Gabrielle Zerla is currently a Class III Whitewater Rafting Guide on the Shendandoah/Potomac and the Cheat Narrows. Recently, she had to swim down a portion of Class V Whitewater and wanted to tell us how thankful she was to have her North Water PFD.

Gabrielle ZerlaThe Summer of 2014 is when I first became aware of North Water's awesome custom vests. A select few of the "Old Heads" or senior guides, I know from training at the outfitter I now guide for, have their own custom-tailored North Water vests and they all SWEAR by them and treat them better than some people treat their pets, or even children. So it's safe to say I was immediately very curious about North Water and what they have going on...

Shortly after becoming aware of the existence of North Water PFDs I took my first real swims in Class V whitewater and realized I absolutely could not keep wearing the hand-me-down vest which had served me well as my first PFD and helped me stay afloat in my infancy as a Whitewater Raft Guide. I knew that since I had leveled up the challenges I was facing, it was time to invest in gear that would not only help keep me alive, but keep me feeling safe, confident, and secure!

So, because North Water PFDs make the wearer look totally BAD-ASS and are clearly the most advanced, high-tech vests on the market... I HAD TO HAVE MY OWN. I might be a bit of a perfectionist and gear-aficionado but... I mean come on, closed cell-foam, the ability to have this thing that I am going spend day after day after day in for years be custom, cut, measured, and tailored to fit just me?? um yes please!! nothing less!

I took the leap. I made the commitment and I got Travis Cobb of Cobb Rescue Instruction to measure me very carefully, and we placed the order. I waited eagerly for just under a month and then that fateful day arrived.

I remember fondly the very first time I got to zip-up and have my custom vest cinched tightly to my ribcage: It was like the best hug ever! Instant best friends forever. Then the first time I jumped into the water: I was barely even underwater for half a second before my head jetted back above the surface! When I swim in my custom North Water: I cut through the water like a torpedo. The closed-cell foam is so buoyant: it's practically hydrophobic!

I have never been so happy to put on a whitewater corset

I put this vest through as many tests as I could come up with and it always performed perfectly. My vest is as sleek as I could get it because efficiency of movement and remaining hydro-dynamic is important for me to be able to self-rescue in the event I take a swim whilst out paddling. So I didn't want any pockets or anything which would create drag, or resistance.

I wanted to find out which way my vest naturally floats me in the event I were to become unconscious... So I swam out into an eddy and relaxed and waited to see where my vest made my body settle. Amazingly, without needing a pillow to make it happen, my North Water vest naturally keeps me in a pretty much upright position where even if my neck were slack my airway would remain fairly clear. That level of attention to detail and cut of the product is exactly what I look for in personal protective equipment. To be able to have a vest which is both: conducive to active self-rescue, and naturally floats me in a position to be able to breathe. That is what makes quality gear worth investing in.

This past October I had a swim that left me happy to be fortunate enough to be able to barely hobble away from the river at the end of the day.

I went down to the Upper Gauley and the first day was an emotional, adrenaline- filled, roller coaster ride of a river trip! The next day was bigger, and less smooth, the boat got knocked off line at a gnarly rapid, called Pillow Rock, by a big wave and I fell out of the boat, but my front foot was stuck in my brace under the thwart in front of me and I couldn't get the rest of me back in to the boat! I quickly assessed the situation and realized my best option was to let go of my desire for control, to embrace the unknown, and go for the swim. I knew I was going to hurt my knee in the process of freeing myself from the terrifying dangling position I was in, but it was my only option...

Well, I tore my MCL and hyper-extended my ACL in the process of pulling myself free. Next, I saw I was about to hit an Eddy Wall, so I took what could have been my last breath.... Then, I went for the deepest, longest, fastest swim of my life so far.

Despite knowing how potentially dangerous this swim could become I stayed calm, which was in large part due to the people who have helped inspire and mould me into the determined, whitewater warrior I am today, but also in large part because I knew my North Water PFD had my back... Literally.

The millisecond the water pressure let up and the weight of a million worlds ceased trying to make me one with the bottom of that river... My North Water PFD sprang into action and went full Rocket-Mode as I shot to the surface of the river. As soon as I felt the wind on my face I knew I had made it this far and I would soon be back in a raft. My knee was so injured I couldn't get myself back into the raft. Once hoisted back up, my paddle-partner pulled over because I had to be evaluated (luckily we had a Medic, and a P.A. [in training] amongst our crew that day) it was determined I could not even brace, let alone paddle. So, my friends had me sit on the floor of the raft, and I was paddled the rest of the way off the river.

I am thankful to have my life, but even more thankful I was in my North Water PFD. That swim pushed the limits of my ability to hold my composure and my breath. If I had been in any other vest I may very well have aspirated water and my day might have been a bit more rough on myself and everyone around me.

I have a very special love for my custom North Water Personal Floatation Device. This vest is without a doubt the greatest investment I have ever made. Words fall short of my devoted adoration of the craftsmanship that goes into each and every piece of North Water gear I have ever come across.

I love North Water, 
Sincerely,
Gabrielle Zerla


  • Yes, I know that swim. It takes you deep there, on his first river trip ever Jeff Willard swam there. He lit a cigarette and said"it’s really dark down there". Gary Kline was guiding the boat. Okay ya sold me I’ll buy one.

    Jim C on


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