Published articles

I have published article on the WSKA web site:


The Use of Buoyancy Aid’s and Impact vests

(PDF’s) While Surf Kayaking In Competitions

Buoyancy Aids and Impact Vests all come under the general term ‘PDF’ or ‘Personal Floatation Device’.

So why wear a PDF?

 Most water based sports either; Has the person attached to the equipment, so it can be used as a floatation device if required, or they wear a PDF.

Historically most forms of kayaking in moving water have used buoyancy aids for safety. This is also the view of most governing bodies like the British Canoe Union.

Why 50N?

 If the rules ask for a Buoyancy Aid or Impact vest to be used, they need to be at a standard. If not, people will use lower standard equipment and some won’t be to any standard. People could use little more than a neoprene top as a replacement for an impact vest (we have seen this). So a standard needs to be enforced. The standard buoyancy for our sport and similar sports is 50N. This is from most regulatory boards around the world. This is Coast-Guard Approved in USA, (BS) EN 393:1994 in Europe, PDF type 2 in Australia and has all now been superseded to ISO 12402-5:2006

(50N is 50 Newton’s of force)

Buoyancy Aids verses Impact Vests.

 There have been many people looking into and trying out different impact vest and BA’s. So what is better? Well in 2011, Joshua Dimery from Falmouth Marine School, in the UK, did a study into the difference of wearing a buoyancy aid compared to an Impact Vest while swimming. The results, an Impact vest is much better in a dynamic situation, where a BA is better in a static situation. What this means is, if you swim in the surf, and are feeling fit and strong, the impact vest makes swimming towards the shore and battling through waves much easier. But if you feel worn out and battered, the slow and laboured swim to shore, the BA is going to be much better.

Many people prefer the fit and warmth of an impact vest, but a good and well-fitting BA shouldn’t be any different.

So why do we need to wear a BA / Impact Vest?

1. Insurance – competition insurance in the USA specifies all paddlers in the competition must wear a 50N floatation device. Where in Australia they must be of a certain class (Type 2 -need a zip and a buckle or 2 buckles to fasten, and 50N floatation etc.)

2. Safety – It is safer to wear one, but waveski paddlers don’t wear one?

So let’s look into these points more in-depth:

Insurance is a hard one to get around. A court case in the USA stated that a surf boards, wave skis (boogie board etc.) is designed to be used close to the shore, so it is accepted that a floatation device is not required. But a kayak is designed for travelling, so can be used away from the shore. So a buoyancy device would be required. So this is the view many insurance companies have.

The World championships in USA East 2011 insurance company wouldn’t cover the event unless everyone was wearing a coastguard approved PFD. The same happened in Australia Worlds 2013 where they needed to be a PDF to Type 2.

To overturn this thinking, someone would need to head to the legal route and prove that a surf kayak is different from a sea kayak, and is there for only used at the same places as surf boards and waveskis.

Safety is much more of a personal choice; a beginner is more likely to want to wear a PDF than an expert. Though, an expert is more likely to surf in more dangerous conditions than a beginner.

Waveski paddlers tend not to use them. One big problem is the buoyancy aid can cover up the seat belt release mechanism, or at least confuse what is the BA buckle and what is the ski seatbelt buckle. Many Waveski paddlers wear a leash attached to the ski.

Waveski’s, Surf boards, body boards and SUP all have inherent Buoyancy and are often attached to the user, where a kayak only has a small amount of added Buoyancy in a potentially heavier craft that isn’t attached to the user. So is less useful as a Buoyancy device when there are problems.

In competition, impact between paddlers can be much more destructive with heavier kayaks. A PDF offers an amount of padding and protection.

There have been many times when paddlers have needed to be rescued and have had to spend a long time waiting to be rescued. In the past, it was left to other paddlers to do the rescuing, but things have changed, where most large competitions employ professional life guards. So time in the water waiting for rescue has been reduced. So there is an argument for the paddler to not need as much safety equipment as he used to wear. But what people wear at a contest, then transfers across to what paddlers wear when not in a contest away from the safety teams.

Case Study 1: At the Basque world championships 2007, at Mundaka, one of the male paddlers got wiped out and landed hard upside down onto the sand. He came out of his boat but looked almost knocked out. The problem was he was on the opposite side of the river to everyone else, and he was almost floating back into the river back towards the breaking waves. It took quite a while for the jet ski to get in through all the waves to reach the paddler. He was fine, but for a while we were worried. The Buoyancy Aid did give him a level of flotation and potential safety.

Case study 2: In the Australia world championships 2013, a top female paddler was surfing a big wave in a heat, but got hit hard from the pitching lip, and the whole wave landed on top of her. When the wave passed, she was still upside down, and the whole beach waited for her to come up. 30secs later she popped up next to her kayak, upright but not moving. A bunch of people run into the water and swam to help her and carried her up the beach. She was badly winded but otherwise ok, but was taken to hospital just to be checked over. Would she have been ok if she had not had a BA on? The BA certainly kept her and her face up high when waves were washing over and before anyone got to her? Rescue was helped by the grab points of the buoyancy aid.

Case Study 3: The Portuguese Waveski World championships 2011. As this was a waveski event, no-one was wearing a PDF. The waves were breaking hard onto a sandbank, a little way from the shore. One of the juniors ski paddlers wiped out and dislocated his arm. He ended up standing waist deep on the sandbank, but getting battered by the breaking waves. Between the shore and the sandbank is a deep channel. The problem was none of the safety people could get to the junior.. As it was they did rescue him ok, and again he was fine. His biggest problem was he went out early, before the rescue group were ready and only in shorts and t-shirt, so the cold was a big factor too. He was in this position for 20mins before a jet ski managed to get to him. Would he have been much safer in a PDF and could have been rescued easier, but it may not have changed anything.


If there was a decision to not wear a PDF, what would happen to the juniors? Do we still demand PDF’s must be worn in the junior class? Or perhaps anyone 18 and under? Or should they have the same rights as everyone else, and we leave it up to the paddler. What happens if a junior did drown, would we be liable for knowing the risks, but not acting on the best safety advice? A lot of Thought needs to be given before reducing safety standards

Testing of these Devices

We could test to check these devices at each competition. This would involve attaching a 5.5KG weight onto the device (depending what the weight is made of) and submerging it in water. It should float to pass, sink to fail. But who are we to do the testing? We have no training, would the weight need to be calibrated? Should the test be done in fresh or salt water? It could cause more problems if we start testing and checking everyone’s kit as we are now responsible for is as we tested it. Should we have checked all the straps and stitching etc.? These tests are best avoided altogether.

To sum up

These are big questions, but I see no reason to not leave the choice up to the paddler (or a parent / guardian for a junior). But I think we need to make sure all these questions have been answered properly before we remove a safety device from our rules, as it is the competition organiser that has to carry the responsibility in the case of an accident. The requirement to wear a PDF cannot change from one world championships to another, just down to location and insurance requirements. It needs to be a blanket us or not use rule.

If there is going to be a plan to not use PDF’s in our competitions, it would require advice from:

• The Kayaking Governing bodies of various countries

• Insurance Companies

• A legal team to back any potential claims

Written by Peter Blenkinsop

(World Surf Kayak Association Chairman)

12th June 2015

(USA court case information from Chris Bensch)

(Insurance details from 2011 worlds organisers and 2013 worlds organisers)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *