PFDs then and now

Published 3:19 pm Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The first “life jacket” I saw looked like an oversized coat made out of an old quilt!

Soaked in a mixture of gas-oil and river water, it was in the bottom of an old leaky wooden rental boat and had been trampled on by hundreds of fishermen who probably didn’t know what it was for because it was soppy wet and didn’t even resemble something made to float, let alone keep a person afloat!

Life preservers, or personal floatation devices, have changed a lot. Some changes along the way were good and some not so good. For example, it dawned on me one day that the life preservers we wore during “General Quarters” when I was in the Navy were not “Coast Guard Approved.” What?

In the early part of my experience as a water patrolman, we had a problem with the boating public accepting a ski belt for a life preserver. Frankly, I could understand their argument, but the law said it must be a CG-approved life preserver. Still, I felt better seeing someone wearing a ski belt than having a life preserver in a cabinet or under a seat—how about as a seat-cushion of all things?

One of the biggest problems I had personally was with infants in the arms of their loving mother, who thinks that is the safest place in the world. What if they are both thrown out of the boat? I think we all know the natural instinct of that mother is to hold the baby close to her chest—so you have mother and baby drowned!

Another was having the baby safely (?) sleeping under the bow on top of all the PFDs! It was a long time before they made an infant PFD, one that would properly fit a baby and would keep his head up if he went in the water. I always had reservations about whether a boat was a safe place to be for a baby, period.

I always thought that if they could design a PFD that had some degree of comfort and priced so the majority of the boating public could afford them, folks would wear them and they would save lives.

So, we have come a long way from that old rag I had to wear as a child—the choking, chafing yoke-type—then a more comfortable “fishing vest,” and finally to what the governor wore the other day as he declared Safe Boating Week. It looks like a pair of oversized suspenders that inflate with tiny CO2 bottles!

Lots of things are reminding me of my years in the Navy lately. One of them is having the world’s best neighbor, Bob Lane, who can relate to some of the experiences since all the years he spent at sea made my four years seem like a picnic. My friend is an avid bass fisherman, and I asked his opinion of the new preserver. I said, “I’m glad that they have something that folks will wear and can afford.” Bob said, “Well, they start at one hundred bucks!”

See what I mean? The CO2 bottle-operated vest reminded me of the old “Mae West,” which was worn by the Navy pilots and crewmen in the crowded planes in our day.

Why were they called Mae West? Well, if they were in this era they would be Dolly Pardon! Got it? I wonder if they were CG approved?