Buoyancy aids, personnel floatation devices (PFDs), lifejackets / vests, are a much misunderstood safety apparatus worth knowing at least the basics. When SUP first came on to the market and safety issues were raised, one thing was certain, wearing a leg leash was and remains the most important safety measure you can take. The board was being considered your life raft, so as when you fall into the water you can retrieve it and will not become detached so as it blows or drifts away from you. Importantly also, it will not become a hazard to others. Taking this a step further is the assumption some form of floatation device should be worn in the case of children or perhaps weak swimmers and those not confident in the water. Importantly the differences between the devices you can purchase are very different and serve very different purposes.
Firstly, the most important concept to know, is that a lifejacket / vest, is designed to float you ‘face-up’ should you become unconscious from impact or other complication.
A buoyancy aid or personnel floatation device (PFD) is simply an ‘aid’ to floatation that assists you in remaining afloat, but will not float you face-up if unconscious. This is critical information which should guide you in the process of decision making.
Add to this the reality, that SUP is in fact a ‘fall and retrieve’ sport; there is an expectation you will fall into the water and that you will swim and recover the board. One of the issues, is that wearing a bulky buoyancy aid (PFD) or lifejacket / vest limits your ability to swim and mount the board and therefore the device could be considered a hazard and not help. In the case of a buoyancy aid (PFD) as already stated, if you fall to the water unconscious you will float face down and this can lead to drowning, which seems counter-intuitive to wearing the device.
In the world of boating such devices, whether buoyancy aid (PFD) or lifejacket / vest, have been most successful in limiting cold water shock and slowing the onset of hypothermia and the majority of ‘man over board’ scenarios occur on account of alcohol. When considering whether to wear a device, you will need to do some serious thinking to balance out the pros and cons. To add to the confusion, lifejackets / vests are available as self inflating on contact with the water, pull cord / CO2 cylinder, or blown by breath, which in the event of the last two options, means if you are unconscious when you hit the water, you will not be able to inflate and the first option is clearly impractical from the view point of a fall and retrieve sport.
In all scenarios, wearing of a leg leash remains ‘best practice’ and a buoyancy aid (PFD) whilst an option should be used only in the case where the user is a poor swimmer and or lacks confidence, with the understanding, swimming and board retrieval will in fact be hindered.