River Safety Jigsaw



1. Importance of PFD’s

The U.S. Coast Guard's 2002 statistics confirmed the importance of PFD use; 85% of the fatalities that drowned in recreational boating accidents in 2002 could have survived if they had taken the simple step of wearing a lifejacket.

People will be more likely to wear a PFD if they are aware of the risks and benefits. Because of the nature of the canoe, the paddler is more likely to end up in the water than other types of boaters. A responsible paddler should always assume that he or she is likely to get wet. A vital part of enjoying canoeing in a safe manner is the awareness that water can be cold and deadly. A serious obstacle to this idea is that many potential victims don’t consider themselves as 'paddlers' and don't seek out instruction, and often ignore paddler-specific safety education.  The idea "I'm not a paddler, I don't need instruction" is at the heart of boating accidents. If a paddler is not aware of the danger that cold water and hypothermia present, that paddler is less likely to dress appropriately. In fact, 71% of boating fatalities were in water less than 65 degrees. It should be of serious concern to all boaters.

Other obstacles face paddlers as well. Low-head dams, strainers, bridge abutments, sieves, undercut rocks, and powerful hydraulics are only a few of the most common dangerous conditions of which paddlers need to be aware. Distance from shore, as well as distance from aid, is also a factor for paddlers who like to explore places most powerboats cannot. These are all examples of conditions which require education. Through this education it will become clear that there is a need to wear a PFD. PFD use is important for the safety all paddlers. 

Frequently Asked Questions About PFDs

What’s the “Best” PFD?
In terms of risk of drowning, the safest Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is the one you’re willing to wear!

"I only need a PFD in case I’m unconscious or incapacitated, right?"
Wrong. You need your PFD before you're unconscious, otherwise, how would you put it on? Obviously, the best PFD is the one that saves your life every time it’s needed. To accomplish that task, a PFD must be available for proper use at the time of an accident, must be designed to perform well enough to keep your head out of the water, and must be reliable enough to provide its design performance when needed. It is the combination of these three characteristics that define the life-saving potential, or safety, of your PFD. If a PFD fails to do any one of these three essentials tasks, it can’t save your life.

Accident data clearly shows that Type III PFDs have very significant reduced fatalities overall, as well as those fatalities in which a PFD was somehow used.

It can’t save you if you don’t use it. Research and boating accident statistics have shown that the most frequent failure resulting in drowning is not having a PFD available when needed. About 423 people drowned in 2006, apparently because they didn’t have a PFD that they were willing to wear.


2. Selecting a PFD for Your Needs

Select your PFD by reading the label and ensuring that it is U.S. Coast Guard approved for your size and weight, the type of activities you'll be doing, and the kind of water you'll encounter.

Fitting Your PFD

The next step in selecting a PFD is ensuring it fits properly and is comfortable. Try on several types with different amounts of clothing to gauge how the PFD will feel when worn at different times throughout the year. Adjustable straps will help you alter the fit for the amount of clothing you'll wear. The PFD should fit snug; if it is too loose it will not provide proper flotation in the water. A common fitting practice is to put on the PFD, and tighten all straps and close zippers. Next, raise your arms above your head and have someone try and lift the PFD up by the shoulders. The PFD is not a proper fit if it is too loose; signs of this are if the PFD moves and almost comes off, or if the main zipper or strap touches your nose.

Types of PFDs

Type I: offshore lifejackets, are the most buoyant PFDs and suitable for all water conditions, including rough or isolated water where rescue may be delayed. Although bulky in comparison to Type II and III PFDs, offshore jackets will turn most unconscious individuals to the face-up position. They range in sizes from adult to child.



Type II: vest is designed for comfort. Type II PFDs, or near-shore buoyancy vests, are for calm and open water where a rescue will occur quickly. They are not designed for long periods in rough water. These vests will turn some, but not all, unconscious wearers face-up in the water. Some inflatable Type II models will turn wearers to the face-up position as well as a Type I PFD. This vest is less bulky than a Type I and often the least expensive of the PFD types. Type II PFDs are available in a variety of sizes.



Type III: Water Sport Vest with impact rating of 100MPH. Type III PFDs, or flotation aids, are for calm and open water where a rescue will likely occur quickly. These PFDs are designed to keep the wearer in a vertical position. It is the wearer's responsibility to maneuver themselves into a face-up position, usually accomplished by tilting their head back. Type III inflatable models will keep unconscious wearers face-up as well as a Type II inherently buoyant vest. This PFD is not recommended for rough water conditions. These PFDs are the most comfortable to wear and popular for recreation boating and fishing. Type III PFDs come in various sizes from adult to child.


Additional material can be found on our The Right PFD for You page as well as on the River Safety page and "Wear It Right".


3. Canoe Safety


The canoe is one of the oldest means of water travel. These boats have remained virtually unchanged in design for thousands of years.

But don't let a canoe's simplicity fool you. As easy as it may seem to leisurely paddle a canoe, a journey can quickly become dangerous if appropriate safety guidelines are overlooked.

You can minimize your risk of danger by being smart about where and when you canoe. Choose a lake or river that is appropriate for your skill level. Try to avoid high water (it makes a river run faster), high winds, and storms. And don't go out alone -- there's safety in numbers. It is recommended that you canoe with a minimum of three people or two crafts.

Before you even step into your canoe, make sure your craft is in good condition and that you take along the following items:

  • At least two paddles, plus an extra in case you drop or break one.
  • Extra ropes or lines.
  • A bail bucket.
  • A first-aid kit.
  • A dry change of clothes in cooler weather.
  • Plenty of water and food.
  • A light if you will be out in low-light conditions.
  • A personal floatation device (life vest), with a whistle attached, for each passenger.
  • Sun protection – hats, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants.
  • Map – be sure you know where you are so you do not get lost!
  • Do not litter – carry out everything you bring in.   

PFDs are an absolute must, particularly considering the how unstable a canoe is and the risk of drowning and hypothermia.

Tie all equipment to your canoe – put your equipment into a waterproof bag to keep it. dry and tie it to one of the center beams in the canoe so that you don’t lose everything.

To get into your canoe, have someone hold it steady. As you step in, bend your knees and grab the sides of the canoe for balance. Walk to your seat along the center of the boat. Remember to remain on your seat; don't stand or side on the sides of a canoe. The slightest shift of weight can make a canoe tip. It is important to keep your load balanced. Avoid sudden movements or rocking from side to side.

Once you are paddling:

  • Keep an eye out for other boat traffic and keep appropriate distance.
  • Heed all safety warnings.
  • Be aware of water currents and try to keep your canoe at right angles to big waves.
  • Look out for water hazards such as low branches, fallen trees, rocks and debris.
  • Keep your shoes on to avoid slipping or stepping on sharp objects near shore.
  • Be aware of the currents in the water – you don’t want to end up floating farther downstream than you planned.
  • Always sit on the seats or in the center of the canoe – sitting on the side of a canoe will cause it to tip over.
  • Stay away from low hanging trees and branches near the shore.
  • Do not canoe in bad weather.
  • Avoid letting big waves hit the side of your canoe – always try to keep your canoe at a right angle to the waves.

If your canoe does tip over, don't panic. Stay with your canoe and paddle or push it toward the shore. When you get to shallow water, flip the canoe with the help of another person and carefully climb back in. Your canoe will float even if it’s full of water until you can get to shore to empty it.


Additional material can be found on our Canoe Safety page.


Wear It! Campaign  This has wonderful resources, including downloadable posters

Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources

U.S. Coast Guard

North Carolina University Extension

Personal Flotation Devices in Recreational Boating
August 25, 2004


Testimony of Mark V. Rosenker
Vice Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
before the Judiciary Committee Council of the District of Columbia on Bill 15-719 - Juvenile Flotation Device Requirement Amendment Action Of 2004 Washington, DC
May 27, 2004

National Fire Protection Association
Water Safety Grades 7-8
by Kerri Acres, Belleville, Ontario
2000 NFPA "Teacher of the Year" nominee

Laura Calwell,
Mar 12, 2010, 10:02 AM
Laura Calwell,
Mar 12, 2010, 10:03 AM
Laura Calwell,
Mar 12, 2010, 10:03 AM