Personal Flotation Devices/Life Jackets

Personal Flotation Devices/Life Jackets

SEAS recently wrapped up a two day US Sailing Safety at Sea course. The two-day version meets World Sailing’s offshore requirements, but more directly important to us sailors, it had a hands-on component. Day one consisted of traditional conference style presentations on important topics related to offshore safety and survival, and on Sunday in the Sheboygan North High School pool, wearing full foul weather gear and inflatable life jackets, learning survival and rescue skills. Yes, it was fun, and a valuable learning experience. I encourage this course to anyone and everyone.

With safety on the mind, I am going to run a short series for the next three months in this column focused on a safety topic. Much of the information can be found in greater detail in US Sailing’s Safety at Sea book and through their website Other great resources include Chapman’s Piloting and Seamanship and The Annapolis Book of Seamanship. This month will be on personal flotation devices (PFDs), April will cover cold water topics, and May will follow up with some essential safety gear and tricks to training your crew. While Safety at Sea is focused on offshore I will try and address topics for our nearshore audience as well.

The fundamental truth reinforced by statistics is we should be wearing our lifejackets at all times. In 2016 the US Coast Guard counted 4,463 accidents and 701 deaths. For events in which the cause of death was known, 80% (509) were from drowning and 83% of those who drown were not wearing a life jacket.

The USCG requires all boaters to have a lifejacket easy to access and able to be put on quickly in the case of an emergency and Federal law requires children under the age of 13 to wear an approved PFD while on federally controlled waters. Everyone on board a personal watercraft (think Jet Ski) must be wearing their PFD.

PFDs must:

  • Properly fit the wearer
  • Be USCG approved
  • ·In good condition
    • No tears
    • No fading
    • No broken snaps or zippers
  • Be readily accessible in an emergency

If you plan to spend time on the water it’s worth the investment in a lifejacket that is comfortable and fits your needs. There are a lot of different Type III life jackets on the market to fit different sport, mobility, and comfort characteristics. A comfortable life jacket that is fitted to your preference can be easy to forget you are wearing! If you choose not to wear your life jacket make sure you properly fit one prior to getting underway and store it in an easy to grab place. For day sailing, or most nearshore daylight activities a Type III will be a solid choice. Add a quality whistle and you should be suited to most situations that may arise.

For distance and night sailors, it is worth the research and investment in the technology of inflatable life jackets/harness combinations offered on the market today. Anyone venturing offshore should invest in their own PFD. Offshore means it could take dramatically longer for help to arrive and if sailing at night you need to consider visibility a critical factor.

Traits to look for in an offshore inflatable:

  • 150N of buoyancy
  • Leg straps
  • Reflective tape
  • Strobe light
  • Quality Whistle

Inflatable life jackets with harness attachments are designed to be worn around the rib cage to avoid injury from a sudden stop at the harness point. They should be snug but not tight and leg straps can be left slightly loose as most models are easy to adjust in the water.

It is important to familiarize yourself with your inflatable life jacket as they are not as intuitive as the foam version. Some inflatables deploy automatically when in the water while others require the manual pull of a lanyard to deploy. If there is a failure with the CO2 deployment you need to know where the manual inflate tube is to blow into.

To familiarize yourself with your inflatable life jacket it makes sense to inflate annually with lung power (deploying the CO2 cartage puts more pressure on the seams and while it is good to do a few times for familiarization it is better not to annually). This will allow you to know what gear you have, where it is, and how the lifejacket fits. Make sure to leave it inflated for a bit to ensure there are no leaks. Check that your inflation system is still in working order and replace if necessary.

Most manufacturers have created easy to follow repacking instructions for their lifejackets so don’t let that scare you away!

The topic of lifejackets and personal floatation devices can be extensive and this is only a small bite of all the information and considerations to make. What is important to keep in mind is the value of wearing one and at the very least have a safe, ready-to-go vest or inflatable with you at all times!