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Auto-Inflatable PFDs

Testing the speed of deployment and ownership obligations of auto-inflatable life jackets.
Boating Safety

In a tight spot, inflatable personal flotation devices (PFDs) will save your life. Because you are more likely to wear the trim units in their uninflated state, manufacturers believe they offer more meaningful protection than standard PFDs stowed on board your boat but not worn.

In fact, Type V PFDs, as these are designated, are legal PFDs only when worn — not when simply carried on board.

A second point to note is only adults may legally wear them to satisfy the PFD carriage requirements on board.

Different mechanisms arm them in case of an overboard situation, and each offers specific advantages and disadvantages. To get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses, we conducted a dunk-tank test of each PFD and put the rearming process to the stopwatch, and we looked for strengths and weaknesses inherent in all of them. What follows are the results of BoatingLAB’s extensive testing in the field.

Test Process and Hydrostatic Model Test Analysis
Test Notes: Hydrostatic triggers activate as the pressure sensor detects a three-foot depth. Our victim stepped into an eight-foot-deep pool from two steps above the water. Vertical ropes simulated the presence of lines for the snag test.

Plus: They all surfaced faster than dissolving trigger units.

Minus: They took longer to rearm due to the zipper closure and the rather clumsy trigger-fitting process.

Plus: None of these hydrostatic trigger devices activated in our five-minute shower and then a five-gallon douse test.

Summary: The owner must decide if the faster deployment times warrant the expensive investment and maintenance.

Mustang Survival HIT

Mustang Survival
HIT MD3184 Hydrostatic

Design: Zippered horse-collar pouch encloses the bladder and the attached rescue whistle. The stainless-steel D-ring sailing harness bridges the polymer waist buckle, ensuring that harness line pressure does not part the buckle.

Snag Test: Less apt to snag lines or stays than Spinlock models.

Top Line: Tied with Spinlock in dunk tests and was most convenient, offering balance between professional service and user convenience.

Mustang Survival HIT

Spinlock Hammar

Hammar 150N Deckvest

Design: Equipped with crotch straps to create a floating sling in the water for support, it also comes with a water-activated rescue strobe and a retractable face shield to allow protection for easier breathing in rough, wind-driven seas.

Snag Test: The protruding harness ring and adjustment buckles snagged with annoying persistence.

Top Line: Maximum protection for the competitive and performance boater or when longer rescue times are probable.

Spinlock Hammar

West Marine Ocean

West Marine
Ocean Series MD 3183

Design: Made by Mustang Survival, it is comparable to the HIT model but lacked the sailing harness of that vest — although that is not problematic for powerboaters.

Snag Test: Results compared to the Mustang HIT model. Snag improvement could be made on all if webbing was secured closer to zipper closures.

Top Line: We were surprised by the slightly longer deployment time with the identical mechanism that’s on the Mustang Survival HIT.

West Marine Ocean

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