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Fashionable but safe – what a combination!

Joe DiRenzo

I never thought of a personal flotation device or PFD as &uot;fashionable&uot;.

Practical, vital, a necessity…these are the terms, which come to mind when thinking about this important piece of safety gear. If it was bright orange, Coast Guard approved and fit well I was good to go.

However, as we enter the real start of the 2006 Boating season here in Hampton Roads and after spending a few minutes at a recent boat show I have changed my mind. The PFD can indeed be stylish.

In the April 2006 edition of the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety’s electronic newsletter Waypoints highlights the new approach to PFDs, which are now available in a wide range of colors and styles, and still are Coast Guard approved.

&uot;The modern life jacket has most certainly undergone an image makeover. There is a whole range of jackets available, reflecting a variety of colors, styles and materials. The reason for such diversity? By offering &uot;customized&uot; life jackets that fit the style and activities – and desired comfort level – of the boater, there is a greater possibility that life jackets will actually be worn – and not stowed.&uot;

This is the key – to be effective a PFD must be worn.

The Coast Guard renewed emphasis on life jackets comes on the heels of the service’s release of the 2004 Boating Safety statistics, which highlight that despite one of the most aggressive safety campaigns ever recreational boaters are still dying. In 2004, nearly 700 people died in boating accidents. Even more disturbing approximately 90% did not have on any form of PFD – fashionable or not.

How has industry adopted to the desire by the consumer for a better fitting, more appropriate for the activity PFD?

The April Waypoints continued, &uot;These days, manufacturers don’t just think of life jackets as devices to save lives; they think of them as custom-designed apparel. In short, today’s life jackets are designed to enhance the individual type of boating. They facilitate boaters activities, rather than interfere with them.&uot;

This last point is one that needs to be re-enforced. Today’s life jackets are not the World War II kaypok that so many people are used to seeing in old John Wayne movies. Nor are they the 1970’s version that looks like you are wearing body armor. Rather, today’s life jackets incorporate activities. For example, if you are fishing certain life jackets offer more pockets and greater range of motion for your arms. The modern PFD is also designed for &uot;where&uot; you participate in your activity, not just the &uot;what&uot;. For example, if you are sailing off shore on a large sloop, than your life jacket will be designed for the larger waves and more turbulent seas that you may encounter.

As Waypoints concluded, &uot;With so many life jackets available, especially in a variety of comfortable and non-restrictive styles, it would be difficult to NOT find one that can accommodate your activities and preferences on the water.&uot;

Next week we will look at how to fit a life jacket properly, especially for the littlest boaters out there….until then…Boat Safe, Boat Smart!

Joe DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer and former Cutter Commanding Officer. A five-time winner of the Coast Guard’s JOC Alex Haley Award, he is a nationally-published writer on Maritime Homeland Security.