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Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) & Immersion Suits

PFDs come in a wide variety of types. Most are Coast Guard-Approved, but others are not. Which is the best PFD for you? The one you will wear!

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Susan Clark Jensen and Jerry Dzugan, 2014

It happens more than we like to admit. Fishermen end up in the water when they don’t want to be there. About 39 percent of fishing vessel fatalities are due to man overboard. Your ability to swim is limited by exhaustion without some type of flotation aid, even in warm water.


Cold water robs heat from a person’s body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. Cold water can cause even expert swimmers to drown or to die from hypothermia if they aren’t wearing a suitable personal flotation device (PFD). And you can encounter cold water in southern locations as well as the north. The Gulf of Mexico can have winter water temperatures similar to Gulf of Alaska summer water temperatures!


Many people are poor swimmers or non-swimmers and can end up far from rescue. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: drowning. If you cannot guarantee you won’t end up in the water, you must know how to prolong your in-water survival time. This is where PFDs play their part.


Rick Laws is one of hundreds of people who owe their lives to a PFD. He was a commercial fisherman on the F/V Cloverleaf out of Kodiak when it sank near Sutwik Island. Laws spent 27 harrowing hours in rough seas in his survival suit before being rescued by another fishing boat. He readily admits that he would not be alive today if he hadn’t worn the suit.


Many fishermen feel that PFDs are uncomfortable to wear and difficult, if not impossible, to work in. Today that’s no longer true. If you ordinarily wear a vest, rain gear, a jacket, rain bibs, or suspenders
when you fish, you can be wearing a PFD.

This article examines both USCG-approved (U.S. Coast Guard) and non-approved PFDs, their maintenance, and advantages and disadvantages for fishermen. PFD manufacturers are continually developing new and different types of PFDs. Keep yourself informed about these changes.

Choosing a PFD

Consider the following factors when you evaluate your PFD options: buoyancy, hypothermia protection if needed, fit, comfort, visibility, cost, features, and legal requirements for your vessel. Keep in mind that the more pounds of buoyancy a PFD has, the higher out of the water you will float, thereby increasing your chances of survival—especially in rough seas. (Pounds of buoyancy has no relationship to how much a PFD weighs. It refers to the Archimedes principle: that an object is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the water it displaces.) The only way to determine if a PFD will float you is to wear it in the water.

Hypothermia protection is highest when the five high heat loss areas—the head, neck, armpits, chest, and groin—can be kept warm and dry. Some PFDs provide good hypothermia protection in calm waters, but are less effective in rough seas because body movement or the PFD design permits cold water to flush past the skin. This is one reason to make sure the PFD fits before you buy it. Try it on while wearing the clothes you normally wear on board.

Diagram of high heat loss areas on the human body.

Five Areas of High Heat Loss

Although you may not want to be seen in a brightly colored PFD, it will be more visible than a dark one and, like the use of reflective tape, will increase your likelihood of rescue. PFDs are like parachutes—they only save your life if they are worn and they are maintained!

Types of PFDs

PFDs now come in two types—those with built-in flotation, and those that are fully inflatable. Let’s look at the PFDs with built-in flotation first.


Immersion Suits
Immersion suits have helped save hundreds of lives, largely because they provide considerable  hypothermia protection to the body’s five high heat loss areas. A good immersion suit (the correct name
for survival suits) that fits well can actually keep you dry. All USCG-approved immersion suits have a minimum of 22 pounds of buoyancy and are constructed so the wearer will float, even if the suit is full
of water. Immersion suits provide the best hypothermia protection of any PFD currently on the market, but they will not turn an unconscious person face up in the water.


Although it is not practical to wear an immersion suit all the time, you may want to when work needs to be done in a dangerous situation such as breaking ice, or when preparations need to be made to abandon ship. If the suit does not have detachable or unzippable mitts, you can put it on your lower body and tie the arms around your waist.


The first suits manufactured had attached three-finger mitts but some now come with five-finger gloves, or detachable mitts. The skipper of the F/V Cape Chacon was the only person aboard whose suit had detachable mitts when his vessel sank. With his free hands, he was able to tie and untie lines, help zip others into their suits, and fire smoke flares—tasks his crewmembers were unable to perform with their mittened hands.


Difficulty using mittened hands is a common problem in survival situations. When considering whether to purchase an immersion suit with detachable mitts, keep in mind that even though they have some advantages, they may not be best for you. If the wrist seals do not fit tightly, water will be able to enter the suit. In addition, some people quickly lose function of their hands in cold water and would be better off with warmer hands in clumsy mitts.

A Drawing of an Immersion (Survival) Suit

Immersion (survival) suit

All USCG-approved suits are required to have an attached air bladder or flotation ring that can be inflated by mouth. Make sure you leave the bladder or ring on the suit. Once inflated, it makes you even more buoyant and can help save your life. The placement, size, and shape of the bladders vary. Look for a bladder that helps raise your head and shoulders well above the water level, an especially important feature in rough seas.


Know how your suit’s air bladder inflates. If the hose’s mouthpiece has a knurled ring, the ring must be screwed away from the mouthpiece or air will not be able to enter the bladder. Screwing it toward the mouthpiece prevents air from entering and escaping.


Leave the knurled ring screwed away from the mouthpiece when storing the suit. Some of the tubes leading to the air bladders, especially the non-ribbed ones, have a tendency to kink. Other tubes are barely long enough to permit inflation. Try on your suit before you buy it and practice donning it during your monthly drills.


Proper fit is essential for survival suits to work best. When the F/V Wayward Wind sank, one survivor was in a suit too large for her. Water entered the suit through the space between her head and the top of the hood because she had settled down into the suit. This settling action caused the suit’s face flap to push up over her nose and face, making it difficult to breathe and impossible for her to inflate the flotation ring.

Drawing of an immersion suit inflator. Make sure the knurled ring is screwed away from the mouthpiece of the immersion suit inflator, so you can blow air into the suit’s bladder.

Make sure the knurled ring is screwed away from the mouthpiece of the immersion suit inflator, so you can blow air into the suit’s bladder.

If your fishing vessel has several different sizes of immersion suits on board, clearly mark them with tape or string so they can be easily distinguished in an emergency. The only way to know for sure how your suit will perform is to try it on with your normal work clothes and go in the water. Once you realize how well the suit keeps you afloat, you’ll feel more comfortable in a survival situation.

 

If you wear glasses, water will leak into the hood. Don’t wait until an emergency occurs to choose whether you will wear them or secure them in a pocket.


Quick Donning Technique for Immersion Suits
The quick donning technique described below has proven effective for fishermen who need to put on their suits in a hurry in rough seas. You may develop a different quick, safe technique for your type of suit. Whatever method you use, practice it before you need to do it in an emergency. Make sure you have on long underwear, pants, a shirt, and a jacket or sweater before donning the suit. Several layers of clothes underneath the suit will help keep you warm. Wool and polypropylene will keep you warmer than cotton if you get wet.

Commercial fisherman donning an immersion suit.  Sit down to put on your immersion suit.

Sit down to put on your immersion suit.

If you are likely to be wearing a PFD on deck, find out whether it will fit under your immersion suit. Some will, others will not. Designate an exterior location on board for donning immersion suits. Keep in mind that hand grabs may be useful. The area should be kept relatively dry and free of sharp objects that might damage the suit.


Get the suit out of the bag using a quick flick of the wrist. (Suits should always be stored unzipped.) Warning: Get rid of baseball caps and tuck sweatshirt hoods out of the way; they can cause the immersion suit hood to slip off the head, especially once you are in the water.


Sit down (it’s important not to stand in rough seas) and work your legs into the suit. Leave your boots on or put them in the suit with you. You’ll need them on shore. Your boots will slide into the legs of your suit with ease if you quickly slip plastic bags over your feet before putting them in the suit. These bags can be stored in the suit’s hood for ready access. But don’t allow the bags to get caught in the zipper of the suit.

Commercial fisherman donning an immersion suit, putting his weaker arm first in the immersion suit.

Put your weaker arm first in the immersion suit.

While still sitting or kneeling on deck, take the time to check that the zipper toggle has not fallen inside the suit. Then place your weaker arm in the suit. If you are right-handed, this is usually your left arm. Then pull your hood on with your free hand. It’s hard for some people to pull the hood on with a gloved hand, which is why the hood is put on now. If your suit has detachable mitts, it may be easier to put your hood on after both arms are in the suit.


Place your stronger arm in the suit last. Pull the zipper all the way up, then secure the face flap over your face. (If you can’t easily grab your zipper-pull with gloved hands, use non-rotting line to secure a piece of dowel or other grabbable item to the pull.) Help other crewmembers with hoods, zippers, and face flaps.
If you will be entering the water from a height, wait until you are in the water to blow up the flotation ring or bladder. Blowing it up first and then jumping in can cause a neck or back injury, or could rip the bladder off the suit.


In-water Donning Technique for Immersion Suits
It is possible to get into an immersion suit in the water, but if the water is cold it will be both difficult and potentially dangerous. If you are going to practice this method, do it in a pool.


Try to keep your head dry—you lose most of your body’s heat through your head, neck, and chest. Lay the suit face up in the water. Straddle it, lean back, and kick your feet in, pulling the suit up around you. Next, put in your weakest To put on an immersion suit in water, straddle it arm, pull on the hood, and put in your other arm. Then zip the suit up and secure the face flap.

Donning an immersion suit in the water. To put on an immersion suit in water, straddle it and kick your feet in.

To put on an immersion suit in water, straddle it and kick your feet in.

You will have lots of water in the suit, but you cannot sink. As long as the water is not being flushed in and out, the suit should act like a big wet suit, and your body will warm the water. You will cool off some, but you will be warmer than if you were in the water without an immersion suit. Obviously, it’s best to put your suit on before you go in the water.

Type V PFDs—Flotation Coveralls

Also known as work or deck suits, coveralls are a Type V PFD. With a minimum of 22 pounds of buoyancy, some coveralls are approved to substitute for a Type III PFD but only when worn. Although the coveralls will not keep you dry if you end up in the water, they still provide fair hypothermia protection, especially if the waist and leg straps, and velcro around the wrists and ankles, are snug.

Flotation coveralls. USCG-approved Type V Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Many coveralls have an inflatable pillow.

Many coveralls have an inflatable pillow.

Most coveralls have an inflatable pillow that will help keep your head out of the water, but coveralls will not right an unconscious person in the water. Pillow inflation varies from suit to suit, so make
sure you know how to work yours. If you have the type with a knurled ring, make sure the ring is screwed away from your mouth or you won’t be able to blow in air.


Because coveralls can be difficult to put on in a hurry, it is best to wear them if they are your PFD. You can, however, be quite hot in them if you are very active. They are especially useful when you are traveling at planing speeds in an open boat.

Type V PFDs—Flotation Coveralls

Throwable devices, such as life rings or cushions, are classified as Type IV PFDs and have 16.5 to 32 pounds of buoyancy. Although they offer no thermal protection, some allow you to get more of your body out of the water than with many other PFDs.

Type IV PFD—Life Ring

Type IV PFD—Life Ring

Keep life rings within easy reach to throw to an overboard crewmember. The addition of a flagpole, coil of floating line, PFD light, and reflective tape at four points on both sides of the ring will make it easier to spot the life ring and to haul the person back on board.


Commercial fishing vessels less than 65 feet long are required to have 60 feet of attached line on their life rings. Vessels over 65 feet are required to have 90 feet of attached line.

Type IV PFD—Cushion

Type IV PFD—Cushion

Type III PFDs—Flotation Aids

There are many different styles of Type III PFDs (flotation aids), all of which have a minimum of 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. Some fishermen use the vests while working on deck because they can be worn under or over rain gear and allow fairly good mobility. Crab fishermen like the way these vests cushion their rib cage from crab pots. Unfortunately, they will not right an unconscious person and they offer less hypothermia protection than many other PFDs do.

Type III PFD—Flotation Aid—Vest

Type III PFD—Flotation Aid—Vest

Some vests tend to ride up when worn in the water, although adjusting the vest’s shoulders and sides can partially eliminate the problem. A few models have a waist strap that helps secure the vest. Beware, however, of the potential danger of getting this PFD’s strings or straps snagged or caught by hooks, nets, etc.


The float coat, with built-in insulating and buoyant foam around the trunk, is another Type III PFD. Some float coats have an attached hood, insulated arms, and a neoprene beaver tail to lessen heat loss from the groin area. When secured, the beaver tail also helps keep the coat from floating up around your neck.
The float coat’s good hypothermia protection often makes it too warm to wear while working on deck, but it may be the answer for those fishing in skiffs in near-coastal areas or rivers.

Type III PFD—Flotation Aid—Float Coat with Beaver Tail

Type III PFD—Flotation Aid—Float Coat
with Beaver Tail

Type II PFDs—Nearshore Buoyant Vests

Type II PFDs (nearshore buoyant vests) have a minimum of 15.5 pounds of buoyancy and will turn about 15 percent of the people who wear them face up in the water. Type IIs offer little hypothermia protection and are awkward to wear in many work situations, which is why most commercial fishermen are unlikely to rely on a Type II for their PFD needs.

Type III PFD - Nearshore Buoyant Vest

Type II PFD—Nearshore Buoyant Vest

Type I PFDs—Offshore Life Jacket

With a minimum of 22 pounds of buoyancy, Type I PFDs (offshore life jackets) contain the most inherent flotation for their size. They are designed to float most people (about 80 percent) face up in the water, a big advantage if you are unconscious or unable to right yourself. However, Type I PFDs provide only minimal hypothermia protection, and many people consider them too bulky for work on deck. This PFD is reversible—a nice feature if you need to put it on quickly. It does not provide as much hypothermia protection as float coats, coveralls, and immersion suits, so for commercial fishermen the term “offshore” is a bit misleading.

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Type I PFD—Offshore Life Jackets

USCG Approved Fully Inflatables

Inflatable PFDs are comfortable and provide more flotation than PFDs with inherent buoyancy, but they also require more maintenance. All fully inflatable PFDs are CO2 cartridge–activated with a backup oral inflation hose. Care must be taken to ensure that the CO2 cartridge has not been deployed.


Some of them inflate automatically when immersed in water, and most will turn people face-up in the water. They are, however, difficult to don once you are in the water, so they should be worn when on deck.

Suspenders Uninflated - Inflatable PFD

Suspenders Uninflated

Inflatable suspenders are another USCG approved PFD. They give the maximum amount of buoyancy and have maximum wearability at the same time. The suspenders can be inflated by mouth or with a CO2 cartridge, operated either manually or automatically. They offer no thermal protection but, like the jackets and raincoats with inflatable bladders, they can help a conscious person stay afloat for quick rescue.

 

Like any wearable PFD not secured to your legs or crotch, these PFDs tend to ride up when they are inflated. People with large midriffs also may find that PFDs are especially prone to ride up on their body once they are in the water.

Suspenders Inflated - Inflatable PFD

Suspenders Uninflated

The categories of U.S. Coast Guard-approved, fully inflatable PFDs are:

  • Type I Inflatable—minimum of 30 pounds of buoyancy.

  • Type II Inflatable—33 pounds of buoyancy.

  • Type III Inflatable—22 pounds of buoyancy.

  • Type V Inflatable—special use, such as a safety harness.

PFDs Not Approved by the U.S. Coast Guard

There are several PFDs that do not meet USCG specifications, but they may appeal to fishermen. These PFDs are very wearable, but some must be inflated to provide buoyancy.


The Kent Rogue Fishing Vest is a neoprene vest that is popular with fishermen as it fits closely to the body and is designed to reduce snags on fishing gear. Both Regatta Northwest and Stormline International manufacture heavy-duty, PVC, bib rain pants with built in flotation that are popular with many fishermen.

 

Manufacturers sell many types of non-approved PFDs. While they will not meet your vessel's Coast Guard safety requirements, a non-approved PFD that you wear whenever you are on deck is better than an approved PFD that remains stowed in a locker.

Additional Equipment

Although PFDs have saved thousands of lives, keep in mind that reflective tape, PFD lights, EPIRBs, flares and other signals, and a personal survival kit attached to the PFD will improve your chances of survival and rescue. Some fishermen have been rescued because a searcher saw light reflecting off a four-inch strip of reflective tape!

The NIOSH PFD Study

The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) produced a study where commercial fishermen in five different fisheries Alaska and Oregon tried a variety of modern PFDs and rated the wearability for each PFD in their fisheries. Each fishery had clear favorites. You can learn more at the NIOSH Commercial Fishing PFDs web page.

Which PFD Will Work for You?

The best PFD for you will depend upon your fishery, the time of year, fitment, and other factors. It's best to try your PFD out in the water in a swimming pool or other non-hazardous waters to see how your PFD will perform. AMSEA Fishing Vessel Drill Conductor classes often include in-the-water skills practice. That can be a good opportunity to try a variety of different PFDs.