Wearing a lifejacket should be a personal choice based on judgement of the risks, argues Skip Novak

I first realised there was something amiss when several years ago on a visit to the Hamble River during a dead calm weekend afternoon. I noticed that everyone on every craft (and they were not racing) was wearing a lifejacket.

I took note of this revelation and when an old boy and a local river rat rowed his dinghy onto the jetty I struck up a conversation and then asked him if lifejackets were now legally mandatory.

“No,” he said as he hung his head down sadly, “but that’s the way it’s gone.”

Let me make it very clear that if duty of care, for example, sailing schools, organised programmes or class rules stipulate that life jackets are required as soon as you hit the water, I have no argument. It is rather on a purely personal level that is cause for concern, because I get the impression that various authorities and pundits are advocating – no, almost demanding – that we all wear personal flotation devices (PFD) or lifejackets aboard every floating object known to man.

Well, how do we surf? How do we swim? Does this mean that after swimming out to a raft on a lake or off a beach we have to don a PFD to ‘be safe?’ In short, how do we have a bit of fun on the water, unencumbered? Sailing in the raw, a very pleasurable experience – with a PFD on?

What I am driving at here is what I perceive as a move to instil a fear of the ocean among people, and a sense of reliance on one’s own abilities is the collateral damage. In my not so humble opinion, using safety equipment is all about judgement – and we are fast on the verge of losing the ability to judge.

Not only individuals are being brainwashed, but I also think some skippers can be at fault for making the use of PFDs or lifejackets a given in various benign situations. If they can’t judge the times when it is safe enough to be on deck without a PFD they are not doing their job in an educational sense. I

I mean, to see a crew motoring out into the Solent on a hot dead calm day, all clad in PFDs and harnesses, seems strange and unnatural, let alone uncomfortable!

To put this way of thinking into a bold perspective I will use my own examples. Even in the Antarctic with 0 degree water, I neither require nor encourage people to wear a life jacket on deck in settled weather nor in the inflatable when going ashore. I don’t expect them to suddenly fall over backwards, or throw themselves into the sea without notice – this just does not happen.

If it gets tricky though, lifejackets go on (harnesses more to the point than lifejackets on deck) and maybe survival suits for rough beach landings in the dinghy.  It’s a judgement call.

My kids sail Optimist dinghies in a sailing school and of course PFDs are required by the organisation. Fine. We also bomb around on my Laser on our own time. If the wind is light neither myself nor the kids wear PFDs. As the wind comes up they put one on, but not me. When it really blows, I put mine on. I do this on principle to make very sure they do not get the idea that it is impossible to be on the water without flotation protection.

This is a common sense approach, but has serious implications if we get it wrong.

Why?

When the day comes when some bloke in the harbour urgently asks one of my kids to give him a hand with that boat that just broke free from its mooring (“Jump in kid, I need help!”) and my kids say: “Sorry mister, I’m not allowed to be on the water without my lifejacket.” Well, there could be nothing sadder than that.

OK dear readers, bring it on!

  • Andrew

    I spent 7 years from 1980 to 86 circumnavigating aged 8-15. I remember wearing a lifejacket maybe half a dozen times – harnesses much more frequently. My 1 year old little sister was rarely out of her jacket before she was 5 and could swim well – because she was more at risk of going over in the 1st place and the consequences of such also more dire.
    And a motorcycle (aka mobile organ donor vehicle) is a totally different risk proposition from sailing, with the greatest of respect. I also would not go parachuting without a parachute if you want to go to extremes!
    That said – I now wear a LJ every time I go around the cans racing (mandatory in Ireland) and actually if bouncing around a foredeck in general I now would. On my International 12 foot dinghy I always carry a buoyancy aid but it only goes on if there is a realistic risk of a capsize or getting cracked on the head by the boom (water temperature also a factor here).
    But Skip is totally correct. It is a judgement call and we risk losing the whole point of what we do if we go to an extreme here.

  • Ayatollyahso

    Sorry: as a lifelong motorcyclist who believes IN “ATGATT”(all the gear all the time). I find It is impossible to choose the split second before an accident occurring through our own fault, the fault others or nature. i single hand almost exclusively in green bay off lake michigan;; I wear full vest type pfd for flotation and core warmth(every minute aboard); if I slip and go over I want the additional flotation and body core temp to get back to the boat when she rounds up. I’ll grant you it is a personal choice.

  • BlueMigrant

    If I take my Laser out I’m going to be wearing a wetsuit, plenty of floatation in that. If it’s very windy I’m concerned about being hit on the head by the boom and getting knocked out, so a PFD is then in order.

  • Christof Fischoeder

    But you can misjudge. I tried to get back on board of my 470 after swimming around in cold water. That refocussed my judgements on PFDs a lot.