Monday, April 20, 2009

The Quest for the Perfect PFD

One of the new challenges in switching from sailing a relatively stable sloop rigged dinghy to sailing a Laser is finding a PFD that really works well. In the sloop, virtually any comfortable PFD will do. It never catches on things or interferes with sailing. It may not even be used on warm, easy sailing days and rarely gets wet. But in a Laser, the PFD becomes an integral part of your sailing clothing, perhaps even an integral part of your physical body.

When I started sailing a laser, I naively thought it would be just fine to use my old comfy, front zip, type III PFD with nice front pockets. It worked fine for a while – until I learned how important it was to crank on the vang when it gets windy and how low the boom becomes when you do that. It must have been funny to watch me tack as the mainsheet caught on the back of the life jacket, the boom was prevented from moving to the new leeward side, the sail loaded up and took the boat over, and I got dunked while struggling to get free. This performance, though hilarious to watch, was painful for me to experience when frostbiting in 40 degree water.

It was there that the search began.

Next in the line of test products was one of those Lotus Designs (now Patagonia) pull over life vests that high school and college sailors wear. I was very hopeful, but this yielded similar results with a slightly longer interval between dunkings. Careful analysis revealed that the high back was the source of the problem and lead to the conclusion that the lower the back, the better it would work.

Then came a Kokatat kayaking PFD with all the flotation very low in both the back and the front. Problem solved!!!!! No more catching on the mainsheet; no more tacking capsizes.

But wait! Although this PFD did not cause capsizes, when I capsized for other reasons, its low but bulky front did an excellent job of catching on the lip of the gunnels and impeding the intrepid dunkee from getting back into the boat. After the embarrassment of capsizing, it seemed excessively humiliating to attempt a flop back into the boat only to be hung up half way by a protruding PFD belly.

There must be a better solution. Should I build a custom hybrid with a low back and a smooth front? No one but me would think that a PFD could be a do-it-yourself project, and even I admitted the notion was wacky.

According to some new products hype from various suppliers of sailing gear, the latest great new thing is the Zhik racer’s buoyancy vest. It is not Coast Guard approved, but hey, it’s from New Zealand. What do they care about the Coast Guard? It is CE approved so it is good enough for Europeans. I treated my self. It was a snug fit, but felt like it would not ride up in the back. The front was smooth and thin and appeared to solve the problem of getting back in.

The first use was not really intended to be a product testing day, but apparently I had forgotten how to gybe in moderate to heavy air, and the new PFD was swiftly put to the test. Although I was embarrassed by my sailing inabilities, my latest and greatest equipment proved to be first rate; the flop back into the boat was as graceful as could be. Another day shortly thereafter, I went out for a relaxing sail with the wind appearing to be about 9, just as forecast. Once on the water, the wind built to about 12 with gusts to 15. I had not learned anything more about gybing since the last outing and gave the product a rather thorough testing, easily slipping back into the boat several times.

It appears that all the practical problems have been solved!!! Good gear is a wonderful thing, a source of real satisfaction.

But what about those silly approvals? Do they really matter? Is there anything substantive there? Stay tuned…………………..

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I was pondering what to do about exactly the same problem and was wondering if the Zhik vest might be the solution. At some regattas they say in the SIs that you must wear a USCG approved PFD. So if I do get the Zhik PFD I would feel honor bound not to use it in regattas that prohibited it. But otherwise... why not?