Ben Wells - President
Back to Blog
Jane’s Lifejacket Quest
So, it’s time for a new lifejacket, better known now as a PFD - Personal Floatation Device. My current one is pretty worn out, over 10 years old, and the pocket zipper broke. It also has some features I don‘t like so much.
Jane’s new PFD requirements:
Comfy, with unrestricted arm movement
Center front zipper - not a pullover or side zip
Full thin back floatation - not the thick chunk of foam below the neck that kayaker’s like
Not too thick in front
Pockets for radio, snack, and lip balm
Full or bucket trapeze harness friendly
Of course, I want my PFD to be USCG Approved. With a previous “floatation device”, I would have to ask everyone in my racing class if they were OK with it - meaning they would not protest me. Lots of people still wear this well known (and very comfy) side zip jacket, but it’s just not worth the hassle.
Many racers today sport those minimal PFD’s, very sleek and smooth, some with minimal (not USCG approved) floatation, which they wear cinched down tight, and under a rashguard to minimize snagging on stuff. Some are “impact rated”. Minimal pockets. One even has a sleeve for a 10 minute air tank in case you get trapped under the boat. I am way past that stage. I sail mostly in hot weather. I consider myself a competitive sailor, but comfort, air circulation, and convenience top my list.
Lots of PFD’s these days are pullovers or have a side zip. I prefer a front zip, that I can leave open on really hot days, and is easier to put on. The “valley” made by the center zip helps me find my trapeze hook, unlike the side zip/pullover - where the trap hook is “down there somewhere”.
Many of the nice PFD’s today are made with kayakers in mind. They can be very thick in the front, with a thick block of foam behind your neck in the back, then sometimes a mesh back below that. The back thick block of foam is meant to ride above the kayaker’s seat back. However, when sailing, that thick chunk by your neck catches on the sail/boom as you go under. A kayaker paddles with their arms spread wide. Thick front panels can interfere with sailing motions (sheeting) where your upper arms are closer to your body, and also make it hard to hook up to the trapeze . I wanted a smooth full back panel with thin back floatation that doesn’t catch, and front panels that do not restrict movement.
The thin full back PFD design works well with full trapeze harnesses too, worn either under or over the harness. PFD’s with those short thick backs might be good for half harnesses.
Pockets. I now carry a radio on my person, instead of in my tramp pouch. I was recently working a regatta where a competitor called out on his radio to inform the RC that he had capsized and was separated from his boat. A radio in his tramp bag wouldn’t have done him much good. With it’s floaty mast bob, my Hobie Wave can easily get away after a capsize. I also carry a whistle, some lip balm, a spare watch, and an energy bar in my life jacket. Sometimes a knife too. You need pockets for that. There are some excellent Fisherman PFD’s out there with gobs of great pockets - but watch out that those pockets aren’t too thick. Some pockets are actually constructed with a radio in mind - with 2 zipper pulls that meet around the radio antenna.
Choosing the contenders
More than half of the PFD’s I looked at lost out in the 1st round. Mostly because they were a side zip/pullover, or because they utilized the thick high back foam. This included the Hobie side zip (side zip, back), Stohlquist Edge (side zip, back), Zhik USCG Approved (side zip), Astral EV-Eight (back), Forward WIP (not USCG approved), and Magic Marine center zip (not USCG approved). All the side zip models had crappy pockets, except the Zhik, which has a huge center pouch pocket.
I took lots of pictures of the top 2 finishers, but the PFD manufacturer’s websites have better ones. Check the back and front designs, zipper placements, pocket layouts, and colors of ny PFD you are interested in buying.
All these PFDs had center zips, full thin backs, were super comfy, unrestrictive, and USCG approved. Pockets were good. If pockets are not important, you have a much larger pool of choices. Go for it!
I would like to have tried the Hobie Thinback and/or the Hobie Women’s Thinback PFD’s. They appear to check all the boxes, but nobody seemed to have any in stock. I didn’t like the colors offered too much either.
3rd place went to the Astral E-Linda (REI, online) - a woman specific model designed to cup and support “the girls” instead of mashing them down. It did accomplish that, but it’s pockets were a bit too small for my full size radio. Very comfy. Colors were not my favorites. It looks like the Stohlquist Betsea is very similar.
2nd place went to the Astral E-Ronny (REI, online) - which easily checked all my boxes, and was the best looking PFD of them all. The ventilated split back (Thin Vent) should help dissipate heat. My radio (or phopne) fit easily in the left zipper pocket or the left elastic mesh pocket. I loved the brilliant Fire Orange color, but it is also available in Space Black, Soil Tan, and Water Blue.
1st place - Winner, winner, chicken dinner - went to the NRS Odyssey (NRS, online) - which also easily checked all my boxes. The inside back features raised mesh bumps - the Cool Flow System, designed to improve ventilation. Both left and right outer pockets are designed to hold a VHF radio (or phone), so there are 2 zipper pulls which meet at the antenna. There are also zip pockets behind the radio pockets. You can get most of your hand inside that inner pocket, which could even take a handwarmer (I needed those a few times this year). I also liked the simple bottom clip, which would allow me to safely unzip the PFD to ventilate between races on really hot days, and is meant to keep the PFD from riding up. A final big plus for the Odyssey was that the shoulder straps had a place to fully tuck the ends away. No more shoulder straps flappin’ in your face. Those pockets might be too much for some, but they are just right for me. Available colors are Red, or Charcoal with bright green accents.
Test fitting any PFD
Loosen all the side straps and the shoulder straps. Put the PFD on, and zip it up. 1st tighten the lowest straps, and work up. Go easy there, it’s not a straitjacket. Unless it’s blowing 20+, or you are sailing far from shore, or you are in the Olympics - you probably don’t need the straps overly snug. The PFD should be comfy and un-binding. Last, tighten the shoulder straps. To test - sit down in a sailing position, squat, kneel and crawl. Windmill your arms and making “sheeting” motions. The PFD should not chafe your inner arms, interfere, or ride up. Take the PFD off, put it back on, and tweak your strap adjustments. Try the PFD over your trap harness, or possibly under your trap harness. Does it ride up and irritate your chin? Can you lay on your belly - for those light wind days, or on your back - for between races resting.
Just like my foot protection, hat, sunglasses, and gloves, I never leave the beach without my PFD. Wearing my PFD at all times gives me a sense of security and safety, plus it is easier than tying the thing down on the boat. I encourage all sailors to wear their PFD all the time, every time, no exceptions.