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Life Jackets 101

by Susan Granato, ABA Boating Safety and Environmental Liaison

In the fall of 2020, the US Coast Guard (USCG) reported 767 recreational boating deaths. Of these victims, 75% died by drowning and 86% of these recreational boaters were not wearing a life jacket. Therefore, the best decision you can make is to ensure that every one on board your boat has a life jacket and that these jackets are worn at all times. By regulation, all recreational boats must carry one wearable life jacket for each person aboard. In fact, the slogan for the 2021 North American Safe Boating Campaign is "Wear It", because this simple step could do the most to reduce boating fatalities. Each year you should inspect your life jackets to ensure that they meet current USCG standards, that they fit growing children (and adults), and that they are in good condition.

Purchasing a new life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) can be confusing because there are several flotation types, USCG classifications, and manufacturers. There are three types of flotation products: foam, inflatable and hybrid PFDs. Foam PFDs are considered the most reliable, are designed for swimmers and non-swimmers and USCG approved foam life jackets are available in adult, youth, child, and infant sizes. Inflatable PFDs are the most compact, are intended only for swimmers, and are only available in adult sizes. Inflatable life jackets use a cylinder of compressed carbon dioxide (CO2) gas to inflate a coated chamber. By pulling on a cord, the wearer causes the inflation system to drive a pin through the seal of the gas cylinder. The escaping CO2 is channeled into the chamber, which fills and expands out of its packed state. Hybrid PFDs are a combination of foam and inflation. The hybrids are considered reliable by the USCG, are designed for both swimmers and non-swimmers, and are commonly available in adult, youth, and child sizes.

The USCG has five types of approved PFDs, each of which may include foam, inflatable and hybrid flotation materials:

  • TYPE I PFD or Off-Shore Life Jacket provides the most buoyancy. It is effective for all waters, especially open, rough or remote waters where rescue may be delayed. It is designed to turn most unconscious wearers in the water to a face-up position.
  • TYPE II PFD or Near-Shore Buoyancy Vest is intended for calm, inland water or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. Inherent buoyant PFDs of this type will turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water, but the turning is not as pronounced as a Type I. 
  • TYPE III PFD or Flotation Aid is good for conscious users in calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. It is designed so wearers can place themselves in a face-up position in the water. The wearer may have to tilt their head back to avoid turning facedown in the water. The Type III foam vest has the same minimum buoyancy as a Type II PFD. It comes in many styles, colors, and sizes and is generally the most comfortable type for continuous wear.
  • TYPE IV PFD or Throwable Device is intended for calm, inland water with heavy boat traffic, where help is always present. It is designed to be thrown to a person in the water and grasped and held by the user until rescued; it is not designed to be worn. Type IV devices include buoyant cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys. This type of flotation device should be used in adjunct with a wearable life jacket.
  • TYPE V PFD or Special Use Device is intended for specific activities and should only be used according to the approval condition(s) on its label.

Once an appropriate floatation device is selected each user should test it in shallow water or a guarded swimming pool. Testing the PFD will ensure the proper fit (especially for children who may drown in an improperly sized or adjusted PFD). 

Remember, you are responsible for the safety of your passengers and for complying with the life vest regulation. As part of your pre-launch checklist, always check the number and condition of your life jackets. For more boating safety information, visit ABA's Boating Safety section at www.americanboating.org.

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