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When it Comes to Boating Safety Equipment, Your Life Jacket (PFD) is Just the Start Additional Equipment Can Help Save Your Life

by Wayne Spivak, National Press Corps, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Federal, state and local laws require that every vessel should have a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) or life jacket for each person on board a vessel. These laws go on to say that these PFD's must be readily accessible, in case they are needed in an emergency.

The concept of "readily accessible" confuses many boaters. We in the Coast Guard Auxiliary know this to be true, because we find life jackets in the strangest of places when we conduct a Vessel Safety Check (VSC). Readily accessible means that you can instantly locate, remove, distribute and don your PFD's in the fastest time possible.

I think everyone would agree that if you run out of gas, your powerboat's engine wouldn't run. And, if you have no source of electrical power, your boat's electronics won't work.

So if we continue on with these comparisons, if you are not wearing a life jacket already, and you can't get to your PFD's quickly, and put them on before your vessel sinks, then when your vessel does sink, and/or you fall overboard and you end up in the water, you're not going to have a PFD on.

Obviously the Coast Guard Auxiliary, as well as the Coast Guard and most of the major recreational boating safety organizations, would prefer everyone to wear the PFD at all times while you are underway, thus eliminating the need fro this entire discussion. But, since less than one out of four adult boaters actually wear their PFDs while underway, the law requires that your life jacket be readily accessible, in order to comply with the regulations.

What is considered readily accessible? That concept is often best explained by looking at examples of what is considered not readily accessible. A PFD is not considered readily accessible when stored in the bottom of a locker, or kept in its original plastic bag, or left down in the bilge, where it can become partially destroyed by lack of proper care.

Remember, without a PFD, your chances of survival decrease dramatically. Drowning remains the number one cause of death in boating fatalities, and approximately 90 percent of those who drown did not have a PFD on.

Like having your seat belt on before a collision, having your PFD on before you are thrown into the water can mean the difference between life and death.

Additional Safety Equipment

A PFD by itself is just the beginning. Members of the Coast Guard and Auxiliary are required to carry additional safety equipment on their PFD's. This equipment, although not legally required, has and does save lives every day. Let's take a look at some of this additional equipment, and how it works.

The first item we'll discuss is a signal mirror, which can be seen over 10 miles away. Recently, three boaters were rescued when they used a signal mirror to attract a NYPD Helicopter. What is clear is that without the mirror, our "hapless sailors" as the Daily News called them, would have spent a great deal more time waiting for help, and one of the three might have died from exposure.

So, the first item we recommend you attaching to your PFD is a signal mirror. Either purchase a PFD with a pocket, or sew a pocket on, and place the mirror in your pocket. Make sure you tie the lanyard that attaches to mirror to another part of your PFD. This way, if you take out your mirror to use, and drop it, you won't loose it!

The second item of additional equipment that we suggest you have on your PFD is a whistle. Marine whistles have no peas (the ball you'll find for instance in a police whistle), which allow them to work, even when slightly submerged. Why a whistle? Because they typically have a range of a half mile or greater, and your voice will never be heard over the waves and the wind should you go overboard. Again, use a lanyard for the whistle so if you drop it while in the water you won't loose it. The Coast Guard requires its members to carry a whistle attached to their PFD's with a lanyard.

The third item we suggest is a strobe light. The Coast Guard requires its members to carry a strobe that you can turn on, when and if you go overboard during the night. A strobe can be seen for miles in the dark.

The fourth item is reflective tape. That's the same type of tape that is worn on firefighter jump suits, police rain coats, buoys and other items that need to reflect light at night. Affix the reflective tape to your PFD on the top of the back and in front. This way, should a light be shown in your direction, a reflection will be seen. My Coast Guard/Auxiliary PFD has reflective tape.

The fifth item is personal flares. These small flares, which are carried in the pocket of your PFD, are used when you find yourself in need to attract attention, while in the water. Coast Guard Auxiliary personnel are required to carry flares if we are going into non-protected waters (i.e., the ocean).

The last item we in the Coast Guard are required to carry, and suggest that you have access to as well, is a safety knife. This knife, which has a straight 6 – 8" blade with a blunt tip and serrated edge for cutting and ripping, is also attached to our PFD.

All these items add to our safety, and they can add to your safety. The overall cost is small; especially when you consider that they can save your life.

If I had to limit myself to the two most important items to attach to every PFD on board, I would choose the 2 items that are easiest to learn to use, and lightweight – the signal mirror and signal whistle. Your children can use them, your grandparents can use them, they take very little energy, and as our "hapless sailors" found out, they work.

This year, why not invest a few dollars on safety; by making sure all your PFD's are in good condition and purchasing some extra equipment that the Coast Guard family and I hope you never have to use.

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