The Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is a vital component of general maritime safety, and absolutely number one on the importance list for most boating situations, including most other paddlecraft. However, the situation is slightly different for stand up paddleboarding environment, as we shall explain…

PFDs and Paddleboarding

There are three main reasons for PFDs in the context of stand-up paddleboarding.

  1. As support (literally and figuratively) for non swimmers, weak swimmers and anyone else who is not comfortable in the water
  2. As a safety device, in case the rider gets separated from their board or incapacitated in some way such that they cannot climb back onto their board
  3. Because it is a requirement of law

If you fall into the first category (ie you are a non swimmer, weak swimmer or just not comfortable in the water) then a PFD makes total sense. Indeed, if you are a non swimmer it is vital.

However, if you are a competent swimmer and comfortable in the water, then reason #1 does not apply. The PFD is essentially a backup device, there in case your leash breaks or you can’t get back onto your board for some reason. You may consider the risk of your leash breaking or you not being able to get back onto the board to be very small, and therefore a PFD is not required.

However, reason 3 still applies – NZ Maritime law states that a PFD is required for paddlecraft:

PFDs and the Law

The requirements of NZ Maritime Rule 91.4 mean that all stand up paddleboarders are legally obliged to carry a buoyancy aid, unless actively involved in surfing, or at a competition event where the competition organisers have specifically negotiated an exemption with the council (on the basis that there is adequate safety cover and supervision on the water). At all other times, a buoyancy aid is mandatory.

Carrying or wearing?

The rule actually states that the PFD must be carried – ie it can be placed on the board rather than worn by the rider. However, this is clearly nonsense from a safety point of view, since as described above, the only time you will ever actually need a PFD is if you have been separated from your board! (And several councils around NZ have introduced additional bylaws to make it compulsory that the PFD must actually be worn by the rider, for this very reason.)


Types of PFD

In simplest terms, PFDs fall in to two categories – those with permanent buoyancy built in, and the inflatable variety, which do not offer active buoyancy until the inflation has been triggered.

Permanent buoyancy PFDs are the best (indeed only) option for people who cannot swim or are not confident in the water.  However, not all types of permanent buoyancy PFDs are suitable for SUP – we explore the various types and the advantages and disadvantages below.

The beltpack style of inflatable PFD is the best PFD option for the stand up paddler who is a competent swimmer and comfortable in the water.  However, you do need to understand how they work.  Scroll down for much more information on beltpacks.

Permanent Buoyancy PFDs

For SUP users who are not confident in the water, a permanent buoyancy PFD is the only choice. There are five main styles of permanent buoyancy PFD recognised for use in New Zealand which may be applicable to SUP. The following text and images are adapted from the Maritime NZ website:

Type 401 – open waters lifejacket

These are designed to keep the wearer vertical in the water, and to hold a person’s mouth and nose uppermost if they are unconscious. A minimum buoyancy rating of 100 newtons (adult size) is required. These jackets are cumbersome and uncomfortable. They are not suited to continuous wearing on a pleasure craft, but because they are designed to hold an unconscious person’s head and face clear of the water, they are best suited for emergencies such as abandoning a vessel.

Suitability for SUP: Low – too bulky and uncomfortable

Type 402 – inshore waters PFD

These provide at least 71 newtons of buoyancy and must have a buoyant collar to support the wearer’s head. They are quite comfortable to wear continuously while boating, and are the most common permanent buoyancy PFDs found on recreational craft. The PFD will give support in the water for an extended period. However, while they must not allow the wearer to tilt forward of vertical, they are not designed to keep an unconscious person’s head and face above water. The effectiveness of this PFD is considerably reduced in rough or breaking seas or surf.

Suitability for SUP: The buoyant collar can create a lot of chafe and restriction around the neck, but the PFD offers a lot of flotation and reassurance for non swimmers or weak swimmers.

Type 403 – buoyancy vest

No collar is fitted to a buoyancy vest and it has a lower buoyancy rating than a lifejacket. It is designed for use in aquatic sports, such as dinghy sailing. This particular type of PFD (adult size) must have at least 53 newtons of buoyancy.

Suitability for SUP: OK. This style is generally fairly cheap, but they’re quite bulky which can make it harder when trying to clamber back onto the board. Note that this type of PFD would not float you face up when unconscious.

Type 405 – buoyancy garment

These differ from Type 403s in that they feel more like wearing a vest, than a buoyancy aid This standard is the same as type 403, but is not required to have reflective tape or be brightly coloured.

Suitability for SUP: Reasonably good. They fit snugly around the waist and are relatively low profile. This type of PFD is quite commonly used for river SUP, where a permanent-buoyancy PFD is vital. Note that this type of PFD would not float you face up when unconscious.

Type 406 – specialist PFD

These include the various specialist PFD designs that are used for rafting, jet and power boating racing, or kayaking rescue vests etc. The kayaking type 406 has a minimum buoyancy of 50 newtons, and will not generally have a collar.

Suitability for SUP: Reasonably good. This style is commonly worn by paddleboarders, particularly those with a kayaking background, as there is minimal restriction around the shoulders. This type of PFD is quite commonly used for river SUP, where a permanent-buoyancy PFD is vital. However it should be noted that spending any extended time in open water with a buoyancy aid of this style is not ideal, as the flotation is all down around the waist. Note that this type of PFD would not float you face up when unconscious.


The disadvantages of permanent buoyancy PFDs

Paddleboarders have a very different relationship to the water than most other watersports enthusiasts who wear PFDs. Paddleboards are very easy to get off, and on, and for many paddleboarders getting wet is very much part of the fun of the sport. The requirements of an ideal PFD for paddleboarding are thus very different to most other watersports.

Discomfort and chafe

Paddleboarding involves a lot of shoulder and upper body movement, and anything worn around the neck and shoulders can soon start to cause discomfort.

Overheating

Paddleboarding generates a great deal of torso body heat, which needs to escape. Particularly in midsummer, wearing a bulky buoyancy aid (which by its very nature is highly insulative) can quickly become extremely uncomfortable, indeed potentially dangerous.

Reduction of swimming ability

Most buoyancy aids make it more difficult to swim. If a paddleboarder is wearing a PFD but not a leash, they are actually much more likely to get into, as if they fall off their board in any wind, it will be blown away from them faster than they can swim after it.

Reduced mobility

Buoyancy aids can also make it much more difficult to climb back onto a paddleboard. Indeed, in some tests that NZSUP has carried out, some children wearing a buoyancy aid actually could not clamber back onto their board at all.

Minimum buoyancy issues

For the reasons outlined above, most paddleboarders who wear permanent buoyancy tend to opt for the Type 403, 405 or 406 style of aid, because they offer the minimum discomfort, loss of mobility and and overheating issues. However, there is an irony here that these types also offer the least amount of flotation. If a paddleboarder has become separated from their board a long way from shore, then they are likely to spend a lot of time in the water. In which case having plenty of flotation is important, and inflatable PFDs offering 130-150N of buoyancy that can keep your head above water if you become incapacitated will be greatly preferable.


Inflatable PFDs

The horse-shoe style of inflatable PFD shown here is the most popular with the general boating community, but is generally not used for stand up paddleboarding as the high neck tend to chafe and cause discomfort.

The favoured style is the beltpack PFD. This has several significant advantages:

Low profile and comfortable. Clip it on around your waist, and forget about it. It does not cause any discomfort or chafe, indeed you very quickly forget you are even wearing it.

Maximum buoyancy when you need it! If you’re out there offshore and your board has blown away, you’re going to be super grateful for having a whole lot of buoyancy in your PFD, and a device that will keep your head above water if you become incapacitated.

No loss of mobility when swimming. A beltpack PFD does not reduce swimming ability when you fall off your board. But even better, it also allows you to swim even when inflated, as you can simply detension the lower strap and duck your head out of the PFD, push the inflated chambers around behind you, and swim pretty much normally. This is a huge advantage over every single other style of PFD.

So are there any disadvantages? It’s probably better to refer to them as technicalities, because they are more about how they’re used rather than actual problems.

Functionality: A beltpack PFD requires at least two user actions in order to offer its full lifesaving ability. Firstly, the user must pull the toggle to inflate it, and secondly, pull it over their head in order to turn it into a fully functional PFD. You have to do things to make it a lifesaving device.

Price: Beltpacks are a bit more expensive than regular PFDs.  The Hutchwilco beltpack, widely available in NZ, retails at $129.   The CO2 canister is one-time-use, so needs to be replaced after use.

Some of the first generation models also require the beltpack to be unzipped or opened before the PFD can be inflated. These should absolutely be avoided, as this clearly adds an extra degree of unnecessary complexity, potentially lethal if the user is suffering reduced manual dexterity from the effects of immersion in cold water.