FEATURE - Lifejacket lab-rat

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JOHN FORD puts personal floatation devices to the test

FEATURE - Lifejacket lab-rat
FEATURE - Lifejacket lab-rat

It’s claimed that on average, 45 people drown in boating accidents each year in Australian waters — and most were not wearing a lifejacket. Because of the number of accidents, the Commonwealth Government has initiated a program to halve fatalities by 2020, and as a flow-on of that, lifejacket rules have been tightened. The powers that be now take a zero tolerance approach to their policing and the maritime authority in your area is charged with ensuring you comply with the law. If you don’t, you’ll be fined. In Victoria it’s $149 while in NSW they’ll hit you up for 250 bucks.

No surprise then that lifejacket rules have created a great deal of controversy — many experienced skippers feel they’re the best judges for when a lifejacket should be worn. But that doesn’t matter any more.
Lifejackets need to comply with Australian Standard AS 1512 or the newer AS 4758. The States have various rules for when jackets must be carried and worn, but boats heading to sea should have a Class 1 jacket for everyone on board.
Class 1 personal flotation devices (PFDs) range from cheap box or "brick-style" to expensive all-weather models with all bells and whistles — well, lights and whistles anyway. Inflatable jackets in particular have blossomed in recent times due to the laws requiring their use, and also because they happen to be more comfortable during extended wear compared to closed-cell, foam-filled styles which can be bulky as well as hot (but which are almost foolproof if properly fitted and require little maintenance).

Many air-crash survivors recount tales of how they survived because they listened to the hostie when she was explaining where the emergency exits were. It’s a similar story with boats. Too few skippers offer instruction to new crew, and most of us are fairly casual about safety, except when children are concerned; they always seem to be jacketed up when underway.

WHAT’S THIS THEN?
While inflatable jackets might be handy, people need to know how they work. All the manufacturers who supplied product for our test insisted that boaties need to make themselves familiar with their use. Stormy went as far as to suggest buyers inflate the jacket with the oral tube and get in the water to familiarise themselves with its operation. PFD too was keen to have users test the tightness of the air cylinder each time it was used, and to occasionally inspect the jacket for damage.

While it’s easy to assume that inflatable jackets are the default option for savvy boaters, there’s more to this than you might think. A soluble cartridge activates automatically-inflating jackets when you get in the water but their use may not be suitable for some situations. For example, they may activate unnecessarily on a jetski or in the upturned cabin of a sinking boat. On the other hand, a manually-inflating jacket would be of no use if you’re knocked unconscious or if you don’t know how to operate it or you panic. Stormy’s solution was to provide water-activating PFDs which can have the automatic system blanked out if necessary.

"If you’re found with an inflatable jacket without proper service records it’s the same fine for not having the jacket at all."

While Australian Standards offer a guide for the average boater, users need to be aware that the operation of jackets will vary under different conditions. For example, if you have heavy boots or an unusual body shape then you may need to inflate the jacket further using the oral valve.

BUY A GOOD ONE
No matter what you think of lifejacket laws they are here to stay, and while fishos think nothing of spending hundreds of dollars on a reel or lures, many skimp on the one item that might save their lives. Indeed, you wouldn’t think of throwing your reel in a corner of the boat between fishing trips without maintaining it, yet many of us never take any notice of the maintenance of lifejackets.
Some manufacturers estimate that as little as two per cent of inflatable jackets are returned for mandatory checking during the recommended period. This is partly due to the urban myth that you can check your own jacket and write a date on the label. This is wrong! If you’re found with an inflatable jacket without proper service records it’s the same fine for not having the jacket at all. In NSW it is mandatory to carry the documentation on your boat.
We wanted to know what the various lifejackets offered, how they worked and which would suit individual boaters. With that in mind, we grabbed a bunch and put them through a real water test. Here’s how that panned out. Note that jackets are shown first un-inflated and then deployed in water.

STORMY PREMIUM YOKE

The Stormy Premium Yoke is a self-inflating jacket with the option of bypassing the automatic release so it can be used in manual mode. This makes the jacket quite versatile as it can have a range of uses. The jacket comes in red with a comfortable mesh back strap, a lifting loop and a crutch strap as standard.
During our test the 38g cylinder fired within five seconds of immersion and the jacket quickly inflated to its capacity. It kept me floating very well with my chin out of water. It would not let me float face down, and when I tried to, it rolled me onto my back within a few seconds. When lying on your back it feels very secure and it’s still possible to swim in a backstroke style. This is a quality product designed to last, and with good safety features.

Price
$165
Service
$80 includes rearm kit
Service interval
2 years
Ease of fitting
9/10
Inflation

10/10
Self -righting
10/10
Comfort factor
10/10
Appearance
10/10
Value for money
10/10

Stormy Premium Yoke


STORMY JACKET

The Stormy Jacket is a versatile wet weather item with automatic inflation to 150N (Newtons). The sleeves zip off for use in warm weather and a fitted hood is stored in the collar. The jacket is very comfortable for continued use in cooler conditions. I wore it on an overnight trip and found it very comfortable. In the water the jacket inflated quickly and the air bladder which is held inside the lining offered a secure warm capsule which floated me high in the water. It offered good flotation with my head clear of the water when lying on my back. However, it was a bit slow to roll me over from the face down position.

Price
$395
Service
$80 includes rearm kit
Service interval
2 years
Ease of fitting
10/10
Inflation

10/10
Self-righting
8/10
Comfort factor
10/10
Appearance
10/10
Value for money
9/10

Stormy Jacket inflated


MERCURY QUICKSILVER PFD1
Mercury Quicksilver PFD1
The PFD1 is the type commonly found on charterboats, hence it’s sometimes called a guest jacket. It is easy to fit and buckles with a single toggle clip, which can be tightened quickly.
The bulky neck section sticks out and causes some obstruction when traversing narrow passageways. The jacket would be useful for short distances but would not be ideal for use all day. In the water it offered plenty of buoyancy but wanted to ride up. On my back it floated my head well clear of the water but it is not very comfortable, and it wouldn’t roll me over from a face down position.

Price
$15.80
Service
nil
Service interval
nil
Ease of fitting
8/10
Inflation

10/10
Self-righting
0/10
Comfort factor
4/1
Appearance
3/10
Value for money
10/10 (it costs $15.80!)


MERCURY AUTO INFLATABLE PFD1

The Mercury auto-inflating jacket is easy to fit and has a wide mesh back-strap and a neoprene collar to aid comfort. Its black colour is fashionable and its small size allows for all-day use. It inflated quickly to full capacity and floated me high in the water with plenty of support. It felt nice and secure and was easy to swim in but it took a while to float me onto my back. Unlike the other self-righting PFDs, it rolled from back to front rather than sideways.

Price
$179
Service
$45 plus CO2
Service interval
3 years
Inflation
10/10
Ease of fitting
10/10
Self-righting
8/10
Comfort factor
10/10
Appearance
10/10
Value for money
9/10

Mercury Auto-Inflatable inflated

RFD CYCLONE 150N MANUAL ACTIVATION / 150N AUTOMATIC ACTIVATION
RFD Cyclone 150N automatic activation
(Auto model shown)

The Cyclone Manual RFD and Automatic RFD are horseshoe-style jackets that fit over your head. Apart from the activation process, Cyclone jackets are the same.
The horseshoe design simplifies the process of putting one on but this makes them quite a tight fit on my big head, and I had to remove my cap and sunnies to get both on. In each case, the jacket activated and inflated quickly and the bladder wrapped around my neck very supportively, although things were a little on the tight side. The activation toggle was easy to find and easy work.
They floated me high with my face well clear of the water and quickly rolled me over onto my back.

Price
$82.50 (manual) / $126.50 (automatic)
Service
$35 plus $28 rearm kit ($43 rearm kit on automatic)
Service interval
2 years
Ease of fitting
8/10
Inflation
10/10
Self-righting
10/10
Comfort factor
10/10
Appearance
10/10
Value for money
9/10 (10/10 on automatic)

RFD Cyclone 150N auto

HUTCHWILCO PULSAR

This buoyancy jacket was the style most in vogue prior to the introduction of inflatable jackets and is still very common in use on many boats. It is more comfortable than the "brick" but it’s bulky and not very practical as an all-day vest, particularly when fishing. Its attraction is that it is simple and almost foolproof.
This model wanted to ride up when I jumped in the water and while it has plenty of floatation it is a bit hard to get the balance right. There is no self-righting and even though it offered adequate flotation it suffered in comparison to the other jackets during our test. It also had minimal neck support.

Price
$89.90
Service
nil
Service interval
nil
Ease of fitting
9/10
Inflation
10/10
Self–righting
0/10
Comfort factor
6/1
Appearance
7/10
Value for money
7/10

Hutchwilco Pulsar


From
Trailer Boat
Issue 268,
April-May 2011. Images John Ford.

 


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