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A sailor's rule for wearing a life vest: You decide

2012 July 2

Folks, I'm trying to get my head around the idea that we're supposed to wear PFDs at all times on a boat.

I suppose I should be able to do this. It wouldn't be the first time I've changed my behavior in the name of safety.

For example, I used to ride a bike without a helmet, but now I wear one most of the time. Of course, when I started riding a two-wheeler, bike helmets hadn't yet been invented. But I've figured out that on my lightweight road bike with its skinny tires pumped to 140 pounds PSI and my shoes clipped to the pedals I could be moving on downgrades at more than 35 mph and if something went wrong my head would need all the protection it could get.

Still, I don't wear a helmet at all times when biking, not, say, on a rented fat-tired bike on Mackinac Island trying to pedal fast enough to stay vertical while following day-trippers and horses moving at a garden slug's pace.

It seems I wear the helmet when bike riding is potentially dangerous and I don't when it's not. Hmmm, I wonder whether that has any application for sailing.

This magazine gets letters from readers asserting that it is a fundamental rule of sailing that PFDs must be worn at all times. These same letter writers chastise SAILING for publishing pictures of people sailing without PFDs because this sets a bad example of unsafe boating.

This is probably a good place to say that I am all for safe boating. Let me add that this magazine stands foursquare behind safety too.

But help me out here, people, with this PFDs all-the-time-every-time concept. Let's say I'm on a sound, stable cruising boat sailing in zephyrs on flat, warm water along a nearby shore. Am I really committing a sin against the god of safe boating by not wearing a life vest?

I'm wondering, how is this scenario more dangerous than walking on a marina pier or fishing from a river bank? Is it a safety commandment to wear PFDs there too? Or to cinch up a life vest while eating at a dockside restaurant?

I'm trying to rationalize how swimming fits into the PFD imperative. If water is so dangerous that you always have to wear a flotation device on a boat, you certainly have to wear one when you actually go into the water, right? But you can't really swim wearing a life jacket. And don't even think about diving. So no PFDs while swimming.

On my boat on fine days when we're daysailing or cruising we like to drop the sails and jump overboard. Now help me with the logic. We're supposed to wear PFDs at all times while sailing, but when we leave a perfectly good vessel and immerse ourselves in the sea, it's OK not to? Or is swimming not acceptable boating safety behavior?

Trust me, I'm not trying to make full-time-all-the-time-every-time PFD rules look foolish. They don't need me to do that. They just are.
Choosing to wear a life vest or not is a decision for adults to make. We can figure out when, as with bike helmets, using one is a good idea and when it doesn't make a lot of sense and when we just don't want to.

Choosing to wear a PFD all the time is a completely acceptable option, one that is respected in the sailing fraternity. I've never heard anyone criticize or belittle those who choose that option. Those who decide not to use a PFD in appropriate conditions deserve the same respect.

Fixation on PFDs oversimplifies safe sailing. PFDs are but one small factor in a safety-at-sea equation that includes sailing skills, sound judgment, weather information and seaworthiness of boats. You can add luck to that list if you want.

It is worth remembering that in two high-profile sailing tragedies in the last year, victims in the Chicago-Mackinac race and the Farallones race were wearing PFDs. I would have been wearing one too in those conditions (in fact, I was in the stormy Mackinac race), as would every sailor I know. But none of us should be so naive as to think that would mean we're safe.

Of course, we are safe most of the time sailing with or without PFDs. Sailing, statistically and in the experience of most sailors, is one of the safer ways you can spend your free time. I don't know if there's an official finding on this, but I'm pretty sure more people are hurt or killed while driving to the marina than while sailing. But sailing does require some informed decisions and a generous measure of self-reliance. That's one of its appeals.

Sailors don't need to be influenced to wear life preservers by having magazines alter reality and publish only photos showing PFD-clad adults. This magazine, for one, feels no obligation to do that.

Nor do we feel obliged to refrain from portraying unsafe sailing in articles and photographs. Some of our most thrilling photos and engrossing stories involve manifestly unsafe sailing. Like the Volvo Ocean Race, in which lightweight 70-foot boats race around the world at breakneck speeds in hair-raising weather (and in which, by the way, you rarely see a PFD in use).

Adventures like this enliven and enrich the world of sailing, and we're happy to enable our readers to experience them vicariously. There is room in that world for all kinds of sailing and sailors, certainly including those who prefer to sail only in PFDs.

I admire the concern for the safety of their fellow sailors shown by our readers who are PFD proselytizers. They mean well, and so do I with this suggestion: Sail as you wish and let others sail as they wish.

Did I mention I'm a big fan of safety?