Our From the Bridge publisher’s editorial in our last issue (Summer safety) provoked a large and emotive response from readers. In his editorial, publisher Mark Bradley put forward a strong case for wearing Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) in a variety of circumstances based on reasoned assessment of the risks. Prophetically, Mark remarked at the end of the article that he welcomed feedback on the issue “and this time I may live to regret this…” Well, the response has been such that we have set aside space in this issue to air just some of the many (edited) e-mails that have poured in on what is obviously a very charged issue. It is particularly timely, with many states now having mandated use of PFDs in a variety of situations and on a range of vessels.

It needs to be repeated that Mark encouraged readers to contact the National Marine Safety Committee to offer their views on the subject. The NMSC is currently looking at the issue of uniform compulsory PFD legislation and will be making recommendations to the various State and Federal authorities in the near future. It also needs to be pointed out that, as Australia’s largest insurer of recreational craft, we believe Club Marine is in a unique position to make comment and to encourage a wide debate on the issue. Our claims experience gives us a huge database from which to draw real life (and death) case studies and Mark’s comments were made after having thoroughly reviewed PFD usage and its impact on boating safety.

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who took the time to share their views on PFD usage.



Hello Mark,

My background is I’m 32 and have been in charge of vessels since the wee age of 4 yrs. This was when my dad knew I was competent enough to row our little 12' dinghy with an old Evinrude 6hp around Soldiers Point at Port Stephens. I was required to wear a PFD (the old yellow tie-up ones), lift up the engine to reduce drag and steer and row the boat back to the beach house should the engine fail. From there, I’ve done thousands of hours of dinghy driving, along with jet skiing, water skiing, half cabin cruising, sailing and paddling (all at an older age). In other words, I have seen and been in a lot of different conditions on the water.

I have also been in the Navy for 16 years, have lived (and luckily used the waterways) in Melbourne, NSW (both Sydney Harbour and Port Stephens), Cairns and now Perth and currently own a 26' Guardian Flybridge cruiser, so I can fairly say I have considerable boating experience.

I’d like to say that, while it sounds like a great and safe idea to always wear a PFD when in a boat underway, I believe there are circumstances in which it’s not such a good idea.

I feel it should be up to the skipper to ensure persons needing to wear PFDs are wearing them, ie: children, the elderly, poor or non-swimmers. Likewise, if the conditions demand it, such as during bar crossings or in rough seas, like when our Freo Doctor is blowing.

I, like you, am strict when it comes to safety on any boat I am in charge of, but I also want everyone to enjoy the outing. I know that I would not like to wear a PFD at all times, as they can be extremely uncomfortable, as well as being hot and restrictive. That’s why I don’t force all passengers on my boat to wear them.

Also, if the law changes to make us wear PFDs when in a boat underway, does that mean that all of your Club Marine magazine ads will have to be changed to show people complying with the law?

This is not a whinge, but merely my feedback on the topic.

Steve Olson
Petty Officer Electronics Technician
HMAS Stirling

MB: Steve, many thanks for your great feedback. I acknowledge all of the points you make. I note that the new-style inflatable PFDs are much less bulky and more comfortable to wear, which may help to alleviate this issue somewhat, but I also acknowledge that they are significantly more expensive and need annual maintenance, putting them out of the reach of many boaties.




Dear Mark,

For the last 16 years, my wife and I have cruised and raced 100,000 miles in and around the Pacific. We’ve participated in eight Hamilton Island regattas and had a mixture of Tasman crossings (A Test of Strength, page 90 of last issue is not far off the mark).

  Page 196, Vol 21. No. 5

On the subject of PFDs, it is like being between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, having to advocate the wearing of life jackets at all times, but knowing full-well the futility of it all. Take, for instance, the lower photos on page 196 of your latest issue (see below right). Hard to imagine compliance in those instances, even though that vessel has just as much chance of being hit, exploding, or whatever. They would still end up in the water. I, myself, have been guilty of going below and climbing into my bunk without a life jacket on.

Instead of laying the responsibility on the skipper all the time, would it not be better to declare that each and every person who chooses to go on the water is responsible for their own actions, and should supply and wear their own PFDs (or not, if they so choose). It would be similar to people choosing whether or not they wear wet weather gear, sunglasses, sunscreens, etc. Why don’t we just leave it at that?

Alan and Bev Glover,
Tauranga,New Zealand.

MB: Your comments about PFDs are valid. What I expect will be the outcome of the NMSC investigation and recommendations is that PFDs will be mandatory at all times for all passenger on smaller boats (say under 4.8 metres as per the new Victorian regulations), and mandatory for passengers on boats between 4.8m and 12m (again, as per Victorian regs) whenever the boat is underway and they are not in an enclosed area of the boat in specified circumstances of heightened risk, such as any time between dusk and dawn, in times of poor visibility, when faced with an approaching storm, or when crossing bars etc. I also expect kids under a certain age (say 10-years-old, for example) will be required to wear a PFD on all boats between 4.8m and 12m at all times, unless in an enclosed area of the boat.

In all of the pictures you refer to, and given that this boat is between 4.8m and 12m, there are no kids on board, it is daylight and there are no apparent circumstances of heightened risk. In these circumstances, I believe the passengers would not be required to wear PFDs.

The other scenario which may arise is that sole occupants (perhaps regardless of boat size) may end up having to wear their PFDs at all times as well.

Let’s hope that cool and clever heads prevail and that we end up with a workable set of regulations that can be applied across all jurisdictions, hopefully including NZ.


Hi Mark,

Just finished reading your article and I’d like to say three cheers for a well-presented and factual view on PFDs.

We have been advocates for the wearing of PFDs for years. Long before the current Victorian law change, we were wearing PFDs when on our vessels. Not only did we do so in adverse conditions, but on nice sunny days as an example to the general public of what should be done. The idea is that people will hopefully follow our example.

Along with the PFD message, we have been pushing the “Stay with your Boat” campaign after the tragic loss of life recently of two people in close succession in different incidents. Had they stayed with their vessels and not tried to swim to shore, the outcomes might have been very different. (In each case, we towed the vessel and remaining occupants to safety.)

There will be those who complain that wearing a PFD is uncomfortable and does not allow freedom of movement, etc, etc, but one life saved makes it worthwhile.

Keep up the good work
Rick Cooper,
Volunteer Marine Rescue,

MB: Rick, thanks for the great feedback. Keep up the good work and rest assured your efforts do not go unnoticed or unappreciated by a wide range of stakeholders across the whole marine industry.



Dear Mark,

Thanks for the invitation to comment on the PFD issue. Your article provoked some thoughts from this middle-aged boat lover. I now look back over my boating life and wonder how I am still alive. I would not sail a dinghy without a PFD, but would jump from a moving boat at 30 knots without one. It is all about instilled values.

When I was a child, seat belts did not exist. When seat belts became law, we had to be reminded by mothers to put them on. Dads had to be reminded, also. Now grandkids scream if you attempt to start the car without your seatbelt on.

(Ed: At this point, Richard pointed out at length various advertisements and articles in the last issue in which people were shown not wearing PFDs in what could have been interpreted as risky situations.)

If you want to make a difference you have to swing the pendulum. Yes, that may make you unpopular with some advertisers, but your magazine has a lot of influence and must set the standard.

Richard Krohn,
Via e-mail.

MB: Your observations about the wide variety of conflicting messages that we see in magazines, TV, advertising etc. is a point very well made. I spent a few minutes looking at all the page references you provided and was surprised at the contradictions. I will pass on your comments to our editorial team as they may be interested in exploring some of your points in light of the PFD issue.

With regard to safety in general on the water, we are currently working on a comprehensive series to launch in the magazine soon. As you state, we are in a position to influence people and we take that responsibility seriously.



Dear Mark,

In response to your Summer safety article in the last issue, I must say, as a life-long boatie, I have mixed feelings about being told by politicians and bureaucrats where and when to wear PFDs.

There are plainly times when the Big Brother attitude of governments and marine authorities conflicts with my own experienced assessment of the risks associated with being on a boat. In these days of increased interference in our daily lives, I think it is time that common sense is given a chance.

I believe a mixture of comprehensive public education and allowance for experience is preferable over legislative interference. As with other risky activities, like crossing busy roads, it’s more about getting people to think about what they’re doing. After all, we don’t ­– at least not yet, thankfully ­– see governments pushing to have all pedestrians wear bulletproof vests and crash helmets. And I’d bet that there are more people killed and injured walking across roads, than there are enjoying a day or night out on a boat.

How about allowing for experience, so that skippers and boat owners are given credit for the amount of time they’ve spent on boats? If someone can demonstrate, say, five years of experience on the water (maybe based on how long they’ve held a boat licence), it is up to them whether they and their passengers wear PFDs. After all, experience is supposed to count when it comes to safety and all boats are supposed to carry PFDs anyway.

I guess I’m like a lot of other boaties ­– I’m not convinced that the people pushing for compulsory PFD usage are qualified to tell me what to do on the water.

Alistair Denning,
Via e-mail.

MB: I can sympathise with your position as an experienced boatie and agree that a PFD public education campaign is worth consideration. I also acknowledge that many other experienced boat owners have similar reservations to those you expressed. Ultimately, though, we are bound by the laws of the land and in the overwhelming majority of cases, it is safer to wear a PFD than not. This especially applies to those passengers who are at heightened risk, such as kids and the elderly. In particular, kids do unpredictable things and need to be protected at all times on the water.



Dear Mark,

Regarding your editorial in the latest Club Marine magazine, I have to say I fully support your comments on the wearing of PFDs. I have been in situations where I’ve been out on the water on my own and, in one case in particular in which I fell from the boat while clearing a fouled propeller, I’m convinced I would not be here now had I not been wearing a PFD.

Safety is something that we really shouldn’t compromise on. If it’s safer to wear PFDs, especially in riskier situations such as bar crossings and running at night, then let’s do it. The alternatives could be serious injury or death.

I insist that anyone on my boat either wears a PFD when underway, or at the very least knows exactly where they are located on the boat and how to put them on.

I’m sure those resisting the current push for compulsory use were the same people who complained about wearing seat belts in cars and safety helmets on motorbikes.

Via e-mail



I read your editorial with a certain amount of anger as I am sick of people telling me what to do.

I have been boating for 32 years and do not need anyone to tell me when to wear a life jacket. Common sense tells me when I should wear one.

I can’t go fishing or ride a jet ski without a licence and I can no longer ride a push bike without a helmet. Despite conducting public fireworks displays over the last 15 years, I can no longer buy fireworks. I even need a licence to go to the toilet ­– yes, that’s correct; when you live in rural areas without piped sewerage you need a licence. I could go on, however I’m sure you get the picture.

What about the risk associated with wearing a life jacket, such as heat exhaustion on a hot day or being trapped under an over-turned boat. How would you escape?

I know of two situations where a person was trapped under an over-turned Laser sailing boat and drowned. Another was trapped under a raft while white water rafting and almost drowned. Yes, I would rather have a life jacket on if I ended up in the water, but that decision should be mine.

You should stop aiding and abetting those in our society who think that we all need protecting. Life is sometimes risky and sometimes we get hurt.

How about you devote your energy to upgrading boating infrastructure, which has not changed in the last 30 years, despite all the money we get taxed. You could also lobby to have the licence test become more meaningful as I know of several people that have a licence who can’t drive a boat.

By the way, thanks for having the courage to give readers your e-mail address.

Garry Clifford,
Via e-mail.

MB: Thanks for your somewhat spirited feedback. With regards to your comments about licences, I note that you also need a licence to drive a car, and that the car must be registered and insured. You are also required to wear your seatbelt, stay under .05 or .08 (depending on your State’s highway code), to stop at red lights, stop signs etc, give way at roundabouts and pedestrian crossings. The various State and Federal Government agencies and regulatory authorities make us do these things because they are proven to save lives and avoid motor accidents. Not in every case, but playing the rule of averages. They mandate us to do these things because more people do them if they are made to, typically for fear of facing sanctions for not complying rather than simply accepting that it makes sense to do so. They don’t leave it up to our discretion as to whether or not to observe the law with regard to consuming or trafficking illicit drugs, observing the speed limit, wearing our seat belts, drinking and driving ­– neither will they leave us alone for much longer to make decisions about whether or not we are going to wear our PFDs.

Overall, you make a number of valid points, but I think you are directing your anger at the wrong people. The purpose of my column was to make readers and Club Marine members aware that the NMSC is conducting their investigation, and making sure our readers had the chance to contribute their views to the NMSC review. I am not the one telling you that you must wear a PFD; I simply stated my own personal opinion on the matter, based on personal experience and consideration of the results of our review of our claims experience (which would represent the most significant database of marine incidents in the country; probably in the southern hemisphere).

The best way to have an impact on the outcome of the NMSC study into PFD usage is to make a submission as per my advice in the column, and if you’re not happy with their final recommendation, lobby your local MP, and the State and Federal ministers responsible for boating. And while you’re talking to them, you should raise your concerns about facilities, infrastructure, taxation and licencing. Club Marine is likewise concerned at pressures placed on boating through a lack of infrastructure and planning. Look for more on this in a coming issue.

Please note: We encourage all those concerned about the PFD issue to go to www.nmsc.gov.au and register your views on the website. The cut-off date for submissions is December 8, so be quick if you want to have a say. You can also contribute to the debate via a special PFD forum at www.boatingoz.com.au. The site hosts have committed to supplying the NMSC with all feedback from their forum so you can be sure your thoughts will be conveyed to the powers that be.

The NMSC position

Following is an edited press release issued recently by the NMSC outlining issues it believes need to be considered as it drafts proposals for uniform PFD regulations throughout Australia:

Research now points to the view that Personal Flotation Devices, or lifejackets, as they are commonly known, improve the safety of boaties out on the water and are absolutely critical in emergencies such as capsize or man overboard situations.

The National Marine Safety Committee is inviting the boating public to have their say on the compulsory wearing of PFDs as part of a national discussion paper on this issue.

NMSC CEO, Maurene Horder explained that the National Principles to Guide in Assessing Risks to Determine Policy on the Compulsory Wearing of PFDs discussion paper asks boaties to not only have their say on whether PFDs should be compulsory in certain situations, but what these situations are.

“The issue of wearing PFDs is a contentious one, as we have recently seen with the introduction of PFD legislation in Victoria, however, the message is that, like seatbelts, PFDs save lives,” she said.

According to NMSC data, 41 people died in Australian waters in 2005. Statistics on recreational boating fatalities from New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria from 2001-2005 showed that 88 per cent of those who died in a boating incident were not wearing a PFD.

The 2001-2005 State data is consistent with an earlier NMSC study, The National Assessment of Boating Fatalities in Australia 1992-1998 report.

“This study found that people who survived a boating incident were more than two times more likely to have been wearing a PFD, compared to those who died, and concluded that if PFD usage increased to 50 per cent, 2 -3 lives could be saved nationally each year.”

Feedback is sought on which recreational boats should be excluded from PFD wearing requirements and why.

Ms Horder admitted that developing national consistency on the PFD issue was a challenge as various States already have, or are implementing legislation of their own.

“This paper helps NMSC to encourage national consistency in marine safety legislation, and national consistency on this issue will rest on the fact that States have assessed the same principles.

Ms Horder announced that as part of determining the principles for the compulsory wearing of PFDs, the NMSC, in conjunction with some State marine agencies, will undertake a benchmark observational study on PFD wearing over the 2006-2007 summer boating season.