For years I have been looking for the “perfect” life jacket for the small-boat sailor. I mostly daysail in my John Welsford Navigator, but have been on a few extended sailing adventures, often in water that’s cold and deep, as in Lake Superior. Before embarking on more singlehanded camping adventures in remote areas, I needed to find a life jacket that had all the features I consider most important.
First, I wanted a life jacket with inherent flotation. In most self-inflating jackets, the majority of the flotation is in the front, which impedes reboarding from the water. Also, they typically have little, if any, storage, even for small items. Some may see pockets as nonessential, but if I end up in the water in an emergency situation, I want to have a radio, knife, or even a small flashlight with me.
I was in search of a life jacket with a built-in harness. My greatest fear when sailing alone is tripping and falling into the water, only to watch my near-perfectly balanced boat sail away from me. I also think a leg strap is essential. My body shape is apparently incompatible with most life jackets: when I’m in the water in any position other than floating on my back, life jackets work their way up my body, becoming not only uncomfortable but also less effective.
And then, there’s the comfort factor. If I’m wearing a life jacket for long stretches of time, it has to be comfortable!
After a good deal of research, I have found the Salus Coastal Vest with Safety Harness, which seems to meet all my requirements. With 15.5 lbs of flotation, it keeps me comfortably afloat and with the optional leg strap I can float high, in a vertical position, and the jacket does not ride up. It is comfortable, with a small neoprene collar, mesh over the shoulders, and padding in the back, which is pleasant when leaning against the coaming. There is a spacious zippered pocket on each side of the jacket front (the zippers are tucked under a tab, so they won’t get caught on things), and two fleece-lined handwarming pockets. On the left side there is an additional pocket with a smaller opening and an elastic closure that comfortably holds my VHF radio, and below the left shoulder a utility tab that can be used for a knife or beacon. Finally, there is a built-in safety harness.
Happily, I haven’t yet had to rely on the Coastal in an emergency situation, but I have tested it while underway. With the boat sailing well, I clipped on the harness and dropped into the water. My brother was onboard but under instruction to do nothing unless needed. As expected, my Navigator sailed on, but the harness kept me securely attached and I was able to pull myself back to the boat and climb on board.
The jacket is comfortable to wear for lengthy periods and has become my preferred PFD. It is manufactured in Canada and certified by Transport Canada, but is not U.S. Coast Guard approved. To be legal in U.S. waters, I keep a USCG-approved life jacket on board. It’s a concession to regulations that I’m happy to make if it means having a PFD that is both a pleasure to wear and has the features I need to help keep me safe.
Tim Ingersoll is a middle school special education teacher from Superior, Wisconsin, who enjoys exploring the local waters in his self-built Welsford Navigator. He has more than a decade of experience as a small-boat and basic-keelboat instructor, and has spent a lifetime enjoying time on the water canoeing and sailing.
The Salus Coastal Vest with Safety Harness is available in sizes ranging from small to XXXL from Binnacle.com, for $159.95. The optional Salus LS-550 Leg Strap is priced at $32.95. Shipping is free for purchases over $99.
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