)–I stopped always wearing PFDs in the dinghy. The potential for theft of PFDs left in dinghies is an illustration of your point that blanket rules aren’t always appropriate.

Richard

PS: The new “Replies to my comments” button with options for notifications is great.

Sam Shafer

Now granted this was on a fishing boat not a sailboat.
I had a very bad experience off shore in the early 2000s with a Sterns auto inflate. I was on a 45′ Viking with an anchor pulpit and a non functioning windless. We had been anchored in 300′ about 90 miles offshore, chunking for yellow fin tuna. Through out the day the sea state had become progressively worse, far quicker than was forecast.

When I went forward to haul in the anchor the waves were 4-6 feet every 8-10 seconds with a 8′-10′ set of 3-4 waves every few minutes. I was on the bow for the better part of 20 minutes and had the chain to the bow pulpit when the shackle got wedged in the anchor roller and would not come through(anchor roller had disintegrated.) I went out on the pulpit and got the shackle through. The captain yells at me through the hailer to hold on as a big set was coming through. So I grab onto the bow rail, first wave we jog over, second wave we plow strait into at which point the auto inflate life jacket goes off with enough force to dislodge my grip and I get washed down the deck and wedged between the rail, a big horn cleat and the cabin. Stay pinned as we plow through the third wave. One of the life jacket straps was caught on the horn cleat and prevented me from going overboard. The other mate had to help me get free and secure the anchor. 5hr ride back to the dock with what turned out to be 4 broken ribs. Damage to the boat; 4 broken welds on the bow rail, broke the heads off three 1/4″ screws on one stanchions, and bent the heck out of the bow rail.

After that incident I have always used a manual inflate life jacket or a water ski style foam and neoprene life jacket. Recently I have been looking into the hydrostatic auto inflate life jackets for use on the sailboat. I have always wondered how a hydrostatic life jacket would have fared in that situation.

Charles L Starke

Hi John
We have Mustang float coats and pants and had a Lirakis Safety Harness sewed in by our canvas man. This is a good combination for us since we like being warm, so float coat and harness are on almost all the time. This holds AIS alarm and PLB. Our coats have, but the coat is no longer made with, the neoprene crotch bib that can seal warm water in.
We also have Spinlock vests and had an opportunity to use them in a pool at the Safety-at-Sea seminar at New York Maritime. We found the pressure sensitive inflator did not work until our head was submerged. This is definitely not a plus in light of the cold water shock gasp. I am afraid that both barometric and manual inflator are no protection against the initial cold water shock gasp!

Rod Morris

As a recent subscriber to AAC 6 months ago, I am continually impressed by both the variety of resources and thought put into the articles. This article on lifejacket/PFD’s/harnesses and the contributed comments is another great example. In my opinion, for the cost of membership, there is no better site on the internet. Since most of my sailing is in warm waters and on a catamaran, the issues of cold water shock are not as extreme and the decks stay pretty level. That said my preference is manual inflation with a built in harness and tethers to jack lines. We use our PFF’s for many recreational activities like on SUP’’s so auto inflate is impractical for us. PFD’s are mandatory at night beyond the cockpit door and you must be tethered to leave the cockpit. We are much more flexible and situation dependant during day light sailing, just as your article implies.
Thank you to everyone for the great input.
Cheers
Rod Morris
SV Oh!

Lee

Have a Baltic foam with integrated harness. Much more comfortable than any auto inflation I’ve ever had. Also protects your ribs if you fall. Pockets keep all your mob stuff attached but away from being caught on things moving about. Only when in the tropics does the hydrostatic come out.
Rules are simple. If one on deck you’re clipped in. If going forward you’re clipped in. Otherwise your choice. Wish they make this stuff so it didn’t mar the woodwork below.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I took a look at the internet pages of the Baltic Foam and saw a lot that I liked. Short of having the opportunity to actually wear one, I might have considered one over the Spinlock I have. I like the ability to have pockets for stuff when on watch and the idea of a vest type design appeals over the Spinlock horseshoe, at least in my imagination. Not sure whether your comment about preferring a soft buckle and harness attachment is merely preference or whether there are other considerations. I have used a metal buckle and harness attachment ring on my Lirakis harness for decades and in some ways prefer the metal ring as giving a surer thing to manipulate (at zero dark thirty, cold, tired and wet) than the soft attachment on my Spinlock.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Agree completely about a double ring design on some Lirakis harnesses, especially as they are more effort to get them snug in changing clothing choices.
However, the Lirakis I am referring to is configured just like the Deck Pro, single ring attachment, easy adjustable chest diameter, but my Lirakis does so with a metal in-and-out type buckle of metal and a single ring of metal rather a soft ring.
I am not sure why, but I have seen few of these around over the years compared with the more common 2 ring design. I was very surprised, when I googled them, to see that it is still possible to buy them (http://www.landfallnavigation.com/lirakisadult.html) although it was not encouraging that Landfall listed them as “out of stock”.
And agree also, that with some fine tuning and testing, the Baltic Foam checks a lot of boxes and may check boxes other solutions do not.
My best, Dick

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I might go for the Deck Pro at this point as well. That said, the Lirakis is always well adjusted for chest fit as one needs to do this to don. Another plus for the Lirakis is that, over the decades, the wide straps have allowed me to sew on small pockets for a knife, flashlight, and a Greatland laser/flare allowing these tools to be ready at hand on my chest: something that looks harder to execute with the Deck Pro. That is also one of the pluses to the Baltic Foam: pockets for small gear, but I do not plan to buy as I feel I am well set up (Spinlock inflatables with MOB1s) and hope not to spend more $$ in this area for a few years yet.
My best, Dick

Chuck B

I wasn’t aware of the Baltic foams with integrated harness – thank you for this. Man, I really like the idea of these but the AIS MOB device requires an inflatable for automatic activation. I will choose to emphasize findability offered by AIS MOB over floatation and continue with the inflatable. Like John says below, just can’t have it all I guess.

Noel Grant

Great article and agree with your thinking. I remember being corrected on the term Life Jackets though and was told there is no such thing as they are PFD’s. They won’t necesarrily save your life – for all the reasons you mentioned.

Being new to sailing just 2 years ago, I went and replaced all the old PFD’s with auto inflates after researching the various types. On the boat it’s primarily my son (14) and I that go out, so being new to sailing we wanted to increase our chance of survival if we did go in the water. The only downside I can see is that if whilst down in the cabin we had a sudden knock down or the boat sank ever so quicly and we couldn’t get back up on deck the PFD would go off and may restrict our movement. A low risk for us though sailing around Sydney Harbour. We only wear them when underway. We went auto inflate though as my logic is that if there is even a slight chance one of us went over and were incapacitated in some way, every minute counted and we would surely be thanking the auto inflate PFD’s that just helped us up, floating the right way up, and especially if you can’t help yourself if you have been knocked out!

I like your “clamp the hand” idea and will be sharing that one with my son and anyone that comes on board when we do a safety briefing at the start. I can relate with how easy it is for water to down the wrong way! This might sound funny but just mucking around wrestling with my son in a pool recently, we were laughing so hard I took in a mouthfull of water the wrong way and literally thought I was going to die trying to breath again. Coughing away, it took several minutes until my breathing got back under control (and that’s being able to stand up). No side affects afterwards luckily.

Not sure I agree with wearing no crotch straps . I read a research article that a double strap has negligible benefits over a single strap, but no strap meant the PFD continually rides up the torso and doesn’t allow your head to be clear of the water and became more problematic as time went by. I hate them as they restrict manouverability, so we settled on the single strap, but we wear them – again because it increases our chance of survival.

Like you said , it’s what rules we set for ourselves that are right. My wife is at home trusting me with my sons life. A small price to pay with auto inflate jackets and a crotch strap and making him wear one when underway.

We don’t wear on in the dinghy from a practical point of view of taking them home and back again plus it’s only a 100mtr run out from the shore to the mooring. It’s not a legal requirement if two in the dinghy but if on our own we must. Our Prime minister recently was fined for moving his dinghy on his own without a lifejacket on.

Regards Noel

David

Great article John. One of the best.

One thing that may influence these choices is a realistic individual judgement of how carefully we will maintain an inflatable PFD. A few years back there was a call on one of the pacific cruising email groups to test your inflatable PFDs and report back the results via email, which someone collected and distributed. Way over half failed in some way, either failing to activate or more commonly not holding air because chafe or aged glue caused the air bladder to fail drastically. The bottom line is that we can’t trust inflatable PFDs unless we test them regularly, at least once per year, better quarterly and before big passages. They are subject to constant chafing forces and the marine environment is hostile to all devices. I think John and Phyllis will maintain theirs sufficiently well. Being honest with myself (and not a little embarrassed to admit it), I also think that I might not test them often enough. I don’t want one more complex system to maintain and worry about. So we choose old-shool PFDs that can’t fail to float and don’t need regular maintenance. We also like the protection they offer for padding the rib cage in a fall on deck or a miss-step while docking. Of course they are also a little ungainly so they may increase the likelihood of the fall… Not saying that this is the right choice for anyone else, just seems right for us. We wear them any time we leave the cockpit, including docking, along with a PLB when at sea, and all the time if conditions are rough. We are on a 50′ catamaran with a very protected cockpit and helm, so we feel safe not wearing them there when under way if conditions are moderate. Then we keep them handy and ready to don. For leaving the cockpit, we require the person to notify and summon the off watch.
svTigress

Eric Klem

Hi John,

This is a tricky topic indeed and I have changed my views on it. On daysails with good weather provided both my wife and I are there, we do not wear any protective gear. The honest answer is that we don’t like wearing them (we do this for fun after all) and feel that the risks are low enough to be acceptable. When one of us is solo, we at least wear an inflatable pfd/harness in the cockpit and clip in if we leave it, if it is rougher, we clip in in the cockpit too. When multi-day stuff is involved, I have always clipped in after dark, if I am the only one on watch, or whenever I leave the cockpit.

One exception is hot weather, thankfully this is usually accompanied by warm water but there are times when we will break the rules just to stay cool.

The one thing that I have come to the conclusion for the way we sail is that if it starts to get bumpy and I decide it is time to do something, we never put on the pfd without clipping in although we will wear a pfd sometimes to make leaving the cockpit and clipping in easier. In reality, it is much more likely that the tether will save a life than the flotation. For this reason, I have toyed with the idea of ditching the flotation and just doing the harness but there are enough times like you have pointed out where the flotation helps that if I am only going to carry one thing, it is going to be integrated. If I really want the flotation of a pfd, I wear a purpose made pfd.

This is one of those areas where it would be interesting to see what I will be doing in 20 years.

Eric

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I know you like to be informed of changes/quirks in the AAC system. Just recently I have started getting the posts I just posted sent to my email address when this has not occurred in the past. Not a big deal as the delete button is handy, but I thought you might wish to know. Dick

Marc Dacey

Two things: For me, using the latest Firefox browser with at least four programs doing adblocking and script-stopping installed, the “leave a comment” form already auto-completes for me and has done so for some time.

I am getting replies to my comments as of a week or so ago directed to my designated email in this form. I got an alert that Colin had replied to me last week. Just the one, mind! In other words, your upgrade seems to have been working for me for many months. I don’t know if that baffles or helps.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I just posted the “test” comment and immediately it showed up was in my personal email in-box.
That is the new behavior I was referring to. And I do like receiving all the other reader’s comments that are posted, as you correctly presume.
My best, Dick

Marcin Kołacz

Hi, John

After my STCW training and real trying of all different safety gear in the cold pool + some training in the process – crotch or tight strap is a must for me when using safety harness or lifejacket especially when worn over some clothing and foul weather clothes. A harness or life jacket must non only be donned but stays put to do you any good.

Just my 2 cents.
Best regards.
Marcin

Christopher

Appreciate the various perspectives and suggestions above. Fully agree that there is no one right way. Our system evolved over a year or so and was in active use for two years living and sailing.

Our system has been mostly rules based, relates to having kids aboard, and uses simple harnesses entirely. We put a lot of effort into jacklines and tethers (correct lengths) such that any crew member can clip in from below deck get to the helm, trim, etc… and to allow for 4-5 people in the cockpit all clipped in without a constant tangle (still happens but mini jacklines inside the cockpit help a lot with that).

We do have to switch jacklines to move forward but can do so from the cockpit and the jacklines are well inboard and nominally above the coach top (quite!) such that the harness point is well above deck level and inboard even when everything is wet and stretchy should one fall – using a short tether (just a foot or so long). This is possible because of heavy welded handrails on a hard dodger and stout granny bars forward to allow for an in-board jackline port and starboard. We have a dedicated working teather fixed at the mast for reefing (thanks John and Phyllis for that one.. once we switched over we are never going back…)

When underway the posted rules are… Harness required & clipped in when on deck if any of the following are true:
– Under the age of 18
– On deck alone, even for a moment
– Night time
– Reef(s) in the mainsail
– Out of the cockpit

That means an adult with company in the daytime when we are not reefed may be in the cockpit without being clipped in… the rest of the time we wear harnesses and are clipped to the boat. The boat is our PFD. Another relevant addition was a rule that we never reefed alone (I admit to shaking some out solo…but clipped in) – often we’d just wake up a kid to stand watch (from the doghouse) over the person reefing to let the other adults sleep.

To make this work, you have to love wearing your harness – for us that means simple lightweight harnesses without bulk. If Mommy & Daddy are always wearing harnesses it isn’t much of a discussion with kids. I like the Spinlock one and Molly doesn’t (poor fit for her). Offshore in challenging conditions I love having a harness I can nap in below, such that when I wake up to help with something I just get to it…

We have foam PFD’s (type used for rafting and kayaking that allow for active movement) for dinghy use & docking (when a tether is impractical)

Our kids got out of lifejackets (or harnesses) at anchor only once they could jump in, swim around the boat, and climb back aboard by themselves – the “swim test,” done for a few summers when they were younger (including May in Maine once… they were determined little fellows back then). We have hundreds of photos of our kids sailing… essentially not a one of them sans harness when the boat is moving… they just grew up with it and we never had to argue about it, just the way it was.

This summer we will be sailing with just two of us aboard and I expect we might adjust things further, up to and including some use of the auto-magic inflatables. The Luddite in me just isn’t sold on the electronic MOB technology as of yet, but I expect a time will come when it really is cost effective, dead reliable, and small enough that it never inspires one to postpone donning a harness or desiring to take it off.

Marc Dacey

As usual, these sort of stories never answer the questions I have, never mind make use of the correct terms, but I share it here because it details the perils of what I assume was a too-long tether, slipping out of a PFD and the difficulty of retrieving a COB in a seaway: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/wife-swept-away-sailing-accident-off-newfoundland-1.4569319?cmp=FB_Post_News

alan kew

In the early 80s i bought a 52′ yawl and proceeded to bring it back to life after a somewhat storied history. My goal was to race the boat and did so to Bermuda and Halifax and Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake .
I was very aware of and spent a lot of thought preparing safety measures for the crew and knowing how lazy they could be ,wanted to make safety as easy as possible. To that end i bought them all properly sized Sterans solid floatation zipper front jackets , red , with slash pocket. I had my sail maker sew a series of loops on to them to hold a chest high life harness permanently in place so that when they put it on the jacket , the harness and attached tether was already in place and ready to be deployed.
the crew all loved them because not only did the jackets provide necessary flotation but warmth as well and rib and back padding when leaning on hard coamings etc. The padding also provided a shock absorber for the harness when ever caught up short. Each vest also had a whistle and a manual light attached and slash pockets for inessentials or a small knife.
I also provide crew ball caps made out of a bright silk nylon yellow collared material , the brims of which i decorate with reflective tape. If a person goes over with or with out a jacket the head is the only thing to spot and at night a search light would pick up the brim and in the day the yellow would differentiate itself from the sea.
I sold the boat 18 years ago but kept some of these vests and recently used one on a delivery
overnight from Nova Scotia to Maine . I was warm and comfortable and secure on this 32′ ketch that flew rail down over the course..

alan kew

IMG_6733.m4v

fyi re life jackets pic taken two weeks ago