“Wear Your PFD,” Sea Kayak ‘Elitists’ Urge

ACA instructor Jeff Herman wants to save your life.

Jeff Herman wears a seat belt and sometimes paddles a - gasp - sit-inside. Stunt fish? You decide.

Jeff Herman wears a seat belt and sometimes paddles a – gasp – sit-inside. Stunt fish? You decide. Photo: Joe Winston.

“Wear Your PFD,” Sea Kayak ‘Elitists’ Urge
ACA instructor Jeff Herman wants to save your life.
By Jeff Herman

The very first time I took an American Canoe Association (ACA) class I thought the instructors were crazed sea kayak elitists with an insatiable and inexplicable fetish for PFDs. Seriously, I was just a fisherman and these guys were preaching technique and safety and more safety. It was like attending a half day calculus lecture. In a word: Painful.

A few months later I spoke about kayak fishing for the Texas Parks and Wildlife. During the seminar a TPWD official talked about drowning deaths and boating accidents. He highlighted the vast difference in statistics between those accidents where folks wore PFDs and those who didn’t. Accidents without PFDs had a much poorer outcome than those accidents where folks wore life vests.

I soon reexamined my stance on the ACA. In fact, the more I thought about it the more sense it made. The ACA’s sole purpose has always been to serve the paddling community. Kayak fishing was pretty new to the ACA back when I started and they didn’t have a frame of reference for anglers. These days their instructors, like me, are much more aware of a kayak fisherman’s needs and expectations. Really, the ACA is comprised mostly of folks who just want to make things better, to educate, and to inform their fellow paddlers.

Six years ago or so, I received my instructor certification through the ACA and even since then the ACA has changed. Today it’s not just sea kayakers and white water paddlers but also kayak fishermen and SUP devotees. Funny though, one thing that hasn’t changed since that time is some people’s aversion to having a conversation about PFDs. The same aversion I initially had the first time I took an ACA class.

If you made it this far, please keep reading. I promise no calculus lectures just the retelling of a tale and some real life experiences of a paddle instructor. Even If I can’t change your mind I hope I can clarify my perspective on PFDs for whatever that is worth.

I do kayaking seminars every few months. I start them off the same way every time with a conversation about safety. Here is the riff I use:

“I suspect you drove here today. I also suspect you wore your seat belt as you drove to this seminar. I’d also bet that you did not get in a car wreck coming here…. (pause for dramatic effect) … but you wore your seat belt anyway.

Yeah?

The same simple idea applies to wearing a PFD when you kayak. You have to have it on when you need it. Period. Just like a seat belt.

You can go kayaking a hundred times ;
five hundred times,
five thousand times,
and never need a life-vest, but the one time you do need a PFD? It had better be on your person (and not in a hatch or a tankwell) just like a seatbelt.”

Yes, it is a personal choice and I don’t think folks that go without one are bad people. I just think your assumption of safety is exaggerated. Additionally, it is somewhat disrespectful to the other paddlers with you, as you increase their risk by going without. If we were paddling together and you had a problem, I would certainly try and help. If you are wearing PFD, it would make it safer for others to assist you.

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What I have seen personally when I teach deep water reentry, is that about 20 percent of the folks struggle with self rescue. Some folks even have difficulty with assisted rescues. In a real life situation, with no PFD those odds just don’t work.

That is my take on PFD’s. If you still don’t want to wear one that’s cool. Let’s go fish anyway. I’ll meet you at the launch. Just know that at some point during the day I might start talking to you about seat belts.

Jeff Herman swears he is an angler first and a paddler second. We’re not so sure, but still like him anyway. Herman is a pro staffer for Jackson Kayak.

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