The old personal flotation device (PFD) that I had with me for about 6,000 miles of small-boat cruising between 1980 to 1987 was given to me by my next-door neighbor. He said it was the type used by longshoremen working the docks. Like all PFDs of that time, it had no pockets.
My recollection is that the Coast Guard or Underwriters’ Laboratories would not approve pockets because they could be filled with lead shot and sink a PFD. I couldn’t carry anything on my old PFD, and even if I had pockets in a jacket, they’d be covered by the PFD. Sewing pockets on a PFD would void its status as an approved flotation device, so I later sewed up a vest with pockets that I could wear over my PFD. Shortly thereafter, in the ’90s I think, PFDs with pockets were given approval and came on the market.
I met a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, a guy whose job is to jump out of helicopter to rescue boaters in distress. He said something that stuck with me: “If the gear you need is not on you, you don’t have it.” The bulging pockets on his PFD and dry suit proved the point. I was doing a lot of sea kayaking then, and a capsize was something I had to be prepared for. In a worst-case scenario I’d have to contend with losing my kayak, and my survival and rescue would depend on what I had on me.
The PFD I’ve been using for the past several years is the Guide model from Kōkatat. It does much more than keep me afloat. It has a top-loading electronics pocket on the right, a side-loading, stretchy mesh pocket on the left, and small top-loading pocket behind the zipper; all of the pockets have rings sewn-in to anchor tethers. The two lash tabs on the front of the PFD and one on the back provide places to mount gear on the outside of the PFD. There are retroreflective patches on the front and back for night search visibility.
The PFD has a belt with the quick-release buckle; it’s part of a towing system for use while kayaking. I don’t need to tow with my PFD when I’m aboard my other boats, so I’ve taken the O-ring, the towline, and the towline’s pouch off. The towing belt, by the way, makes the PFD a rescue vest, classified as a Type-V, special-use life jacket, though all the other features are available on the more common Type III recreational vests.
I added an accessory pocket to the back of my PFD, anchored to the shoulder straps and belt loops. Its Velcro-secured top flap has its own retroreflective patch.
Here’s what I carry aboard my PFD: The electronics pocket holds a handheld 6/2.5/1-watt VHF radio. It’s waterproof (IPX7) and floats. In the mesh pocket are a signal mirror, a flashlight, and a rescue laser light. I used to carry a set of three aerial flares, but switched to the laser because the pyrotechnics burn for just a few seconds and have to be replaced every three years.
I also keep a spare car key and an expired driver’s license in the mesh pocket. The license is laminated plastic and waterproof, and has my name, picture, and address on it. On the back of the license I’ve written my phone number, in case I misplace my PFD and someone finds it, and phone numbers for emergency contacts.
The lash tab above the left pocket has a rescue knife in its sheath. The knife blade is made of rust-proof H-1 steel. It has a blunt combination serrated/plain cutting edge, and a line and bungee cutter on the spine. My whistle is tethered to the shoulder strap above the knife.
The small pocket concealed behind the front zipper carries a rust-proof folding knife with a plain blade. It has a large hole in the blade so I can open the knife with one hand. The PFD has buckles and the belt holding it in place, so it’s safe to open the zipper to get to the knife.
I’ve done a lot of sea-kayak self-rescue practice while wearing my PFD, and when I scramble over the aft deck I haven’t had any trouble with the gear on the vest front snagging deck lines.
The pouch attached to the back holds a Sea-Seat, a 38″ x 40″ inflatable “personal survival raft for cold water.” (The Sea Seat, dating back at least to 1986, has been out of production for decades and as far as I can tell, its Canadian patent—1550108—has expired, just in case someone is thinking of reproducing it.) The raft is orally inflated and has a depression in the middle to provide a stable place to sit. I clip the Sea Seat’s tether to my right shoulder strap, and giving that a hard tug will pull the folded seat past the pouch’s Velcro closure. I’ve practiced with the Sea Seat in breaking waves, and I’ve been able to inflate it easily and get aboard. Sitting in the depression, I’m fairly stable, even in whitecaps, and I’m mostly out of the water and my hands are free to tend to tend to distress calls and signals.
The lash tab on the left side of the back has a small PFD light that I can turn on my reaching back and twisting the top.
I carry my smart phone in a waterproof case that is tethered to the left shoulder strap; the phone gets tucked down inside the front of the PFD where it’s out of the way and well protected. My waterproof (IPX7) GPS is tethered to the right shoulder strap and also tucked inside the PFD.
The XL Guide PFD has almost 17 lbs of buoyancy, and mine keeps me afloat even with all the gear I have attached to it. It not only tips the odds more in my favor but also puts me in a position to help others more effectively. I never regret wearing it.