The Life Jackets You Need Onboard Your Boat
As the water starts to warm up, you may find yourself eager to get back out on the water. It is finally time to start planning your boating excursions for the year. Our team of boating enthusiasts at Rocket Marine wants everyone to be safe while enjoying a fantastic summer out on their boats. Drowning is the biggest cause of visitor deaths in national parks every year. Tragically, the majority of these deaths are preventable. Boaters often feel they are strong swimmers, so a life jacket is optional. The water found in lakes, streams, rivers, and the ocean differs significantly from that in a pool. The water is often cold, running hazardous currents that can quickly carry you away, and full of hidden underwater hazards, such as submerged trees and sudden drop-offs. Even strong swimmers have found themselves needing rescue or at risk of drowning because they have become overpowered by the strength of the water. Wearing a life jacket can and does save lives!
That’s why we are eager to share the five different types of life preservers you need to know about and the importance of life jacket safety!
Summary: Your Life Jacket Must:
- Have U.S. Coast Guard approval (check the label)
- Be in good, ready-to-wear, working condition. It is important to check the wear and buoyancy of your life jacket annually.
- Be the correct type of life jacket for your activity and the right size.
- Stowed adequately on board. Ideally, you should wear your life jacket at all times!
Who Should Wear A Life Jacket?
Life jackets are a requirement for boating. Federal law requires that every person aboard your ship have a USCG-approved wearable life jacket for each person aboard your vessel. In addition, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) requires everyone on a boat or other qualifying vessel (kayak, canoe) to wear a USCG-approved life jacket whenever they are onboard. You need at least one USCG-approved life jacket for every passenger aboard. Most states legally require children under the age of 13 to always wear a life jacket when on a boat. In our sunny Florida state, children under 6 must, by law, wear a life jacket whenever they are on a boat.
While it is only legally required for children to wear life jackets when aboard a boat, we recommend that everyone wear a personal flotation device at all times when near, on, or in the water. This includes when fishing, swimming, boating, or other water-related activities. Unfortunately, we often find boaters who believe they will have time to put their life jacket on when/if they encounter a water hazard. However, the reality is that accidents happen quickly, and many people do not have time to put on their life jackets before they slip or fall off the boat. So don’t take the chance!
We know most people will not wear their life jackets at all times. So we also recommend, at the minimum, you wear your life jacket during dangerous conditions. Please wear your life jacket during the following situations:
- Dangerous water conditions, such as cold or rough water.
- Extreme weather, like a storm or strong winds.
- Areas with a lot of boat traffic or dangerous local hazards
- When boating at night or in foggy weather with low visibility
- Boating at high speeds
- When waterskiing, tubing, wakeboarding, or other watersport activities
Remember, conditions often change in the blink of an eye when out on the water, and putting on your life jacket takes time – even if it is close at hand! Putting a life jacket on is infinitely more challenging when you are already in the water.
Life Jacket Material Types
It is important to have the right life jacket for your needs. There are three basic kinds of life jacket material types to choose from depending on your boating activities. We will briefly discuss each type of life jacket and the ideal use for each one.
1. Inherently Buoyant (Primarily Foam)
This type of life jacket is low-maintenance and very comfortable. They are also highly reliable and come in various wearable and throwable fashions. Ideal for swimmers and non-swimmers, this life jacket comes in all sizes, including infant, youth, child, and adult.
Inflatable life jackets are comfortable to wear and very lightweight. However, they are only available for adults. If you are a poor swimmer, there are better options than an inflatable life jacket!
3. Hybrid (Foam and Inflation)
These life jackets come in adult, youth, child, and infant sizes. They are ideal for swimmers and non-swimmers, and some manufacturers make them for water sports.
Photo courtesy of DiscoverBoating.com.
Life Jacket Types
Life jackets come in several different types! You should ideally choose the life jacket that best matches your activity or boating conditions.
Type I Life jackets
Type I life jackets offer the greatest buoyancy (over 20 pounds). Designed primarily for offshore use, they are very bulky! While they are hard to move in and uncomfortable, they can turn an unconscious person face up in the water, giving them a distinct advantage!
Type II Life Jackets
Type II jackets will also turn an unconscious person face up in the water. They offer a minimum of 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. An excellent choice for nearshore boating excursions, they are an inexpensive choice. While they are not very fashionable, they are simply made and do their job well, satisfying U.S. Coast Guard safety requirements.
Type III Life Jackets
Type III jackets also provide 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. People often refer to them as “ski vests” because their comfortable, form-fitting style makes them an excellent choice for watersports and general use. They usually feature a front entry and buckle or buckle-and-zipper closure. This type of jacket is only designed if you are conscious and rescue is imminent. This type of jacket will not save someone face down in the water as it won’t flip an unconscious person face up.
Type IV Life Jackets
Type IV personal flotation devices are usually “throwable” life jacket devices and are usually in the shape of a ring or flat cushion. You can throw the ring at the person if they unexpectedly go overboard. Type IV PFDs are for holding onto, not wearing. They offer a minimum of 16.5 pounds of buoyancy. Never use a designated throwable as a seat cushion. Eventually, it will degrade the foam and reduce its flotation ability.
Type V Life Jackets
Type V jackets are special-use life jackets, often combined into flotation coats, whitewater rafting vests, and sailboard harnesses. You should only use them for their intended purpose.
What Life Jacket Type Is Right For You
The best life jacket type for you largely depends on what type of boating you will do. Below we discuss several common water-based activities and what life jackets we recommend to enjoy each safely!
Powerboats and sailboats that operate in relatively warm, calm water should always have life jackets that provide comfort and freedom of movement. We recommend a belted or day sailing vest or an inshore inflatable that falls under the Type III classification. You could also opt for a Type II life jacket, but this type is bulker and restricts movement. If you want to spend many long, warm days on the water, we recommend opting for the more comfortable Type III type.
Activities where you are at a high risk of repeatedly hitting the water at high speed, require a life jacket that remains intact and securely attached to your body at all times. For example, activities like wakeboarding, tubing, and riding on a personal watercraft at a higher speed (like a jetski). Belted vests with three to four strong belts encircling your torso are the best choice because they won’t come off easily. Vests specifically marked “watersports” and are easily adjustable for a snug fit are your best bet. Type III life jackets usually meet these requirements.
Sailing small boats requires life jackets that snuggly fit your body and maximum freedom of movement. The ideal style has a zippered closure and soft, pliable foam. In addition, you want large armholes to offer additional freedom of movement. However, a snug fit is very important because you don’t want the vest to ride up when in the water. Day sailing vests are excellent for various boating styles, except high-speed water sports.
Fishing vests have built-in pockets to easily carry your favorite leaders, lures, and other gear. Fishers working off of high-speed bass boats will need life jackets designed to survive high-speed impacts. Therefore, we recommend two different types of vests for anglers. First, look for vests with pockets that hold lures, fishing tools, and snacks and have wide encircling belts. Also, look for styles similar to watersport life jackets that you can snuggly adjust for a secure fit, ensuring the vest stays put in a high-speed water entry.
Offshore vests provide lots of freedom of movement and buoyancy and have a safety harness that you can tether onto boat lines to help you stay connected to the boat. In the past, offshore sailors would opt for a life jacket and a safety harness. Today, life jackets have integrated these features to provide a high level of safety in one single life jacket with a built-in harness. In addition, offshore life jackets have a special feature that requires complete submersion before inflating. As a result, they will not inflate due to rain, humidity, or spray. All models in the offshore sailing category have similar buoyancy (35 pounds) and a harness.
We highly recommend that offshore powerboats have at least one or two of these vests aboard. You never know when the situation will call for you to venture out onto a slippery deck during rough conditions.
Offshore power boating requires a high buoyancy life jacket specially made for rough waters. The chances of going overboard are lower on a trawler with an enclosed pilothouse. However, the crew should still wear high-buoyancy life jackets every time they are on deck. It can take longer to rescue a crewmember in these situations because the water is often colder and rougher.
Kayakers, canoeists, and paddle boarders all need life jackets that combine freedom of movement with protection and safety. Several life jackets work well for this niche market. Many feature large arm holes for freedom of movement. Kayakers sometimes opt for vests that have high-cut waists, so they don’t interfere with a spray skirt.
A commercial vessel must legally have a specific type of life jacket onboard at all times. There is a range of Type I life jackets that fit this requirement. However, we don’t recommend Type I life vests for recreational boating because they are very bulky and not practical for everyday boating activities. However, if you operate a commercial fishing boat, you need to legally have Type I vests onboard at all times!
Does Your Life Jacket Fit Properly?
Once you choose the proper type of life jacket for your activity, ensure it is in perfect working condition – no holes or tears. Finally, make sure it fits properly. You want a life jacket that is not too large that it can slip off in the water or too small and may not provide sufficient buoyancy to keep you afloat. Here are a few tips to follow when choosing your life jacket fit:
- Look at the manufacturer’s label and details concerning the ideal size and weight for that type of jacket.
- Once you have the proper size jacket, put it on, fasten the closures (zippers, buckles, etc.) and lift your arms high up straight over your head.
- See if a friend can grab the top of the life jacket above your arm openings and pull it upward.
- Ideally, your jacket should not rise any higher than your chin. If it rides up to your ears, it is too large and could slip off in the water.
- Never overlook the crotch strap on life jackets for small children. The crotch strap runs between the legs from the back of the personal flotation device to the front. It ensures the jacket will not ride over the child’s head.
Remember To Wear It!
Please remember your life jacket as you prepare for your summer boating adventures! We want to encourage and remind everyone to have a safe, fun boating season. Our team at Rocket Marine loves the water, and a big part of loving the water is being safe. That’s why we specialize in educating our customers about boating safety and building top-quality boating trailers so you and your family can get to and from the water! Contact us today if you have any boat trailer maintenance needs!