Learning about offshore paddling and open water pfd suggestion

There are some islands I’d like to paddle to and camp on. They are like a mile or 3 offshore. What do I need to know about PFDs for this type of trip? Thinking about upgrading my jet ski style pfd. Unsure if I can get one PFD to cover lakes, rivers, and the kind of ocean paddling I would eventually like to do or if I will be happier with 2 PFDs for each specific type of paddling.

I know I am not quite ready for this type of trip. Water temps, currents, navigation, rolling, self rescue, waves, etc etc etc.

I have so many questions I don’t know where to start. Can you suggest a good intro to read about ocean paddling and island hopping so I can ask some intelligent questions?

Don’t worry I am not a dare devil and will not make this type of trip this summer unless I know I am ready for it. I am also finding paddling buddies so I wouldn’t be going alone if I do.


We generally use Type III pfds for paddling. In the large boat world, they also use Type I and Type II pfds. These are ones with more flotation and provide benefits like rolling an unconscious person over automatically so their face stays out of the water. We generally don’t use these, as they are too bulky and hot to be usable when paddling.

Any certified type III PFD (what your vest likely is) would be fine for the trip you are after, but I would upgrade to a paddling specific PFD just for comfort.

I have done many crossings (longest being crossing Monterey Bay - 28 mile crossing where we were about 8 miles from nearest land at the longest) and much ocean paddling. I use the same PFD for that as I do when paddling a local pond. I use a type III kayak specific one (happens to be a Kokatat MsFit, but really the brand and model doesn’t matter - any type III made for kayaking would be fine, so long as it is comfortable on your body).

So while I may not upgrade my PFD for longer crossings, there are other safety measures that I would definitely do. Education, as you mentioned, would be number 1. Self rescues, understanding the environment (weather, tides, currents), etc. Gear wise, thermal protection appropriate for water temperature, means of communication (VHF, PLB, etc.), spare paddle, bilge pump, etc.

Note - there has been some works in the States to change from the Type I, II, etc. certification to names certifications. The new one would just list the PFD as appropriate for an activity. I think you wills till the the type numbers, but if it says it is rated for paddlesports instead of a type umber, it should be fine.

Any good quality Coast Guard type 3 PFD designed for paddlesports will cover use in lakes, rivers and the ocean. Whitewater paddlers usually opt for slightly more streamlined compact models that hug the torso. Other than that, the style differences are due to fit and accessory preferences and the user’s budget. More costly ones tend to have more pockets, which would be something that you want to have if you are going to do open water paddling, so you can carry safety needs like personal locator devices, radios and self rescue items close at hand. There are also guide and rescue style vests that facilitate the wearer being able to tow the boat of a distressed or injured companion. Most vests have the same flotation rating. What is probably most important is that it fits you properly and you are comfortable enough in it that you will never be tempted to paddle without it.

Top brands are NRS, Astral (my personal fave), Kokatat and Stohlquist.

I persoanlly would not go very far offshore without a bomb-proof roll or wet exit and re-entry skills. Imagine re-entry in 6 to 8 foot seas. If caught in big water, the offshore PFD is good to have but the trade off is that they are so bulky as to effect paddling in control so pick your poison. Here’s some info from the USCG:
PFDs work on the principle of buoyancy, and help keep a wearer’s head above water in case he/she physically cannot. There are different ratings for different types of PFDs. This rating depends on the buoyancy needed and the application of the device. The devices are rated as Type I, II, III, IV and V. These PFDs are required and/or recommended by the USCG and state law enforcement agencies for different applications. The minimum amount of buoyancy for each device type is listed below:

Type I = 22 lbs.
Type II (Near Shore Buoyant Vest) = 15.5 lbs.
Type III (Flotation Aid) = 15.5 lbs.
Type IV = 16.5 lbs.
Type V = 15.5 – 22 lbs.

According to the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturer’s Association (PFDMA) most adults need an extra 22 lbs. of buoyancy in comparison to their body weight to keep their heads above water.

The following list explains the types of PFD’s and what they are recommended by the USCG to be used for and when they are required.

[Type I PFD’s]These are the best devices for all waters, open ocean, rough seas or remote water where rescue may be slow in coming. This type of device is also used as abandon-ship life jackets for commercial vessels and all vessels carrying passengers for hire.

Type II PFD’s – [Near-shore buoyant vests]For general boating activities, calm inland waters or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.

[Type III PFD’s ] Flotation aids: For general boating or specialized activity that is marked on the device (such as water skiing, canoeing, kayaking, hunting etc.). These devices are best for calm inland waters or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.

Type IV PFD’s – [Throwable devices:]these devices are designed to be thrown to persons in distress. Often this type of device includes boat seat cushions, ring buoys and horseshoe buoys. These are not designed to be worn and should be supplemented by a wearable PFD. Both the throwable and wearable devices should be readily available for emergency situations.

[Type V PFD’s]Special use devices: Used only for special uses and conditions. Typically these are labeled with their limits of use. Commonly these flotation devices are used for canoeing/kayaking, boardsailing, deck suits, [work vests] for commercial vessels and man over-board situations and law enforcement. Also included in this classification are [hybrid inflatables.]Hybrid inflatables are deflated devices and can be inflated on demand. These devices can have a buoyancy of between 22 and 34 lbs.

An important part of having and using a PFD is the fit. PFDs should fit comfortably and snug. It is important to try the PFD on before use. It should not ride up your body. To test whether the PFD has the correct buoyancy for your weight, when lying on your back in water and relaxing, the PFD should keep your chin well above water. If it does not, a device with higher buoyancy is needed.


United States Coast Guard

Gordon Brown does a video on ocean paddling and even splices in training during a trip around the Scottish coast. It’s in my trailer a good distance away. I will list it later.

Every locations different for clothing and how difficult those off shore distances are. A lot depends upon weather. I suggest you not try to do every thing solo. Get in the company of experience…like a club.

Set of three DVDs Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown. Very worthwhile and interspersed with some great paddling destinations. You can find trailers plus some other videos on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmX5QgLWf0MB8VQWbSqnDHw

There are some really good books out there written for sea kayakers. They cover tides, currents, weather, navigation.,long crossings and rescue. Type III PFDs work for most everything. For rafting aerated water I have used some PFDs with 30 pounds of flotation.

The next thing to consider is a dry suit or decent quality wet suit. Can you wet exit and self rescue? That’s the next thing to work on. Practice reading tide tables. Best to have some experienced companions. Good Luck.

Here is the Gordon Brown Vid with the trip around Skye…

Also look to You Tube “The kayak Hipster” . His videos are usually accurate.

Then for fun look to “This is the Sea”. Her videos are both informative and entertaining. This is one of four. DVDs…