Patagonia is one of many PFD manufacturers replacing foams made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) with materials that are more environmentally friendly. (For more on this, read the article "PVC Free" in the 2006 GearTrends® Summer Outdoor magazine at www.geartrends.com/magazines.) For the Rio Serrano, Patagonia uses a new type of foam, called Gaia, which doesn’t contain the chemicals and heavy metals found in PVC that not only harm humans and animals, but also pollute landfills.
While the Rio Serrano represents a healthier way to manufacture products, it's also just a darn good PFD for sea kayaking. Of course, the primary consideration for a PFD is how securely it fits, especially when things get rough. Rather than test this jacket only while sitting upright, cruising through glassy water, we decided to take it for a swim. Specifically, our tester wore it while trying to launch a kayak through crashing 4-foot surf. When the paddle out became a swim out, the Rio Serrano showed true grit, holding its grip firmly, and for the rest of the day-long paddle, the PFD was renamed the "Rio Bravo."
The key to the jacket's John Wayne toughness is the two-tiered waist-belt system. Not only does it have a typical buckle closure in the front at the waist, but it also has a second, padded waist belt that is attached to the back panel, but not attached to the front panels. This second belt hugs the body tightly and prevents the PFD from riding up, but it does not restrict the movement of the upper body. The belt is attached to a D-ring on the back panel, so it moves easily in all directions, offering flexibility and security at the same.
As for the performance of the foam, it seemed to offer the same level of flotation as similar vests with other materials. Basically, the thing kept us bobbing comfortably. One claim about Gaia foam is that it's softer than PVC, and we can confirm that it does mold well around the upper body, and doesn't feel like a hard block. Each front panel of the Rio Serrano has two separate sections of foam, which creates a flex point that allows the jacket to wrap around the ribs. The Gaia material also helps to soften the feel of the jacket, which has an outer face made of rugged, 500-denier Cordura.
The sculpted design of the jacket also makes it comfortable while paddling. Each main section of the PFD has ergonomic curves, and the jacket didn't interfere with our paddling motion. Where arms might rub against the jacket, there are panels of neoprene covered in jersey fabric to prevent chaffing.
While this PFD doesn't have all the pockets, bells and whistles you find on the most advanced PFDs, it has all the necessities and many useful features to suit most customers. The waist belt and back panel are lined with padded mesh to improve airflow, move moisture and improve the feel of the jacket when sweating. Plus, the back panel also has an easily accessible compartment for a hydration bladder. While we'll give kudos for making the hydration pocket with bellow side panels, the Velcro closure at the bottom of the hydration pocket is a bit puny and could be beefed up. Looks like it'll wear out over time.
For your small essentials -- sunscreen, lip balm, etc. -- there are two front pockets made of stretch fabric that helps keep everything tucked close to the body. Each pocket has an internal D-ring for those things you really don't want to lose, and each pocket has a Cordura nylon flap that repels water, plus a buckle closure to really batten down the hatch.
We nearly have no complaints about this product, except that since it only comes in unisex sizes regular and large, women and smaller-framed users could find it won't work for them -- although it's fairly adjustable. We'd love to see a women's-specific model or at least offer smaller sizes like small and medium. Other than that, having taken it through some rough-and tumble ocean experiences, we can say that the dual waist belt and other features makes this a PFD that really comes through when it counts.
SNEWS Rating: 4.5 hands
Suggested Retail: $125
For more information: www.patagonia.com