Understanding PFDs

PFDs and paddleboarding

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. And as the video above clearly shows, wearing a PFD does not need to be an intrusive experience!  However, the relationship between PFDs and paddleboarding is slightly different to most other watersports. Read on for the full story… 

There are four main reasons for wearing a PFD while stand-up paddleboarding.

  • As support (literally and figuratively) for non swimmers, weak swimmers and anyone else who is not comfortable in the water
  • 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
  • When paddling in cold-water conditions, if not wearing a wetsuit or drysuit. (See Cold Water Paddling)
  • Because it is a legal requirement!

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 is of course a vital piece of safety gear. Likewise, for cold water paddling. 

However, if you are a competent swimmer and the water temperature is 15 degrees or more, then your 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 likelihood of this happening to be incredibly low, so do you need to even bother with one at all? After all, there are several disadvantages to wearing one, which we’ll analyse further down this page. 

PFDs and the law

Nevertheless, reason 4 still applies!  NZ Maritime Rule 91.4 states that PFDs are required for paddlecraft – in other words, 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. Many regional councils will enforce this rule, with $200 spot fines for paddleboarders caught without a PFD. (This generally doesn’t happen if you’re close inshore, but if you’re more than 100m offshore then you are very likely to get fined if caught without a PFD.)

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! 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. So we strongly recommend wearing your PFD!

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

‘Life Jackets’

Personal flotation devices designed to keep the wearer’s head out of the water, even if unconscious, are obviously the safest type of PFD, and great for general boating. However,  they are not great for SUP as the general bulk of the jacket is not comfortable for active paddling,  plus the buoyant collar can create a lot of chafe and restriction around the neck. Nevertheless, for the inexperienced paddler who is a weak swimmer, this type of PFD offers a lot of flotation and reassurance.

Buoyancy Vests

There is a good range of flotation devices that do not have high collars, and give plenty of room around the shoulders and upper body, so as to be very comfortable for paddling in.  To qualify as a legal PFD, in adult sizes these devices must have at least 53 newtons of buoyancy.

The Hutchwilco Reactor, pictured here, is an excellent example of a buoyancy vest designed with paddling in mind. It is very comfortable to wear and has some well positioned pockets too. Other vests popular with paddlers include the Vaikobi vests with extra pockets for water bladders etc.   

It is important to recognise that PFDs of this type will not float you face up, should you be incapacitated or unconscious. Some of the bulkier zip-up vests that have a lot of volume in the front can also make it harder to scramble back on to the board. 


Rescue / Specialist Vests

These vests are designed specifically for kayaking, and have a whole stack of pockets, storage options for throw lines, emergency devices, knives, torches, quick-release belt functions (great for attaching your SUP waist leash to!), water bladder holders, etc.  They are OK for SUP but are actually quite bulky around the waist because of all the extra storage and functionality, which can make it harder to get back onto the board. 

A good option for white water SUP. Probably a bit more techy than is required for normal paddling though. 

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 vest style of buoyancy 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 even 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 other main style of inflatable PFD is worn as a beltpack, ie. clipped on around the waist.  This is the best style for SUP, as we will explain below.

The other style of inflatable device available are rescue tubes, available from several suppliers. These do function well as life preserving devices but they are not regarded as legal PFD devices in New Zealand, so we will not be discussing them any further here. 

Beltpack PFDs

The best style for SUP is the beltpack PFD.  Take a few moments to watch the lesson below, from our free SUP SAFE course on safety equipment.  It explains all the advantages and disadvantages of beltpacks, and how to use them.  If you own a beltpack then we STRONGLY recommend watching this video, so as to fully understand your product!

For a whole lot more on choosing the right PFD product for you, we strongly recommend signing up for our free online SUP SAFE course on all aspects of your safety equipment.  Heaps of super-valuable information and insight packaged into bite-sized chunks – it could save your life! 

If you don’t have time to watch the vid, then here are a few of the salient points.

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 of beltpack 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.

The SUP SAFE Courses

To learn much more about all aspects of paddleboarding safety why not check out our SUP SAFE courses? You can do them online (completely free!) or with one of our trained SUP SAFE course presenters around New Zealand.