Keeping you afloat

We look at some of the best buoyancy aids on the market

Friday February 15th 2008, Author: Toby Heppell, Location: United Kingdom
An essential feature in any dinghy sailor’s wardrobe is the buoyancy aid. Where other items such as wetsuits, gloves, drysuits etc are all based on personal preference, most sailing clubs and classes will not allow you to race in any event unless you are wearing some kind of PFD (personal flotation device). To that end, given you are to be wearing this item at all times when out on the water, it is essential you ensure your buoyancy aid is the right one for you.

For a while now the trend in PFDs has been to get smaller, the reason for this clearly being, that initially they were very bulky pieces of equipment. Now, flotations materials have improved allowing buoyancy aids to become more compact, in so doing have removed one of the major problems with them – their bulk

Recently there has been some debate about whether PFDs are actually as safe as we think. There is a section of the sailing community who say that as the PFD forces you to the surface it prevents you swimming out from under objects you might be stuck beneath and can also serve to increase tangles. These people often prefer to sail with no PFD maintaining a knife on your person somewhere is a better form of protection. This debate seems likely to continue for some time, however, irrespective of the relative merits on each side, currently wearing a PFD is unavoidable and looks to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Many sailors and certainly the majority of high performance sailors now choose to wear a rash vest over the top of their Buoyancy aid once it is on. This is a significant help in smoothing bumps and preventing tangles. Some manufacturers now offer rash vests specifically for this purpose with reinforced holes in them for a trapeze hook.

It is also worth noting that different types of sailor require different types of PFD. Someone who is trapezing, for example will often require a higher cut of buoyancy aid to prevent it interfering with their harness. However, this is not a problem for someone who is not trapezing so they may prefer a bigger but thinner model. It does seem with dinghy sailing getting more physical many sailors are opting for higher cut models of late to allow a better freedom of movement.

Below are our pick of some PFDs currently on the market:

Gill Compressor Vest:

An innovative buoyancy aid for performance sailors is how the compressor Vest is marketed by the Nottingham-based manufacturer. Certainly at first sight it looks innovative, or perhaps just a bit odd.

When we first saw this recently launched buoyancy aid the first thing we thought was that it looked a lot like a part of a Batman outfit. But on closer inspection the concept of the design is not so silly. Gill explain that: ‘The Gill Compressor Vest is designed to be extremely low profile around the wearer, minimising bulk and reducing windage, thereby improving comfort and ensuring ease of movement. A snug fit also guarantees the vest is held securely to the body when in the water so that it provides the maximum amount of buoyancy.’

This is, in essence, all anyone is likely to look for in a buoyancy aid. If it is genuinely nice to wear then Gill could be onto a winner. It also has the added advantage of making you look like a body builder if worn under a rash vest (an advantage for some).

The product is actually not available to the public untill early summer this season so we will not know untill then what the general reactio is likely to be. However, we include it here not because of a proven record, but because we feel this will either sink or swim (if you will excuse the pun). It is good to see a company experimenting with how a buoyancy aid works and how it restricts mobility. However, we think it might be a step too far for many. We will wait and see.

Finally, the vest was awarded a ‘Special Mention’ in the category of ‘Life Saving and Safety Equipment’ at the recent METS DAME Awards.

Musto Championship Buoyancy aid:

Perhaps one of the most reliable and well know brands on the water, Musto make one of our current favourite buoyancy aids. However, this is not so much down to any specific feature working, rather it all works well.

The vest is simple, slim, has a decent pocket with a wide zip and is easy to use with a simple side zipper and belt. The only real fault we have with this vest is that we prefer a slightly higher cut and feel if trapezing on a high performance skiff then it could occasionally get in the way.

But as a general purpose buoyancy aid that does a good job and is comfortable to wear then the Musto offering ticks all the boxes.

Henri Lloyd Stealth Pro Buoyancy Aid:

The Stealth Pro range was designed alongside some of Britain’s top Olympic sailors, such as Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield.

This is the only one on this list with a front zip, as opposed to a side one. In recent years this style of PFD has gone out of fashion to some extent, but Henri Lloyd have added some impressive features that make this a great vest.

To help with the fit, the stretchy neoprene sides have two side adjusters that tighten by pulling them forward, making it easy to adjust for the wearer. We also like the belt inside the jacket to help keep it in place and ensure a secure fit.

As with the Musto vest, we do have some reservations about how much movement it allows. Otherwise this certainly represents a well thought out and comfortable vest and is an especially good option for those who prefer the simplicity of a front zip.

Magic Marine Skiff Jacket:

This vest was brand new to the Magic Marine range for 2006 and is a great piece of kit in our view. As the name suggests it is designed to be worn while sailing a high performance boat, particularly with a trapeze harness.

Due to it being designed with the high performance skiff sailor in mind the vest is very high cut and all its buckles are covered over with neoprene to prevent ropes from catching. Of course if you are wearing a rash vest over your buoyancy aid this feature will not be so useful. However, we feel it provides proof as to just how well thought-out this product is.

Gul Garda Buoyancy Aid:

In many ways this buoyancy aid is similar to the Musto design in that it is a good vest that provides all round safety, though its target wearer is not too specific. The name suggests the vest is designed for high performance sailing, with Garda being the European Mecca for such boats, and is slightly high cut.

We feel this would provide a great vest for those who want a decent amount of movement when out sailing. The self draining pocket is a handy feature, at least stopping things in it from sitting in salt water all day long.

Gul are the official clothing partners to Skandia Team GBR so you can bet their products will be top of the range in terms of manufacturing.

Crewsaver Max:

In the Crewsaver range the Max is the most clean cut performance buoyancy aid. However, we feel it is the most basic of the ones we have listed. That said, there is certainly nothing wrong with it as a product and it comes with everything one would expect from a racing vest, such as a belt, side zip, and front pocket.

The only complaint we have heard is that the elasticated shoulder straps do have a habit of getting looser as time passes and they can slip down and become irritating.

Rooster Black Diamond:

The final vest in our line-up comes from relative new comers, Rooster Sailing. This brand is owned and run by top singlehanded sailor, Steve Cockerill and has been introducing products for racing sailors for some time.

The Black Diamond vest has been designed for maximum comfort allowing good body movement and, as such, has an extremely high cut. Something not seen on other vests are its fully adjustable shoulder straps to ensure there is plenty of room for growth, providing a good fit for different body shapes.

One down-side we feel with this vest is its thickness which could make it a little more cumbersome. However, this we suppose is a product of the trade-off for a very high cut. It seems likely this is to be a love it or hate it product.

Simon Payne International Moth European Champion (who it should be pointed out used to work for Musto…):

“I use a Musto Championship.I always wear a good buoyancy aid, mainly because I found myself floating in the middle of the Solent a few times as the Moth had decided to sail off on its own. I always wear a rash vest over the top as once I capsized to windward and got the (really solid) Moth tiller extension stuck down between my back and the lifejacket and couldn’t get to the surface. Fortunately the strap broke in my frenzied panic.”

Jon Emmett Laser Radial Coach and Olympic Campaigner:

“To be honest my top tip is just to wear a really good, tight fitting, rash vest over the top of your buoyancy aid.

Simon Hiscocks Olympic silver and bronze medalist:

“My current lifejacket is a Gul one at the moment, but I have worn Henri Lloyd and others in the past. I have not noticed a great difference in designs to be honest.

I know some people say it is safer not to wear one, but I see it as 50/50, there are times it will help and times it will not. Having said that, if the rules did not say we have to wear one then I would not as they are too bulky.

I also wear a rash vest over the top of mine to keep everything under control.”

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