Pick the Right Life Jacket

Find the right life jacket and use it

April 8, 2016
Life jackets


It’s not enough to have life jackets on board, you need to wear them or at least keep them within easy access. Courtesy Yamaha

Not only are life jackets required by law, they can also save your life. Picking the right kind for you and your family is imperative, but you can’t just get ’em and forget ’em. The middle of an emergency, when you actually need them, is not the time to realize the stitching has rotted, the zippers have seized, or the strap buckles have broken. There comes a time to update or replace your life jackets. According to Tom Dardis the U.S. Coast Guard’s recreational boating safety outreach coordinator, The Coast Guard and Underwriter’s Laboratory are in the process of updating the labeling standards for life jackets. A new agreement between the United States and Canada will standardize the labels in both countries, with Mexico expected to follow once the new rules are adopted. But any changes that go into effect are intended to help boaters select and wear the proper personal flotation devices (PFDs).

Type I Offshore Life Jackets

Type I – Offshore Life Jackets

For extended survival in rough, open water. They have over 22 pounds of buoyancy and will turn an unconscious person face up. This type is best for remote regions where rescue response times may be slow. West Marine’s model No. 14001853 is an excellent version. It’s a vest design with a hinged collar for greater comfort, and a bright-orange nylon shell and reflective tape that make it easier to spot. Tim Barker
Type II Life Jacket

Type II – Nearshore Buoyant Vests

For calm, inland waters where chances of a fast rescue are greater. They have over 15.5 pounds of buoyancy, and many will turn an unconscious person face up in the water. This type is inexpensive and less bulky than most other life jackets, plus it’s widely available at big-box stores as well as marine retailers. Tim Barker

“What boaters see on store shelves will probably not change anytime soon,” Dardis explains. “The Type II classification of PFDs might go away. We’re not sure yet. And some new comfort innovations may be allowed so more users will wear their life jackets. But you’ll still need to pick the right one for your specific application.” Although requirements in state waters may vary, the Coast Guard requires a life jacket for everyone on board in federal waters. Junior anglers 12 years old and under must wear one, but the Coast Guard urges everyone to always wear a life jacket on the water because you never know when someone will fall overboard. According to the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association, 70 percent of all boating fatalities result from drowning, and nearly 90 percent of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets. Dardis suggests checking every life jacket before you leave the dock and recommends rinsing off the salt and letting jackets dry after every trip to prevent rot. “Quality life jackets aren’t cheap, but if you take care of them, they’ll last a long time. Foam vests tolerate more abuse and last longer, but they are also bulkier and hotter. Inflatables are more comfortable, but they are often more expensive and also require a bit more maintenance.”

Type III Life Jacket

Type III – Flotation Aids

Among the most comfortable life jackets and include styles for different boating activities and sports. They offer over 15.5 pounds of buoyancy for calm waters where chances of a fast rescue are good, but generally they won’t turn an unconscious person face up. Mustang Survival’s Accel100, designed specifically for fishing, is an approved version that features a maximum high-speed rating, segmented foam that flexes as you move, and a D-ring for kill-switch lanyard attachment. Tim Barker

You need to periodically check them for leaks and punctures from sharp objects, like hooks, knives and gaffs, which often find their way into the same compartments where anglers store life jackets, and also make sure each CO2 cylinder is up to snuff. You’re supposed to change the cylinder every time it’s activated, or if it’s leaking or corroded. Also, check the date stamped on the bobbin (some vests, like the ­Mustang models with Hammar hydrostatic inflators, have the expiration date printed on the exterior of the inflator). If the bobbin is more than 3 years old, get a new one. Replace it more often if the life jacket is exposed to high temperatures or humidity.

Life Jackets

Type V – Special-Use Life Jackets

May be used by anglers but most common in work settings and include work vests, deck suits and hybrids for restricted use (hybrid vests contain some internal buoyancy and are inflatable to provide additional flotation). All Type V life jackets must be worn to count as a required life jacket. The Imperial Vinyl-Dipped Work Life Jacket is one style under this classification. It’s made from flotation foam with a smooth vinyl coating that cleans easily, and has adjustable chest and shoulder straps and an opening on the back to accommodate most harnesses. Tim Barker
Infltable LIfe Jacket

Inflatable Life Jackets

Two types of inflatables, manual and automatic, are classified as Type I or III, depending on their buoyancy ratings. They are not required to be worn, but they must be stowed in an easily accessible location. The typical design includes a padded collar, a harness and inflatable chest lobes. The SOSpenders 24-Gram Manual Life Vest with a pull-activated inflation cylinder represents the manual version. Mustang Survival’s MD5183 Elite Inflatable PFD is one of the top auto inflatables. Automatic inflation vests are equipped with either water-soluble release bobbins or hydrostatic-inflator mechanisms triggered by water pressure. Tim Barker

Life Jacket Choices

The options are many, but it’s up to you to select the one that best serves your purpose and meets your state and federal regulations.


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