Thursday, September 4, 2008

Testing the Astral Buoyancy V-Eight PFD

I've been asked on occasion to do equipment reviews for Sea Kayaker magazine. One of the more useful items the editors ever sent me to test was the Astral Buoyancy V-Eight PFD I received from them back at the beginning of summer. I hate wearing any kind of PFD when I'm paddling in hot weather, unless the conditions are so dangerous I just can't justify taking the risk. Usually, you'll see me kayaking with my PFD stuffed under the bungie cords on my stern or foredeck, and most of the time I don't feel I need it unless I'm paddling a surf zone or the wind has picked up enough offshore to build seas large enough to require occasional bracing. On rivers, I don't put one one unless I'm about to run a tricky section of rapids where capsize is a possibility.

This new PFD designed for hot weather paddling may change my mind, though. I tested it in the most miserable conditions imaginable - on a dead still lake in south Mississippi on a typical hot and humid summer afternoon. Here is my assessment of it as published in the current issue of Sea Kayaker magazine, which is on the newstands now:

Astral Buoyancy V-Eight PFD
Reviewed by Scott B. Williams
Sea Kayaker, October 2008

Heat and high humidity are the norm most of the year where I live and do most of my paddling:. the Gulf of Mexico and the slow-moving, swampy rivers that empty into it. Living in the Deep South, I actually prefer hot weather paddling to cooler climates and waters, so when I look elsewhere to travel for kayak touring it’s usually even farther south in the tropics.

Hot weather paddling offers challenges of its own, not the least of which is how to stay comfortable sitting in the cockpit all day under the scorching sun. In cold weather, you can always add more clothing. When temperatures are 90 degrees-plus in the shade and not a breeze is stirring, excess clothing is the last thing you’ll want, and shedding the PFD is also a strong temptation. Paddlers in this kind of heat can often be seen with their PFDs stuffed under the shock cords on their stern or foredecks, and I admit that I’m as guilty as any. Much of the time, the warm and somewhat protected waters I paddle do not merit constant wearing of a PFD, but if it were comfortable enough, I would keep one on anyway.

Most PFDs trap body heat as you paddle, adding greatly to hot weather discomfort. They also chafe bare skin, more of which is exposed when it’s hot as paddlers will likely be shirtless or in a T-shirt or bikini top rather than fully clothed under the PFD. Astral Buoyancy has addressed the need for a comfortable hot-weather PFD with the introduction of their new V-Eight. Billed as “the world’s first breathable lifejacket,” the V-Eight has special contoured foam, which reduces body-to-PFD contact by 70% and has vents ports to allow hot air to escape and fresh air to enter.

I tested the Astral Buoyancy V-Eight by spending a hot June day paddling on Lake Okhissa in the Homochitto National Forest of south Mississippi. This inland lake is surrounded by dense pine and hardwood forests and not a breeze was stirring to bring relief in the 92-degree heat as I paddled for miles over stagnant brown water. This was certainly a day when I would not be wearing my old PFD, as the chances of capsize were slim to none and the water was warm, but I found the Astral Buoyancy V-Eight surprisingly comfortable.

The design places the buoyancy panels high and to the center of the body in the upper back and chest, getting them completely out of the way of the paddle stroke and clear of the rear cockpit coaming. The soft mesh liner on the inside is comfortable against the skin and allows the vent ports to function well. These ports consist of a large rectangular opening in the middle of the back panel and two smaller, oval-shaped openings in each chest panel. The PVC free foam buoyancy panels are dense, but quite flexible and able to contour to the body. The inside surfaces of these foam panels utilize “Airescape technology.” This surface consists of ridges with space between to create air passages and minimize the amount of foam surface in contact with the body. The inside surface of each panel is also specifically contoured to fit the part of the body it will be in contact with. The foam is dense enough to retain its shape after compression, but flexible enough to allow it to contour to the wearer. All the foam throughout each panel is the same material, but glue lines visible in the vent ports indicate that the larger panels, such as the center back one, is laminated from more than one layer.

I found that paddling for hours with this PFD was no nuisance at all and did not feel that it contributed to my discomfort in the heat. The only time I noticed any chafe at all was when the sides of the front panels rubbed against my inner arms while using an extended power stroke, as in sprinting. If additional ventilation is needed, the zipper can be undone completely and the PFD will stay in place with just the front quick-release buckle secured.

When I got into the water to test the V-Eight PFD for buoyancy it easily kept my entire head and face completely clear of the water. With the straps adjusted properly the PFD stayed in place, shifting upward only about an inch while supporting my full weight in deep water. Swimming with the PFD on was natural and unrestricted.

An expandable mesh pocket on the front of the right chest panel provides space for emergency gear such as signaling devices. This pocket is located low on the panel and to the outside of the vent ports in the foam. There is room for a compact VHF radio as well as basic emergency gear. An identical pocket on the other side would allow better distribution of this gear. The placement of the pocket away from the vent ports should not interfere with the venting function. There is a single attachment point for a rescue knife on the right side as well, located above the vent ports. I would prefer to have one of these on each side as well to provide more options for carrying the knife as it may be easier to reach from across the chest rather than on the same side as the drawing hand.

Conclusion: As a hot weather paddler who normally leaves my PFD strapped to the deck, I’m happy to have found a PFD that is specifically designed for my kind of climate. Wearing a PFD at all times is smart, even when it’s hot, and I’m glad the need for a one that is comfortable enough to tolerate in the heat was finally recognized. An additional pocket and attachment point would make Astral Buoyancy V-Eight everything I need in a PFD.

The Astral Buoyancy V-8 PFD comes in red or blue, and is offered in three sizes, measured at widest torso circumference: Small/Medium 31-37”, Medium/Large 38-44”, and Large/Extra Large 45-51”. The buoyancy is rated at minimum 15.5 lbs. at time of manufacture. Shell fabric is 420x210 denier Ripstop Nylon. Liner fabric is Polyester Mesh. Hardware is Acetal Plastic and zippers are self-locking Vislon teeth from YKK. The MSRP is $108.95. Astral Buoyancy Company, 2002 Riverside Drive, Suite 42-A, Asheville, NC 28804. Website:

"A boat is freedom, not just a way to reach a goal."
Bernard Moitessier - A Sea Vagabond's World


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