Check Your Inflatable PFDs

 This was inspired by Andy Schell of 59 North Sailing. He and his wife Mia went through all the inflatable PFDs on their Swan 48 to make sure they work this upcoming season. The couple plan to do some high latitude sailing, so all safety gear needs to be thoroughly checked.

Like many boat owners, I've collected various life vests and PFDs over the years, and my personal preference is for Mustang Survival gear from British Columbia. The company makes great stuff. Among my other flotation devices I have a pair of MD3081 vests. They have been on all of my boats since I owned Growler. While they have never been inflated in an emergency, they have definitely been worn.


Following the instructions from Mustang Survival, I unpacked the two vests and inflated each one to full capacity to let them sit overnight to make sure they did not leak. Loss of air is unacceptable, obviously, so it is better to make sure before they are truly needed.

Rather than inflate them orally as suggested by Mustang Survival, I spent a few minute in my shop to cobble together an old portable bike pump with small bits of hose and fitting to use the pump to inflate the vest. My thinking is that orally inflating the vest introduces moisture inside the vest bladder, something I would prefer not to do.


The MD3081 model is manually inflated, as  pulling down on the yellow tab will set off the gas canister to inflate the vest. Automatic inflation models have a small collar "bobbin" that releases the gas when the vest goes in the water. I have used both but prefer the longer lasting manual model that won't automatically inflate if it gets wet or falls in the water.


It is not difficult to unfold the Velcro cover that keeps the unit as a thin, wearable vest. During my inspection, I checked that the canister trigger mechanism is still showing green. If it is red that means it needs to be replaced with a new canister. Mustang sells a re-arm kit, but for the MD3081 and other older models, the kit listed on the instructions was discontinued. Not to worry. I checked in at Fawcett's Boat Supply and there is a replacement "E" re-arm kit from Mustang for many models of Mustang Survival's PFD line.

I noticed my vests were manufactured back in 2005, and are now 13 years old! At least I take care of them, they are clean, the bladder material is still good, and I see no reason to replace them with something newer. The folks at Fawcett's agreed there is no point in replacing PFDs in otherwise excellent condition. As long as they hold air, we are good.

When was the last time you checked the condition of your inflatable personal flotation devices? The technology and acceptance has come a long way. When we planned the yearly Safety at Sea Seminars at the U.S. Naval Academy back in the late '90s and for a few years after that, we struggled with how best to present this new form of flotation devices. They seemed too good to be true, and some felt (including the Coast Guard) they were yet another thing to go wrong. But compared to the big, bulky life jackets of the time, they are compact and easy to wear...which is the point.

Thank you, Andy, for making me go through this maintenance cycle, which should be repeated regularly. Neither leaked, I have a fresh re-arm kit in hand, and we are good to go.