Not too long ago — within many of our lifetimes — many folks geared up for boat rides by hauling out lifejackets with two distinctive features: They were bright orange. And they were uncomfortable.
Nowadays, a modern lifejacket — personal flotation device, or PFD is the en vogue term — need not be orange. It need not be uncomfortable. And with a few helpful tips in mind, it’s easy to fit your youngster (and yourself) with a jacket that you’ll barely notice … until it saves your life.
According to Maine law, all youngsters age 10 or younger must wear an approved personal flotation device any time they board a boat. Brad Ryder, the owner of Epic Sports in Bangor, said it’s a great practice for everyone older than 10 to emulate.
“I like to say, if they start out at a young age wearing a life jacket, then they’ll carry right on through until they’re an adult,” Ryder said. “That’s kind of the message that we try convey, as a retailer as well as with our paddle-safety program: Wear your lifejacket.”
So, you need a lifejacket for your child. How do you make sure it fits well? Ryder can help.
First, figure out how much your little tyke weighs. If your 8-year-old weighs 60 pounds, and your 12-year-old also weighs 60 pounds, they’ll generally wear the same size PFD. Weight is the key determinant.
‘You start out with an infant [PFD], which goes from zero [pounds] up to, typically, 30 pounds,” Ryder said. “And quite honestly, we sell a few of those, but for the babies, unless the [parents] are determined to be on the water, they’re staying on shore.”
The two other sizes of youth lifejackets, however, are hot sellers at Epic Sports. Larger PFDs fit either 30- to 50-pound kids, or 50- to 90-pounders. If a child weighs more than 90 pounds, they’ll usually need an adult jacket.
Ryder said many of the 30- to 50-pound jackets have an important feature to consider: A “crotch strap” stretches from the back of the jacket and clips in the front, assuring that the PFD doesn’t ride up when the child is in the water.
All youth jackets also feature straps and buckles that are adjustable, so that a PFD can be refitted over the years to accommodate growing children.
“With kids jackets, there is some adjustability, so that when they grow, the jacket can grow with them,” Ryder said.
And how do you fit a PFD? It’s quite simple, really.
“Put it on [the child] and cinch it up,” Ryder said. “Snug is good, tight is uncomfortable. But it should be snug. Then lift up on the shoulder straps, and [the jacket] shouldn’t move very much. Just slight movement is fine.”
If the jacket slides up too far, a child in the water might not benefit from the full flotation of the vest. Tighten straps and buckles, and tug the shoulder straps again. If you still have too much slack after tightening as much as you can, you may have to move down a size.
Another key consideration comes long after you’ve bought the PFD, Ryder said.
“Something that people ask us is, ‘Do lifejackets last indefinitely,” Ryder said.
The answer, of course, is “no.”
Ryder said to keep an eye on the fabric that covers a PFD. If the dye starts to fade, that probably means the jacket has seen some wear. That’s not necessarily a big concern, Ryder said, but does signal that the jacket’s effectiveness may become an issue in the future.
“”If this is starting to fade, it’s probably showing some signs of not being as durable as it was when it was new,” he said. “And of course, if you have any tears or rips [in the fabric], you should just replace it. it’s really a pretty inexpensive way to have safety for your kids.”
And when outfitting your children, it might not hurt to consider your furry, four-legged “kids,” too.
“We sell a surprising number of PFDs for dogs,” Ryder said. “It seemed natural for the little dogs, but we started carrying the bigger sizes and we sell as many for the big dogs as for the little dogs.”
Ryder said even water-loving breeds like Labrador retrievers have been fitted for PFDs. The reasoning: It’s hard to haul a large, soggy dog over the transom. Adding a handy handle or strap to a PFD makes that job much easier.
Ryder said one customer convinced him that outfitting a big dog made good sense.
“[The customer said] ‘I don’t have a handle to grab onto. I could grab him around the neck or maybe the tail, but having that lifejacket on him gives me another handle to haul him over the side of the boat.’”