Gear Review: Astral BlueJacket PFD

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My favorite multisport life jacket.

Sometime back in 2015, when I was working for Pyranha Kayaks, I took Cristi down the street to Astral to buy her a life jacket. We were getting her sea kayak gear dialed in for a big road trip that summer and she needed a decent vest to replace the ancient Lotus Lola that she was wearing at the time. I was looking for a new sea kayak vest, too. Something with enough pockets to hold essentials for a day on the water. My friend Todd told me to check out the Sea Wolf.

The Sea Wolf fit great, and had a big front pocket that hinged open like a shelf for easy access. I was in.

Cristi, as it turned out, was in too. She tried a bunch of women’s-specific life vests but ended up feeling like the Sea Wolf was the most comfortable. We ended up with his-and-hers rigs. Not on purpose.

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His and hers. It wasn’t intentional.

Since then, we’ve used our Sea Wolfs for everything from whitewater to sea kayaking to canoe tripping. Standup paddleboarding. Surf kayaking. You name it. The Sea Wolf is my favorite Personal Flotation Device.

These days, the Sea Wolf is called the BlueJacket.

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The Willis.

Design
In 2009, Astral introduced three new swim vests: The Willis, a men’s jacket; the Bella, for women, and the Green Jacket whitewater rescue vest.

All three vests share an unique chassis design. The front panel of the vest is split into two separate sections of foam. The bottom, inner section is horizontal and hits the torso below the chest. The upper, outer foam section rides over the lower section. Astral calls this design Foam Techtonics.

The two front foam panels are connected by a stiffened strap behind the outer panel and a rectangle of soft fabric that doubles as a hand warmer pocket. Height adjustment is achieved by tightening or loosening straps at the bottom of the top panel. The shoulder straps are fixed length.

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Inside front panel of the BlueJacket showing the lower horizontal foam panel. This panel rides on a stiffened vertical strap that is sewn to the outer, front foam panel. Mesh back panel cinches securely around your ribs. Note vertical battens in rear mesh liner.
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Sea Wolf. Soft fabric panel at lower center of the vest connects the inner and outer foam panels. Height adjustments are made with straps located below the chest pocket. Shoulder straps are fixed.

These are side-entry vests with three side-release buckles that open the vest under the right armpit. The back of the vest is lined with a hanging mesh panel that is tied into the side straps and stiffened with a couple vertical battens. When fully cinched, the rear mesh panel tensions against the front foam and snugly encircles your ribs without compressing your chest. The narrow outer front panel is cut far away from the shoulders. This cut, combined with the ability of the outer panel to move independently of the inner, creates a vest that is extraordinarily comfortable and offers remarkable freedom of movement.

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Three side-release buckles allow access to the vest. Color coding makes it easier to line up the correct buckles.

The  Willis and Bella are no longer in the Astral lineup, but the Green Jacket is. It saw a redesign around the same time that the Sea Wolf was introduced to market. Both feature a large structured front pocket that hinges open for easy access. The Green Jacket is equipped with swiftwater rescue and Class V whitewater boating features like a quick release strong swimmer harness, padded protection for the back at the shoulder openings and a spectra belay loop for rescue and rappel. The BlueJacket shares the basic pocket layout of the Green Jacket minus these features.

[The Green Jacket has recently seen another update and now featured a hard molded EVA front pocket flap among other changes.]

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I love the fit of the Sea Wolf/BlueJacket, but the massive front pocket is what really sold me on the vest. You can see the coarse mesh and horizontal zipper on the Sea Wolf in this shot.

Pockets
My favorite BlueJacket feature is the large front pocket. The front flap of the pocket is stiffened with foam so that it holds its shape even while empty. This flap has a panel of mesh sewn onto the inside that separates it from the rest of the pocket. It holds a lot of stuff.

How much stuff? I typically carry the following in my vest when I’m sea kayaking:

Sunscreen, ibuprofen, eye drops, CPR mask, wounds kit, boat patch, nose clip, paddle leash, Padlock key, folding knife, compass and grease pencil. Tucked into the front pocket of the vest, these essentials are within easy reach.

On Boundary Waters trips I lose the paddle leash and other sea kayak accessories and add a hemostat for unhooking fish and a nipper for cutting line.

On the Sea Wolf the mesh panel was sewn from a coarser material and featured a horizontal zip at the top for access. The BlueJacket uses a finer mesh and has two vertical zippers. One zipper accesses a small, outer compartment in the mesh panel. The other accesses the large space behind the front flap.

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Updated pocket on BlueJacket. Finer mesh and two vertical zips.

I like the new mesh panel. The outer compartment makes it easier to organize small items that I carry like eye drops, ibuprofen and sunscreen. These have a tendency to get lost in the single mesh pocket of the Sea Wolf. The finer mesh keeps things like my Padlock key from poking out into the main body of the pocket. Also an improvement. That said, it is a little harder to see what you have tucked into the pocket through the newer, more opaque material. As for the vertical zips, they seem fine. Plenty of access to the big compartment.

The back panel of the pocket is separated into a series of fabric slots that help with organization. My rescue knife, compass, grease pencil and nose clip live here.

Both back panel and front flap pocket feature loops of webbing that allow you to secure your gear with a short lanyard.

When you zip the pocket closed you’ll find it holds even more gear. Like a waterproof point-and-shoot camera. I clip a lanyard to my camera and attach it to the shoulder strap of the vest. Then it’s crammed into the space between the back panel of the pocket and the front flap. Nice and secure.

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Hand warmer panel doubles as a large horizontal pocket for VHF radio or tow line.

The handwarmer pocket beneath the front panel of the vest will do double duty to hold larger items like a conventional compact waterproof VHF radio. The antenna sticks out to the side but the radio is secure and on your body rather than in the boat. The handwarmer pocket can also be used to hasty stow your tow line if you don’t have the time or space to repack it. If you’re fishing the pocket will keep a lightweight fish gripper in easy reach.

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Side pockets can be used for stowing Astral’s Spectra tow leash and ‘biner. They’re large enough to hold sunglasses and snacks.

Towing
The BlueJacket features a couple more pockets, one on each side behind the attachment point for the side adjustment straps. These pockets are large enough to hold sunglasses or snacks but they’re really intended to secure the locking carabiner and Spectra sling that comprise Astral’s Web Toe short tow system.

I’ve used the Web Toe on the river with my Green Jacket and it works great. You can clip into a boat and zip it into an eddy in a hurry. You can also use the locking ‘biner and Spectra sling for strong swimmer rescues (if you have the proper training) or to tie into an anchor if you’re slinging a throw rope from a sketchy spot.

I don’t think the Web Toe is the best option for sea kayaking. At least, not set up with the locking biner that comes with the rig. In saltwater it will corrode. You’ll need to replace it with something stainless. If you do, the short tow will work for quick towing to move someone out of a dangerous spot.

For longer tows you’ll want a separate waist tow belt. You need a longer tow line when towing in a following sea to keep the towed kayak from colliding with your boat as it surfs ahead of waves. It’s also better to attach that tow belt at the waist rather than higher up on the PFD. A low attachment point makes it easier to absorb the shock of the towline coming tight in rough conditions. A sharp jerk to the tow line might pull you off balance if the attachment point is higher on your chest. It will definitely create a lot more work for your abs. A waist tow is a better option for serious towing on the sea.

If you want to set up your BlueJacket for quick contact tows, or for use as a rescue vest on the river you’ll need a Astral’s Quick Release Belt.

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Hydration ready. The bladder hangs in between the outer foam panel and inner mesh liner.

Hydration
The BlueJacket is hydration ready. There’s space for a 2L hydration bladder between the inner mesh back of the vest and the outer foam panel. You hang the bladder from two 1″ webbing straps concealed within the top of the vest and thread the drinking tube up through a slot in the vest and along the shoulder straps where it’s held in place by elastic loops. Tucked firmly inside the vest your hydration bladder virtually disappears.

I’ve used hydration bladders on long sea kayak trips and they work well. Positioning the bladder inside the vest is key. Bladders in outside pockets aren’t quite as effective. They position the weight of the water farther away from your body which can make rolling challenging for some folks. The BlueJacket gets it right.

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Die cut lash points and elastic keepers for a drinking tube are a few of the details found on the BlueJacket.

Details
The BlueJacket design is filled with thoughtful details. The kind of details that begin to blur the distinction between design and art.

I’m not kidding about this.

Shoulder straps have die cut lash points, reflective piping and small elastic loops to secure a hydration drinking tube.The upper back panel of the vest features a pair of Hypalon lash points for fitting a rescue strobe. Height adjustment straps are fitted with stainless steel loops that take any strain off the buckles should the vest be used in a rescue situation. Side adjustment straps all have a tiny tab of velcro on them which allows them to be tucked out of sight inside the handwarmer pocket. Then there’s color. Accent touches on pocket drains, contrast color zippers, color coded side release buckles, patterned inner pocket lining and the Lotus logo on the back.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen that logo. A long time ago Lotus founder Philip Curry sold his life jacket company to Patagonia. Patagonia, in what has to be one of the most bone-headed moves in the history of the outdoor industry, discontinued the brand. No more Lotus.

Not to worry. Philip started a new life jacket company. Astral Buoyancy. Lotus was good. Astral took things to a new level.

For the longest time the Lotus name and logo were owned by Patagonia. Eventually they let that ownership lapse and Astral reacquired the Lotus flower logo.

It’s nice to see it on a vest again.

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Stainless steel rings back up height adjustment buckles for extra strength.
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Hypalon lash tabs at back of vest will secure a rescue strobe. Nice to see the Lotus logo back in Astral’s possession…

Materials
The BlueJacket is sewn from 200 x 400 denier ripstop nylon. Back in the day, all premium life jackets were sewn from heavier nylon canvas materials like Cordura. These materials were tough but heavy. These days you see a lot more ripstop vests. Ripstop fabric has come a long way and is now equal in strength and durability to the older canvas fabrics. What’s more, it’s lighter and absorbs less water. This makes ripstop vests quicker to dry and less likely to mildew if they end up at the bottom of your gear bag for a few days. Ripstop also seems to do a little better with UV–it doesn’t seem to fade as much or as quickly as Cordura vests do.

My Sea Wolf is going on five years old now and has been my primary PFD for almost all the days I’ve spent on the water during that time. You can see from the pictures that the fabric is still in great shape. Minimally faded and unabraded. The ripstop holds up to hard use.

The foam used in the BlueJacket is a combination of Gaia and polyethylene foam. Gaia is a nitrile-based foam that Astral helped develop and bring to market with Winboss foams of Taiwan. Both buoyant foams are PVC free.

Astral was an early pioneer of PVC free foam in PFDs, and their vests have always been PVC free. These days you see more and more manufacturers moving away from PVC, which is a good thing. PVC is nasty stuff. Highly toxic to produce. A source of dioxin pollution in soils and waterways and a known carcinogen.

PVC is used in countless products that we encounter in our everyday lives. It’s in everything from drain pipes to plastic straws. Obviously life jackets represent only a tiny fraction of the PVC in the overall market. Getting rid of PVC in vests isn’t going to make much of a dent in that. Even so, where viable alternatives to PVC exist it makes sense to use them. Especially for products aimed at the outdoor market, where a clean environment is part of the bottom line.

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Works great for the fellas…

Fit and Sizing
The BlueJacket fits great.

The vest is secured by three straps on either side. The bottom strap hits just below your ribs. The other two draw the inner foam panel and back mesh panel securely around your ribcage. Cinched down tight the BlueJacket is rock solid.

The secure fit doesn’t get in the way of comfort. The independent inner and outer foam panels of the BlueJacket allow you to snug the vest down without feeling constricted. The panels slide over one another as you rotate your upper body giving you unrestricted freedom of motion. It’s without question one of the most comfortable PFD’s I’ve worn.

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Good for the ladies, too…

Part of that comfort comes from the fact that the upper panel of the vest doesn’t fit tightly across the top of your chest. The panel pivots and moves as you paddle, sliding out of the way as you reach forward to plant the paddle for a forward stroke or twist sideways to set up for a roll. It feels roomy.

This is the reason that Cristi chose the Sea Wolf over several other vests that were available at the time. If you get the sizing right, the BlueJacket fits women. The inner foam panel hits below the bust and the outer panel isn’t constricting. Many women find it to be comfortable.

While the BlueJacket fits women well, it doesn’t offer a lot of coverage for the upper chest. The Bella swim vest featured an inner fabric panel at the arm holes to offer a little more coverage. The BlueJacket lacks this feature.

I’m not sure how much this matters. Most of the time when you’re paddling you’re wearing some kind of top. Cristi has never mentioned the wide arm holes as an issue. Some women might prefer a vest with more coverage. That’s the way it goes. PFDs are like shoes. Fit is highly subjective.

Size variation in the BlueJacket is accomplished by moving the attachment points for the side pockets and straps backward or forward on the rear vest panel. In my size L/XL the pocket is anchored at the leading edge of the back panel. On Cristi’s S/M the pocket overlaps the back panel by several inches. The foam panels themselves are the same size.

Smaller vest sizes feature shorter shoulder straps to better fit paddlers with shorter torsos. My L/XL has straps that are about 12″ long. Cristi’s S/M has 10″ shoulder straps.

Astral’s size chart says that the L/XL starts at a 45 chest. That seems about right. I have a 43″ chest and to get a snug fit I have to cinch my L/XL Sea Wolf down all the way to the end of the straps. It fits, but it would probably be better if I had the next size down. I bought it when I was quite a bit heavier. If I bought one now I would get the M/L.

The size ranges do have quite a bit of overlap. I can fit into Cristi’s S/M vest. Just.

Playing Favorites
I’ve worn a lot of very nice PFDs through the years. All the manufacturers out there make good ones and I’ve worked in the outdoor industry long enough to have friends at every major PFD company. It’s hard to pick a favorite. All this stuff is good. Every company is making a quality product. Like so many things in life, lifejacket choice is subjective. In the end it comes down to what fits and what you like.

I like the BlueJacket. I love the fit. Love the front pocket. The vest just works for me.

If you’re in the market for a new life jacket, it’s worth a try.

 

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2 thoughts on “Gear Review: Astral BlueJacket PFD

  1. This is honestly pretty uncanny – my wife and I just replaced our aging PFDs and settled on the Blue Jacket. Guess what we replaced? A Willis and an (original) Green Jacket.

    I second basically everything you mention in the review, especially the conclusion. It’s not like any company is out there making a “bad” kayaking-specific PFD right now (and I know enough people at NRS and Kokatat to have plenty of points of reference), but the Blue Jacket has that seemingly perfect confluence of features that make it both incredibly comfortable and also eminently functional, which is what pushes it over the edge for me in comparison to other products.

    1. Yep, There are a lot of great ones out there but this platform is one of the best I’ve worn. I anticipate price is a barrier for some, but I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t find it comfortable.

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