There was a news item a few days ago about an experienced lobster man who fell overboard, and stayed afloat for 12 hours without benefit of a PFD. Apparently, he was pulling on the handle of a heavy cooler, trying to move it, when the handle suddenly broke, and he fell over the side. He resurfaced and watched his boat slowly motoring away, while he slowly drifted out to sea.
He was eventually spotted by a Coast Guard helicopter about 40 miles from where he had fallen in, and he was plucked out of the ocean by a rescue swimmer. These are the guys that jump into the ocean from a helicopter, swim over to people in distress, calm them down, hook them up to a harness, and assist in hoisting them up into the helicopter. In this world, there are many people who routinely risk their lives in selfless attempts to save others. All are real heroes in my book, but rescue swimmers are right up at the top of my list.
It's interesting to learn how the lobster man managed to stay afloat for 12 hours. He was wearing tall rubber boots. He removed them, dumped the water out, and turned them upside down. Then he pushed them down into the water. Being upside down, they held the air. He held one under each of his arms, and lodged the soles of the boots in his armpits. Absolutely brilliant. Instead of panicking, he figured out a clever way to make water wings.
I wonder if he was a former navy guy. When I was a boy, I wanted to join the Navy and sail around the world. I couldn't wait to graduate from high school, so I could enlist. When I did, the Navy had other plans, and I never spent one day aboard a ship. But even though I wasn't destined to sail anywhere courtesy of the U.S. Navy, I did get some “survival at sea” training in boot camp.
They first made sure we could swim and tread water. Then we were taught how to jump off sinking ships and how to improvise flotation devices. Most navy sailors don't wear boots, but it turns out that trousers work almost as well. Did you ever wonder why U.S. Navy trousers are bell bottoms? It was never a style statement. Bell bottoms are much easier to remove over the shoes, especially when wet, than traditionally cut trousers. Once removed, you tie a knot in the end of each leg, swing them over your head to inflate them with air, then hold the waist closed to make a rudimentary flotation device. It's not great, but sufficient to give you just enough buoyancy to survive.
On board Nine of Cups we know that if one of us goes overboard on a passage, unless the other person is right there watching when it happens, the chances of being found are pretty remote. Having a PFD or being able to fashion an improvised flotation device will make very little difference in the outcome. There won't be any rescue divers or helicopters to look for us a thousand miles offshore.
Instead, we work hard at staying on the boat. We wear PFDs with built in harnesses when the weather is rough or if one of has to leave the cockpit when alone on watch. We use tethers with the harnesses to keep ourselves attached to the boat. If the weather is really bad, neither of us leaves the cockpit without the other watching.
So far, so good. Neither of us has had to see whether inflating our pants really will keep us afloat or for how long. And we plan to keep it that way. Hence, the reason I never pee overboard when I'm alone on watch. (#1 reason for men to fall overboard!)