Most area boaters know that federal law requires pleasure craft to carry a personal flotation device (PFD) for each person on board, and that the U.S. Coast Guard recommends wearing your PFD whenever your vessel is underway. What boaters may not be aware of is the extent to which a PFD's safety value depends on proper choice, care and storage. The following guide tells all you need to know to keep your PFDs in working condition, and includes replacement tips.
Care and Maintenance
There are many things you can do to ensure your PFDs remain in good shape. First of all, do not alter them in any way. Second, use them only for their intended purpose; they should not double as seat cushions, kneeling pads or boat fenders. Avoid leaving PFDs in the sun for long periods of time (sunlight may fade colors and weaken synthetic fabrics). When drying, do not use direct heat of any kind (it can damage the flotation material.) Rather, hang your PFDs on plastic hangers in an airy spot - in the shade if outdoors. To clean them, hand wash in warm water using a mild laundry detergent. Paul Higginbotham, Director of Research and Development at the Mustang Survival Corporation, offers this tip for removal of stubborn stains: Scrub
lightly with a soft nailbrush and detergent. Rinse carefully but thoroughly in fresh water, then hang to dry.
In the interest of safety, it is recommended that you check the condition of your PFDs on a regular basis. Examine them closely for rips, tears and holes, as well as damage to seams, zippers, buckles and straps. Look for signs of waterlogging, mildew, and hardening or shrinkage of the buoyant materials. Last, but not least, check that the fit and flotation performance are still adequate. (See Testing section for buoyancy test.)
If some of your PFDs are in undesirable condition or family members have outgrown them, follow these tips to make a wise replacement choice: Select a style based on product information as well as type of water activity planned. Sizing and other information is printed on the inside of the product, and a brochure is usually attached. Ensure a snug but comfortable fit. (Some manufacturers, including Mustang Survival, offer sizing up to XXXL, which accommodates a 54-58" chest.) Consider the need for visibility in the water. Bright colors are recommended.
Choose only U.S. Coast Guard-approved products. Large persons need not be concerned about whether a flotation device has sufficient buoyancy. The Mustang Survival Corporation assures that the minimum buoyancy requirement is sufficient for everyone, regardless of size. Their advice: "If it fits you, it will float you."
Be sure to put your name on your PFD if you will be the only one wearing it. That way there'll be no mistaking which one is yours.
As soon as possible after purchase, try out your PFD in shallow water to prepare yourself for an emergency. At chest depth in a lake or swimming pool, raise your legs and put your head back. Your chin should be above water and breathing should be easy. It is particularly important for children to become comfortable wearing a PFD in the water, since their body weight distribution makes them more likely to float face-down - especially if they panic.
Whether you are putting away your PFDs for a few days or an extended period, it is important to follow proper storage procedures. Ensure they are totally dry before storing them away. Keep them in a moisture-free, well-ventilated environment - preferably in a hanging position. (Avoid plastic bags.) If stowing them in your boat or a container of some sort, do not bend them or place heavy objects on top that might crush them. Be cautious about container storage (such as plastic totes or marine storage boxes), since mildew can thrive in dark, enclosed spaces if everything is not completely dry. Treat PFDs like your own clothes, and they should last a long time."