Letter Re: Distance Traveling by Waterways

Hello Jim and Family,
As a former whitewater canoeing instructor (yeah, I know – but I passed my psych evaluation) I found the recent post on traveling on water to be both enjoyable and thought provoking. I would like to add, however, that all (personal flotation devices (PFDs) are not alike. It seems that in all parts of the country, commercial rafters are in business and (for the most part) guiding people safely down some mild whitewater experiences. Occasionally, and also tragically, deaths occur when people are thrown from a raft in perfectly survivable conditions. WHY they didn’t survive has to do with a multitude of factors, clearly, but there is just no excuse for the sorry excuses for PFDs these commercial rafters use. The rules and regs are not at all onerous to deal with, and any old type II life vest that is coast-guard approved is what most people put on. These vests are considered “flat water” vests for conscious swimmers. The only kind of vest I would use in whitewater would be a or Type V, depending on the severity of the whitewater I might use a type III. Type I’s do not have a collar system, they are just “mae west” type vests that are patterned after the old WWII vests our servicemen wore. You can slip out of a type I too easily IMO, and it does not have an active system to keep a swimmer’s head out of the water.

The question should be asked? “What makes whitewater – white?” I don’t believe that people think much on this question, and they really should…

The answer? Air.

When water falls over obstacles at speed, turbulence causes air to mix with the water, it essentially decreases the ability of a person to float, you can’t really swim in whitewater either, because you’re arms and legs are just beating at air. Very turbid water is nearly impossible to float in. Even wearing a type V doesn’t guarantee that your head will be above water. A typical type II vest has 15.5 lbs of float for the adult version, and 11lbs for a child version. A type I has a minimum of 22 lbs of float, but they are not well-liked by people who have to paddle. Specs have changed over the years, and type I’s used to have sealed pockets around kapok – get a hole in the pocket and you lose flotation for that pocket. They are also bulky and cumbersome to paddle a boat in. Do not use a type I if you can help it, if you must use a type I – than make sure they use closed-cell foam inserts rather than sealed compartments. Type Vs start at Type I specs for flotation, 22lb, but generally range in the 28lb rating area. The other important difference is that the type Vs almost always have flotation collars – meant to help keep the head shielded from rocks and keep it erect during possible unconscious conditions. In Colorado we’ve recently had a spate of deaths of fully-capable adults who had been thrown from a commercial whitewater raft. I checked, and most of what they had were type II and type III PFDs (same rating, almost, as the type II).

The whitewater rafting companies going through the Grand Canyon all use type Vs. I’ve seen some guides in the canyon wear a type III, and a type V over it.

If you’re going to use water to egress, and you might have to traverse whitewater – you really need to consider what PFD you select. They are not equal in quality or versatility, and if you live by the “always bring a gun to a gunfight” mentality, whether or not you are going to wear a PFD that will actually save your life should be an easy question. You will never, ever regret having quality gear when you need it – when your 12 year old child is engulfed by a river while wearing the bargain basement PFD you “found” at a surplus store – you’ll appreciate any time you spend in selecting a good vest. – LDM in Colorado

JWR Replies: Thanks for that reminder. As your children grow older, be sure to get progressively larger life vests for them. You can even get a K-9 PFD Life Jacket.