Life jacket design has come a long way from the bulky, ugly,
orange life jacket of the past, extra-large armholes, shaped fit,
flexible panels, pockets, inflatables and more comfortable materials -
make today’s life jackets so much easier to wear and many come with a
built in harness.
If you are the skipper, establish rules on board your boat
defining when life jackets are to be worn and lead by example.
And as skipper think seriously about how your crew would cope
if you were to go overboard, it can happen to any of us.
Children should always wear them, your child is far too
precious to take chances with.
How to Choose
It is worth giving some thought to what
kind of life
jacket is best for
you, your family/crew and the kind of boating you do.
There are laws, regulations and recommends and there are PFDs to suit
every occasion, unfortunately many of us encounter several of these
occasions in the course of our normal boating activities.
Few of us will have several PFDs, one for every occasion and even if we
did, remember to wear the appropriate one for each situation.
Unfortunately there isn’t one type of lifejacket that will fit every
situation for everyone.
So, there are some hard choices to make.
A PFD that inflates automatically when submerged is perfect for a small
child or someone who is unconscious but most people find it difficult
to swim in an inflated lifejacket and very difficult to clamber aboard
a boat while it is inflated.
Most lifejackets are designed to keep you face upward with your head
clear of waves and keep you afloat until rescue comes.
However, if you are conscious, and a reasonably good swimmer, you can
partially deflate the lifejacket so that you can turn onto your stomach
and use your arms to swim, after a fashion.
But don’t forget that if the water is cold hypothermia will very
quickly start affecting your control of your fingers, arms and legs.
of Inflation Mechanisms
Manually inflated lifejackets are operated
by pulling a string, which
pushes a firing pin into the CO2 canister, inflating the
Automatic and hydrostatic lifejackets both have a manual pull string as
Automatically inflated lifejackets rely on a small pellet or bobbin,
which holds back a powerful spring.
When the pellet makes contact with water it dissolves very rapidly,
releasing the spring, which pushes a firing pin into the gas canister.
Hydrostatic or ‘Hammar’ action lifejackets work the same way, but the
pellet is protected by a case that only lets water in once it is a few
centimetres below the surface, it won’t fire until fully submerged.
PFDs for Children
Infants and small children are hard to keep floating in a face-up
position, and sometimes protest when wearing a PFD.
As kids get older and more water-savvy they become right at home
onboard, because there are many choices for well-fitting PFDs that
provide stability and buoyancy.
Anyone who has had to pull a child out of the water will appreciate
behind-the-head flotation collars with a grab strap, which should be
standard, along with crotch straps, on vests for smaller kids.
It is a good idea to test the life jacket on your child in a safe
environment, such as a pool to familiarize yourself and your child with
the PFD’s characteristics.
PFDs for Adults
Type 1, Offshore Life Jackets
These vests are geared for rough, open or remote waters
may take a while.
They have the most buoyancy, a bright colour and can turn most
unconscious people face up in the water.
Today’s inflatable life jackets with integrated harnesses provide a
high level of safety with one single product.
Offshore PFDs are now available with Hammar hydrostatic inflators, so
they won’t suddenly inflate due to spray, rain or humidity.
Type 2, Near-shore Vests
This type is recommended for powerboats or sailboats in
calm, warm water, where comfort and freedom of movement are important.
The choices are many, since this is the most popular type of boating,
but demands are not very rigorous.
Owners of small powerboats often choose belted vests, which can be
adjusted for a comfortable fit depending on the conditions, while
sailors will select a more flexible vest or an inflatable.
Small boat sailing requires freedom of movement and flexibility, yet a
good PFD has to fit snugly and hug the upper body.
A good, snug fit is important to prevent the vest to "riding up" when
in the water.
For anglers there are ‘fishing vests’ which have pockets that can hold
lure boxes, and other fishing tools.
Type 3, Flotation Aids
These offer freedom of movement and the most comfort for
wear but are only suitable for situations where a quick rescue is
certain and the wearer remains concious.
Type 4, Throwable Devices
Cushions or ring buoys are designed to be thrown to
someone in trouble
and provide backup to a PFD.
They are not for nonswimmers, rough waters or the unconscious.
Sizes can vary by PFD brand and model, so
check to find the right size
Children’s sizes are usually based on their weight.
Adult’s sizes are based on chest size.
Women's PFDs may offer a better fit thanks to princess seams, contoured
A PFD should be snug and fit like a glove, yet allow you to move freely
and not chafe while paddling and playing.
Loosen all the straps and then put the PFD on.
Start at the waist and tighten all the straps.
If it has shoulder straps, tighten them last.
It should feel snug but not uncomfortable.
Next, have someone pull up on the PFD shoulders, if it
moves up past your nose or head, try tightening the straps, if it still
moves up, the PFD is too large.
Check your movements to make sure it is comfortable and
will not chafe.
If possible, test your PFD in a pool or shallow water to
see how it works, it should not ride up or slip over your chin while
I am perfectly aware that the majority of Wooden Boat aficionados are sensible folk. However, I need to point out that I am an amateur wooden boat enthusiast simply writing in order to try to help other amateur wooden boat enthusiasts. And while I take every care to ensure that the information in DIY Wood Boat.com is correct, anyone acting on the information on this website does so at their own risk.