The SUP'ing Caveman's PFD Review

This past month has flown by. With a big trip up to Harry's Paddle Challenge in Newcastle for the entire Caveman family, in addition to finishing my personal training course (woohoo) fitting in this months review meant some late nights and lonely cold paddles. 

So for this month we have reviewed three vest style PFD's. Why have we done a PFD? For Canberra based paddlers this winter it is a requirement to wear a vest while competing in our winter club time trials. Last year it was deemed that a belt style PFD was acceptable but for this year we are now required to wear the vest version so I thought that was a good segue to do this just in time for our winter season. Unfortunately because SUP is still really only in it's infancy in Australia, there are only a few states that legally require you as a to physically wear a PFD when SUPing as a leisure activity. I tried to find as much information as I could for this and this is what I turned up: 

For Victorians here is a great link by the guys and girls at SUPVic

New South Welshmen and woman this is from your state government website . 

A link to the current Western Australian maritime regs are here.

In the Northern Territory, if you are game enough to get out on the water with a SUP you probably have a death wish (no link just a fact). 

However be aware that there are a few races/competitions that require competitors to wear a PFD. Due to this there are not a lot of this style of PFD on the market specifically for SUP here. Most are belt style self inflating or auto inflating models. We reached out to a few manufacturers however availability is limited. What we ended up reviewing were the following

Kokatat Orbit Tour - RRP $219.95

Ultra Ocean Racer - RRP $139.95 (Hydration Pack $25)

Ultra Gorge - RRP $119.95 (Hydration Pack $25)

Comfort

All three of these PFD’s are comfortable in their own right. The Orbit Tour feels like it is giving you a big hug. It can be adjusted so that it is very snug across the chest and against you back. There are two adjustment points on either side of your rib cage and adjustments for the shoulder straps. There is a slip resistant coating on the inside, which I talk again about later, that could cause some discomfort if you went topless

The Gorge doesn’t really give you that hug of the Orbit Tour but it gives you a definite feeling of security. It is a bit bigger front and back and if you decide to mix up your paddling with a run leg, dumb idea ;), it does get a little warm.  

The Ocean Racer sits at the top of it all. It is so soft and very comfortable and as per the website is also suitable for some shirts off paddling. It is interesting to note that this PFD is the only one where the manufacturer mentions anything about SUP.

If you fall in while wearing these PFD's it is a little more awkward getting back onto the board the first couple of times. Once you realise that you have to move out a bit it is all smooth sailing. The Gorge and Ultra Racer being the best in this regard.

Float

If you fall in while wearing any of these PFD's you will float. Great news. They do vary however when you are required to do a little floating. They will ride up a little depending on how you tighten and adjust the straps. It is not going to float off you but, if it is fitted a little loose the Orbit Tour may bop you on the chin. It does have a slip resistant coating on the inside of the front and back panel so when you manage to get the adjustment right it should hold in place. The Gorge (nor the Ocean Racer) will get you on the chin but because of the larger size of the vest it is a bit awkward. At the same time if they are too tight you will float and not have the PFD ride up but you won't be able to breath. Breathing is important. Best plan is not to fall in to much and if you do get back on quickly.

Zips, Clips and Straps

Nice detail paid to the Orbit Tour and a look into the top zipper pouch

Nice detail paid to the Orbit Tour and a look into the top zipper pouch

The Orbit Tour, as previously mentioned, has two straps on either side of the ribcage. The top strap is 40mm and connects to the outside of the vest, the bottom is 25mm and connects on the inside. This gives the vest the snug "hug" fit. The straps over the shoulders are thick 40mm straps with neoprene lining on the inside for comfort and 3M reflective strips for safety. All straps are adjustable. A nice touch on the front of the vest is the neoprene stash pocket for the excess webbing straps from the shoulder straps. The Kokatat has two zipped (YKK zippers) pockets, one horizontal, one vertical. They are just big enough to fit a small banana, a waterproof case (like last months essentials bag), a muesli bar or two or some gels. 

The Gorge, like the Orbit Tour, has two adjustment straps on either side of the ribcage in the exact same setup as the Orbit Tour but with both straps being 25mm. These are a little bit hard to reach as they are on the back. This is especially so if you have the mobility of a T-Rex like I do. The shoulder straps are also 25mm with a 45mm padded sleeve for comfort underneath. The Gorge differs greatly from the Orbit Tour in that it zips up at the front. There is also a side release buckle below the zip. This allows you to unzip the front for some cooling if required. There are two pockets on the front of this vest. On the left hand side of the vest is a zippered pocket and on the right a pocket that is secured by a side release clip. Inside the zippered pocket is a D-ring for attaching keys and on the outside beneath the pocket is another D-ring. The zippered pocket is a little small and may fit a small banana but is more suitable for a couple muesli bars, the aforementioned essentials bag and/or gels. The buckle secured pocket replicates the storage ability of the zippered one but has a little more flexibility due to the way it is secured. This pack also has the ability to carry a 2 litre hydration bladder in a compartment on the back. This is a very handy addition and gets my tick of approval. The compartment has been well thought out and has a mesh panel on the bottom to assist with drainage should you need to put the vest to use. 

Left shows hose eyelet and right is the side release clip that is hidden by a neoprene sleeve

Left shows hose eyelet and right is the side release clip that is hidden by a neoprene sleeve

The Ultra Racer is a very clean looking PFD. There are no zips on the front or pockets for that matter. If you are looking for a vest PFD that will carry a bit of gear on it then this is probably not the one for you. It does have a “hidden” internal stash pocket (no zipper or Velcro closure) on the left hand side that also has a key lanyard/holder in it. Suitable for gels, maybe a banana and the essential bags should also fit (make sure it is tethered to the lanyard though so it doesn’t float away). The strap is a 38mm size that runs around the waist and attaches to a side release clip on the right hand side of the rib cage. It is a bit fiddly to get to the clip though as it is hidden by a neoprene sleeve and is located on the back side of the vest. Again my shoulder mobility was put to the test. Another thing to like about this PFD is the ability to route your hydration hose over either shoulder and then using the elastic eyelet on the front, have the hose within easy reach. Nice touch.

Ease of Use

If you took the best parts of these PFD’s and put them together you would have a truly awesome product however, where one is good the other is bad. The Orbit Tour is easy to adjust once fitted however is really quite difficult to get on and off (again due to T-Rex mobility). To get it on and off I needed to release both straps on the sides and do a fair amount of hip shaking and arm waving that had my wife laughing and commenting that I looked like one of those inflatable arm waving guy things. Considering the ribbing I was getting in my own house this could get awkward when out in public. 

The Gorge is easy to get on and off but is awkward to adjust once it is on. Once they are on and fitted to your liking they are good. 

The Ultra Racer almost combines the best parts of both. It has one adjustment point on the right hand side and there is a zip closure on top of that. This avoids the arm waving and is pretty easy to get on and off. As stated above it does require you to work to get to the clip but once sorted is pretty good.

Conclusion

You really can’t go wrong with any of these PFD's. They are all exceptionally well constructed with hard wearing stitching all round. The straps are not going to fray and the clips are strong and hold tension the straps in place, once adjusted, with ease.

Be aware that of the three PFD’s reviewed, only the Ultra Racer and the Gorge have the Australian Standards Label on it (AS4758). The Orbit Tour does not. This could be an issue if you were to enter a large event and it is a requirement to carry a PFD that has this certification eg Hawkesbury Classic Equipment Race Rules

The Ultra Gorge gets my vote though. With the option of a hydration pack, price and the ease that you can get it on and off it does what you need it to do. It was very close though. It was a very close call between the Gorge and the Ultra Ocean Racer. If you don’t need much in the way of closed pockets then grab the Ocean Racer instead. Price is still good and it is sooooooo comfortable.

As SUP becomes more and more popular or laws are put in place and policed in Australia, I think that we will start to see more SUP specific PFD’s come on the market. There are a few getting about in North America already however that is most likely due to the laws in place over there. 

For manufacturers out there my thoughts are that if it is low profile, allows a paddler to get back on the board with minimal issues, doesnt get in the way of SUP specific movements, has an inbuilt hydration pack pouch and has good air flow you will probably be on a winner.

Once again a massive thanks to Scott and Aidan down at Wetspot Water Sports in Fyshwick for providing the PFD's for this month's review.

Paddle Happy

Kokatat Orbit Tour RRP $219.95 3.5 out of 5 Smiling Cavemen

Ultra Gorge RRP $119.95 4 out of 5 Smiling Cavemen

Ultra Ocean Racer RRP $139.95 4 out of 5 Smiling Cavemen