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By Greg Schmidt, Aquatics Manager
Yoke style Type 2 PFD Vest style Type 2 PFD Type 3 PFD Type 4 PFD Type 5 PFD
Summer Water Safety
Introduction – Although it seems like every newspaper and web site has some brief article about staying safe around the water at this time of year, I’d like to share a few details that might not be well covered. The goal is to keep you and your family safe, especially during an “unplanned event” that can rear its ugly head at the worst possible moment. Let’s look at PFDs, cold water survival, and simple non-swimming rescues that you can make when someone suddenly finds him/herself in trouble.
PFDs – PFDs are Personal Flotation Devices. There are five types, each with a distinct purpose and application. First, purchase PFDs that are filled with a tight closed-cell foam, to make sure that it will provide good support, even if repeatedly poked with branches, or anything sharp. Second, tightly secure all clips and ties. A loose fitting PFD is likely to hike up under your chin, and even fall off, or fold in the middle; making it awkward to use or swim.
- Type 1 – Is the most buoyant of all PFDs, and is designed for open water use. This is the PFD you’re likely to find on ferries, cruise ships, etc. This PFD can be either vest-style, or yoke style. There may be other configurations as well, but I’ve never seen any other than these two. A Type 1 will tend to turn you into a face up and lightly backward position in the water, so you can breathe. It helps to have accompanying wave action to flip you into this position. These PFDs have zero flotation in the back. It’s all in the front, and is quite thick.
- Type 2 – Is not quite as buoyant as a Type 1. It also has flotation only in front, but just not as much (or as thick). Because of the frontal flotation, it will also tend to turn you slightly backward, albeit more subtly. These PFDs are also found in vest style and yoke style. One of the most common PFDs in use is a yoke style Type 2. That’s because they’re dirt cheap, often less than $10, especially if you find them on sale. Vest style Type 2s are most commonly found in preschool/toddler sizes. These PFDs, like the yoke style PFDs feature a head rest. This PFD is designed for slack water, not the open ocean.
- Type 3 – The most popular of all PFDs, because it’s designed for recreational use: water sports, hunting, fishing, working on the waterfront, etc. They are pretty much universally vest style, and have flotation in both front and back. The frontal flotation is thicker than the flotation in the back, but they have really zero tendency to turn you face up. These have less buoyancy than a 1, and the same as a 2.
- Type 4 – A throwable flotation device. There are only two of these that are recognized by the US Coast Guard (which is the certifying agency for all PFDs). They are a ring buoy and a boat cushion. These are rescue devices, but the boat cushion is also a legitimate PFD for wearing – it just looks pretty silly when you wear it! If your boat cushion is your only PFD, and you find yourself in the water for an extended period, put it on this way: slide one leg through one handle/strap and put your head through the other. Wear it in front of you, to keep yourself in a slightly backward position, so you can breathe. To throw either of these, it’s best to use an underhand toss with a long tow line attached. Make a loop to put around your wrist for the other end, or step on the end of the line, using a big knot (Monkey’s Fist) or a small buoy to put up against the side of your foot. Either will prevent you from throwing the entire line into the water. Another common mistake is gripping the line with your opposite hand instead of holding the coiled line with your hand flat WIDE OPEN. Gripping the line will often result in the device going out just a few feet, then coming back to hit you in the face. Throw the device beyond the victim and over one shoulder, gently pull it in so the victim can grab hold as it goes past them. Use a pinching motion with your hands, leading with your pinky finger, so the line doesn’t slip out of your hands. If you make a bad throw on the first attempt, haul it in as fast as you can and throw it again. No need to recoil it. It will not be tangled up.
- Type 5 – These are the really expensive, specialized PFDs that are for professional use. People who work on commercial vessels and military ships may wear Type 5 PFDs. They are of a myriad of styles and shapes, and Type 5 hybrids often have custom features such as CO2 cartridges, emergency beacons, etc. They also may have multiple USCG ratings. For example a Type 3 vest style may also be rated as a Type 5, due to the additional features it has.
OK, so there are 5 types. Which one(s) should my family own? For recreational purposes, the Type 3 is probably the best all-around PFD for older children and adults to wear. They’re nice looking and allow for nearly full range of motion. For toddlers or preschoolers, I recommend a vest style Type 2. For infants, there’s another special Type 2 available, that has a wrap-around collar, with a Velcro torso vest that is very secure and will keep your little one’s head up very well. Expect to pay anywhere from $20-40 for a high quality device. Look for brands that specialize in PFDs, such as Stearns or Mustang.
Buy only USCG approved devices that are stamped on the inside with the type identified. NEVER put your child in water wings, or on an inflatable ring, mattress, etc. These toys are NOT PFDs and are no substitute.
Rescues – In addition to throwing a Type 4 PFD to rescue someone, a practical rescue device is a common plastic gallon milk jug with about an inch or two of water in the bottom. Tie a line to it, make a loop for your wrist, and throw it underhand. It is easier to throw than a ring buoy or boat cushion, and costs nearly nothing.
If reaching out to pull someone back to the dock or boat with a pole, water ski, oar, etc., keep your body low in a crouched position, turned 90 degrees from the victim, with your front knee up and your back knee down. This will provide a good base of support to avoid being pulled in. Have a pole handy on your boat and dock for not only docking the boat, but for extension rescues. Never attempt a swimming rescue unless properly trained.
Cold Water – Cold water is generally defined as water below 70ﹾ F. Water this cold carries a very high risk of immersion hypothermia, which can be deadly. My advice is to avoid swimming in water that is under 70 degrees, and if you must be in cold water, wear a protective PFD, such as a float coat, work-suit, or immersion suit (if likely to be in extremely cold water for any length of time). A SCUBA wet suit will also work well to maintain body heat, if the water is in the 70s. Without protection, your body will cool about 25X faster in the water than it will in the air of the same temperature.
Gripping strength, coordination, mental awareness, and ability to self-rescue diminish rapidly in very cold water. As such, get up onto anything that floats to get your body out of the water. If wearing a PFD, assume the HELP or huddle position to maintain body temperature. HELP is essentially a tuck position, with your arms tight against your chest and your legs drawn up. Huddle is exactly what you’d think. Huddle up with the others in your group, with legs drawn up into the center of the group, arms tight around one another, and smallest person(s) in the center of the huddle. Do NOT remove your clothes in cold water, unless they are causing you to sink, then only your shoes, if possible. Your clothes provide a small layer of insulation from the cold. Do NOT try to swim for shore, unless the distance is very short, less than 100 yards for example, and you’re an excellent swimmer. A weak swimmer is likely to die trying, because the cold water actually makes your temperature go down when exercising. Blood must be transferred to the extremities in order to swim, and that blood will be cooled by the water, then sent back to your core, lowering your temperature.
Once you’ve rescued someone from cold water, remove their wet clothes and get them wrapped in warm blankets. NEVER rub their extremities or have them exercise to “warm up.” That could kill them by forcing blood out to the extremities that have been allowed to cool. Upon removal - Keep them horizontal, especially if they seem lethargic or unresponsive. For people this cold, a sudden vertical extraction may cause ventricular fibrillation and death. If the person has a death-like appearance, and is rigid, don’t assume that they’re dead. Check their pulse for up to 45 seconds and listen to their chest for a heartbeat. If you cannot find a pulse or heartbeat, do CPR. The best way to safely rewarm a victim of immersion hypothermia is in the hospital, where they can warm them from the core outward, using specialized equipment.
Lastly – Please check the water for depth, currents, submerged debris, and underwater plants that can entangle your legs before swimming. Always swim with a buddy in a designated swimming area, preferably where lifeguards are on duty.
Be safe and have fun in the water this summer!