Safe/Sea Equipment Test

SOSpenders Automatic Inflatable PFD

The development of the suspender style inflatable PFD is responsible for an increase in boater safety. As a Safe/Sea captain, I was delighted to see so many sailors arriving at the Great Salt Pond last season wearing these life saving devices. Statistics show that, when worn, a life jacket is responsible for saving more lives than any other Coast Guard required equipment. The design of the suspender style inflatable life jacket (known by the brand name SOSpenders) provides the user with dramatically increased comfort and range of motion when worn. Coincidently, far more people are willing to wear them during all boating activities, rather than bury them in the bottom of some lazarette or compartment.

Last winter, I had a job operating a fleet of small boats for the US Navy, and we were required to wear SOSpenders at all times. That was my first experience with SOSpenders, and I was pleased with how comfortable they were. Although I don’t wear them all the time on board the Safe/Sea Salvor, I do don mine when offshore in rough conditions. (Of course, the Safe/Sea Salvor being an inflatable boat, I feel like I am driving a huge life jacket when behind the wheel. With her foam floatation, she is unsinkable).

The SOSpenders I have will automatically inflate if I fall in the water. Some models require the user to manually activate the inflation device by pulling a lanyard. While the automatic inflation option costs a little more money, I personally feel that is the only style that makes any sense. If I find myself in a situation where I suddenly and rapidly need a life jacket, the odds are that something really bad has happened, and I may be injured or incapacitated; otherwise, I would have had time to dig out and don a traditional, big orange PFD from the aforementioned lazarette, right? If that's the case, I want the thing to just inflate itself, rather than have to fumble around in the cold, dark water, reaching for some little pull cord.

Last summer, I began to wonder what it would be like to be wearing the SOSpenders when they actually inflated. To satisfy my own curiosity, and as a service to our Safe/Sea membership, I offered myself as a floating guinea pig and actually jumped in the water last month, wearing my SOSpenders. Here is what I learned.

I simulated falling in the water off the port side of the Safe/Sea Salvor while she was tied to her slip here in Wickford. I was dressed in my usual work uniform of cargo shorts and a t-shirt. I took off my shoes and socks.

The automatic inflator system is activated when a small tablet, held inside a device called the ?bobbin?, dissolves in water and opens a CO2 cartridge that inflates the life jacket. One of the things that I was most curious about was how long it would take for the tablet to dissolve, and how fast the jacket inflates. Well, dear readers, I am happy to report that it happens FAST, as in right now!

I fell in the water somewhat sideways, and the life jacket was essentially inflated by the time my head surfaced. I would estimate the inflation time was less than 2 seconds. As soon as I was able to begin treading water, the life jacket was fully inflated comfortably around my neck. I was surprised as to how tight, or hard, the jacket became when filled with air. It is not squishy or soft by any means. Although it was quite snug around my neck, it wasn’t uncomfortable.

I tried a few swim strokes, thinking that one should be able to swim a half mile or so while wearing a life jacket. As with any similar style life jacket, the crawl stroke is almost impossible, because the life jacket is designed to turn, and keep you, face up. I did find that the back stroke was easy, and I felt that I could probably swim a good distance that way.

I’m not sure there would ever be a time when one would have to remove your life jacket while still in the water, but I did take it off just to see how difficult that would be. I suppose it’s a good thing that taking my SOSpenders off in the water required a determined effort; but it is nice to know it can be done in the unlikely event one choses to do so.

Once finished with the in-the-water section of my testing, I climbed out of the water and rinsed the SOSpenders thoroughly with fresh water. I decided to leave the SOSpenders inflated overnight, to see how long they hold air.

The next morning, 14 hours later, the SOSpenders were just as firm as when I got out of the water. That is longer than I expect to survive in the ocean water, so I’m confident that these devices will keep me afloat until I’m either rescued or...

Finally, I needed to rearm the automatic inflation system. I had previously ordered the rearming kit from West Marine, which consists of a new CO2 cylinder, a new bobbin and a little indicator tab that allows for quick visual confirmation that the SOSpenders are armed and ready to inflate. The kit comes with detailed instructions that must be followed carefully. The process of installing a new cylinder and bobbin is not difficult, but must be done in the correct order. The only criticism I have is that the instructions don’t provide any information on how to deflate the jacket. The only way to accomplish this is to let the air out through the manual inflation tube. Again, it’s probably best that getting the air our of the SOSpenders isn’t easy, as the whole point is to keep the air in.

Overall, I would rate the SOSpenders a ten. Their design overcomes the objectionable characteristics of traditional, bulky life jackets, meaning that most people are willing to wear them whenever they are boating. The automatic inflation system is almost instantaneous, and I hardly noticed the inflation process. Once inflated, the life jacket is confortable, secure, and adds a full 35 lbs of buoyancy. I hope I never need these things, but if I do, I now feel confident that the SOSpenders will perform as advertised.