Does your automatic PFD really work?

Brandy & Matt:

I want to share an experience with you that you might want to pass along to other Tradewinds skippers and members.

In 2007, I bought an inflatable PFD because I was going offshore to help a friend move his Morgan 45 from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.  I had been using a Type III vest while day-sailing on the Bay, but I upgraded to a Mustang automatic inflatable PFD.  Happily, over the past 5 years that I’ve been wearing my Mustang PFD, I’ve never had to rely on it.  But I’ve always wondered — would it really work in an emergency?  About a month ago, I happened to check the pull-date on the CO2 cartridge and realized that it was woefully out-of-date.  I went to the local West Marine and bought the replacement kit.  But still I wondered…

Yesterday evening, along with my sailing buddy Mike D., we tested our automatic PFDs in our backyard pool.  I’m happy to report that they worked!

Photo #1 is “the jump” from the side of the pool.  We wore t-shirts and swim shorts because that’s probably what we’ll be wearing when we go sailing in the BVI this fall.  We wanted the test situation to be sort of realistic.


                Photo #2 is the initial inflation.  I’m happy to report that it took only 2-3 seconds before I found myself in a rapidly inflating PFD.  You’ll notice that the right sides of both my PFD and Mike’s PFD are inflating first.  The inflating noise was surprisingly loud, as was the ripping sound of the velcro seams opening.  It all happened very fast — and that’s a good thing!


                By photo #3 you can see that our PFDs are fully inflated.  There was a lot of buoyancy, especially neck support.  That’s very reassuring.  Our noses and mouths were well above water level.


We quickly found the orange whistles that are permanently attached to the PFDs.  Also, I figured out how to turn on the strobe light pretty easily.  Mike discovered that he had never put batteries inside his strobe.  Oops…

What are the lessons that we learned and want to pass along to other Tradewinds skippers?

* DATES. Check the expiration dates on your PFD cartridges!  The pamphlet says to replace the CO2 cartridges every three years. (Note: This can vary by manufacturer & model)

* REPLACEMENTS. Buy a back-up kit.  If your PFD inflates while sailing (or in an emergency), you’ll want to rearm your PFD as soon as you’re back on board.  Keep the extra kit in your sailing bag.

* EQUIPMENT.  Inspect your unfolded PFD — find the manual pull tab, find (and use) the mouthpiece for re-inflating the PFD, test your strobe light.  Get comfortable with your equipment!

* STROBE.  Put batteries in your PFD’s strobe light!  As they say, “batteries not included…”  Probably put fresh batteries in your strobe light when you replace the CO2 cartridge.

* TRY IT. It was VERY reassuring to experience the PFD inflating so fast.  I hope that I never end up in the cold water of the Bay, but if I do then I know that my neck and head will be above the waterline within seconds.

Best wishes!                      – Peter D.

Brandy and Matt,

I would like to add one thing to Peter’s note….my pfd was a bit loose (the way I normally wear it for comfort!)…when it inflated, it pulled away from body a bit, so it actually forced my chin up and my head back. It was secure, but I think I had less mobility in my head/neck than Peter….picture 3 shows this if you look closely….

It was a good safety exercise….and a rush!  (Safety first, fun second!)


Mike D

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5 Responses to Does your automatic PFD really work?

  1. Lance Houser says:

    I had a fun experience with “checking” the operation of my automatic vest.
    We were coming back in and I was in the harbor. I gripped the wheel for a turn and inadvertently grabbed the manual pull tab. Well, I turned the wheel and the next thing I knew there was a loud whooshing noise and my head was forced back and my arms yanked away from the wheel…..well, now I know how the vest works…. 🙂 ….of course West Marine had the replacement cartridge and pill….30 or 35 bucks if I remember

  2. Don Seferovich says:

    This was a really good discussion of a real inflation, albeit in a pool.

    An important point that needs to be made regarding Automatic Inflatable PFDs is this: skippers and crew should read your PFD user’s manual carefully on the operation of these safety vests. They can help you or not help you depending on your knowledge of their design and operation. There are key points that get overlooked and may very well determine the effectiveness of your automatic PFD. Consider:

    1. Check the active component dates and condition regularly whether you store them on the boat or not, especially the bobbin and be sure the CO2 cartridge has not been used.
    2. Test you PFD in a real situation from time to time, like the pool test, both to familiarize yourself with their operation and to be sure they work as designed.
    3. Be sure the PFD fits the person wearing it. Kids and smaller people require special attention for safe and effective use.
    4. Ensure that the PFD harness is adjusted per the user’s manual (located on the body correctly and tightened properly). An ill-fitting PFD can cause problems for the wearer if it goes off in or out of the water and the harness is too loose.
    5. Have a spare rearm kit available.
    6. If stored on board consider keeping them in a very dry area and not in the vicinity of equipment such as electronics that could be damaged in the event of an accidental or untimely auto-inflation.
    7. Check inflation tube operation “manually” for normal operation on a scheduled basis.
    8. Inflate each PFD on a scheduled basis to endure that it holds air as long as the user’s manual specifies. Checking can be done either through auto operation or manual operation.
    9. Remember that if you get drenched having fun sailing and while wearing your Automatic PFD the arming mechanism may have gotten wet too. This is why you should quick check each of them on a scheduled basis.

    These are really good safety vests providing boaters comfort, safety, and peace of mind. Many lives have been saved using them. Injured, unconscious, disoriented, and confused boaters who for some reason end up in the water are especially protected with these safety vests. However, they do require training and operational attention like any other piece of “high tech gear”. Please take a few minutes to read and pay attention to the user’s manual and they should do you, your crew, and your guests well.

    Best wishes and super sailing!

  3. Tony Johnson says:

    This is an important report, and Don’s additional comments are also very welcome. I would add three more considerations:
    1) Do you trust yourself to do the maintenance? This article began with the realization by the author that he had NOT done so. His worked, but there have been fatalities when they have failed. When you have a boat to take care of, this duty may slip your mind.
    2) Can you swim and maneuver with the inflated vest? You may have to swim to a life raft or back to the boat.
    3) Have you checked how it works with the tether attached to a strong point? Does it constrain your movements?

  4. Taylor Miller says:

    On various sailing trips I have gotten different answers from airlines and fellow travelers whether the CO2 cartridges are allowed on planes when carried on or when checked in baggage. Any thoughts on that point?

  5. Jeff C says:

    We flew to the BVI (SFO – ST Thomas) 4/2016 and brought west marine coastal auto inflatable PFDs in our carry on. (We had no checked baggage)
    There was a bit of confusion at TSA but once the supervisor showed up it was no problem.
    I’d suggest packing it the way you would electronics/laptop – to it can be removed easily for inspection.
    You are also allowed to bring a rearm kit.
    I don’t recall if you are limited to one or two PFDs. Iirc it’s on the airline website.
    We flew delta.

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