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A life jacket — and then some

I have had the occasion to be floating in the water and thinking that there was no way for me to signal for assistance aside from waving my hands. That just isn’t acceptable in rough water or other limited-visibility situations.

For people to be rescued from the water, they must be seen and able to alert someone to their distress. With that in mind, Florida Marine Patrol officer Dan Williams designed and contracted the manufacture of the StayAlive survival system. Based on a Type III PFD, StayAlive contains several signaling devices and other safety equipment in two pockets on the front of the vest.

The pockets, or holsters, contain a 45-foot buoyant heaving line, watertight Orion flashlight, three Orion waterproof flares, collapsible bailer (Canadian requirement), manual propelling device (hand paddles that actually work well), signaling mirror with lanyard, inflatable signaling device with reflective tape, buddy lanyard and Cyalume light sticks.

In addition, the collar contains an international distress flag that can be deployed with one pull, and floats behind the wearer. The flag is detachable and can be tied to a paddle, gaff or fishing pole for use on board, as well. A whistle is attached to the right side of the vest, and a neoprene SOLAS light attachment loop and eyelet system are on the left side.

There are well-placed “D” rings on the shoulder and bottom for attaching signaling devices and crew lanyards. Adjustable leg straps keep the vest from riding up.

For any PFD to be useful, it must be comfortable to wear and simple to use. All PFDs require some familiarization and should be adjusted to the wearer before heading out. The adjustments on StayAlive are intuitive and easily accomplished. I recommend zipping up the large front zipper first, followed by tugging the four side straps until comfortable. The 1.5-inch waist strap is buckled in front. The two leg straps are easily secured and adjusted using Fastex-style plastic buckles. The wearer could elect to not use the leg straps without affecting the comfort and fit of the vest out of the water, but their attachment will make things more secure and comfortable while floating.

Sea trial

Incorporating safety equipment into a PFD is a good idea, but the gear must be easily accessible, especially in adverse conditions. We went to Peconic Bay, between the north and south forks of eastern Long Island, N.Y., to test how StayAlive functions.

The vest was simple to don, conformed well to the wearer, and wasn’t confining. In the water, the vest indeed rode up without the leg straps. Once the straps were in place, the StayAlive vest supported me comfortably.

To access the equipment, unbuckle the waist strap and tug on a pocket. They are secured with Velcro-type material on two sides and unfold outward while remaining securely attached. The bottom is open for drainage. The equipment stored in the pockets is secured well enough that it should not unintentionally become unfastened. As the current was moving and there was an attempt at taking photos, I found it comforting to have the buoyant heaving line. The buddy line can be clipped to others in the water, keeping the group together.

Light sticks, signal mirror, flashlight and flares also were readily available. Although I was close to shore, I couldn’t help but think how truly important these safety tools are.

The inflatable signaling device worked but is not up to the standards of the rest of the products in the vest. It is a thin, tapered plastic tube about 2.5 inches at the base and 3 feet high when inflated. In order for the signal tube to be useful, it must be fully inflated. However, the inflation valve doesn’t have a non-return feature, which makes the device extremely frustrating to properly inflate. There are numerous devices similar to this on the market that I feel are significantly better in design and ease of use. When used properly, a tall, erect signaling tube is among the most effective methods of being seen in rough water. I recommend replacing StayAlive’s signaling tube with one of higher quality and with a more efficient inflation valve, such as those found in scuba shops.

The distress flag in the collar was easily deployed by reaching behind my head and pulling on the flap. The Orion flag is Coast Guard approved and an immeasurable aid to rescuers searching from the air. The flag has several small foam strips sewed along the edges to keep it afloat. There are a few things I would incorporate into the distress flag. One is strips of retroreflective material attached to the flag, and possibly a floating rescue streamer that would extend an additional 25 inches back. An inexpensive LED strobe light could be added, as well.

An added feature of the StayAlive vest is that most of your safety equipment mandated by law is conveniently located in one place.

Thoughtfully designed to work efficiently, the StayAlive survival system at $199 is priced fairly when compared to purchasing all the equipment individually. It’s certainly not something that everyone will desire. However, I suggest that anyone setting out alone, or in waters or conditions that would preclude immediate qualified assistance, seriously consider the merits of this product.

Contact StayAlive, Marathon, Fla. Phone: (305) 289-7376. www.stay