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Inflatable Life Jackets—There When You Need Them

Comfortable to wear and easy to use and service, these personal flotation devices provide a big first step toward boating safety.

Inflatable PFD
Inflatable PFDs are lightweight, don’t get in the way when you move about and with proper maintenance, will be ready to go when needed. Mustang Survival

Given the wide variety of life jackets available to recreational mariners, it’s hard to come up with excuses for not wearing one when underway on the water. After all, any even modestly experienced skipper will tell you that the unexpected can and does happen. Should an accident occur and you find yourself suddenly in the water, the best personal flotation device is the one you wear—not one that’s been left on board in a locker because it’s uncomfortable. 

While foam sport vests are well-suited for dinghy sailors, water-skiers and people who want to remain agile in the water, they can feel bulky and be hot to wear on warm summer days. A popular alternative is an inflatable personal flotation device (PFD), and it’s easy to see why: It’s lightweight, doesn’t get in the way when you move about and, with proper maintenance, will be ready to go when needed.

According to the US Coast Guard’s most recent safety report, “2020 Recreational Boating Statistics”, when the cause of death was known, three-quarters of fatal-accident victims drowned, and the vast majority of them—86 percent—weren’t wearing a life jacket. Given those sobering numbers, one of the easiest ways to stack the odds in your favor is to find a comfortable life jacket, then put it on and keep it on until the anchor is down or you’re back at the dock.

Types of PFDs

inflatable PFD waist belt
One style of inflatable PFD is the waist belt – think a fanny pack, but worn in front to keep you face-up when inflated. Mustang Survival

Inflatable PFDs come in a number of styles, including waist belts (think a fanny pack, but worn in front to keep you face-up when inflated), and vests that can be manually or automatically inflated in seconds. Which is best? Well, that depends on how you plan to use the PFD.

vest style
The vest style of inflatable PFD can be manually or automatically inflated in seconds. West Marine

For sports such as paddleboarding that mostly take place close to shore, a waist pack could suffice. Most models are manually inflated by pulling a cord attached to a firing mechanism and a CO2cartridge. If you go in the drink, pull the cord, and the flotation bladder pops out and fills with air. One drawback with this sort of PFD is that many models require you to reposition them by putting them over your head once inflated; therefore, they’re not recommended for nonswimmers.

An inflatable life vest, on the other hand, will be ready to go once you put it on and adjust the straps so it fits snuggly. There are two types of US Coast Guard-approved vests. Type II inflatable PFDs provide at least 33 pounds of buoyancy and are suitable for most water conditions. Type III inflatable vests are intended for inshore waters with land nearby and provide at least 22.5 pounds of buoyancy. Our take: If you’re going to spend the money, go for a Type II because you can use it anywhere.

And speaking of using an inflatable vest anywhere, most countries and airlines allow them in checked and carry-on luggage. Plan to take your own PFD along on your next aquatic adventure!

How to Choose a PFD

When buying an inflatable PFD, you have several choices to make. We recommend you try on various models before you buy, if possible. Sailors tend to amass several, and some are more comfortable than others.

basic vest
A basic vest will be a horseshoe-shaped collar that you put over your head, with a back strap connected to a waist strap. Mustang Survival

A basic vest will be just that: a horseshoe-shaped collar that you put over your head, with a back strap connected to a waist strap, which in turn clips in front of you. For night sailing or offshore voyaging, opt for a vest that includes a built-in harness, which provides beefy webbing loops or metal D-rings to attach a tether to you and the boat. Again, for a few bucks more, you gain added versatility.

Having attended “Safety at Sea” sessions where we got to climb into a pool and actually inflate a vest, it’s easy to see the benefits of adding a leg strap to the device to keep it from riding up when inflated. Some models come with a leg strap, but aftermarket straps are also available.

leg strap
There are many benefits to adding a leg strap to the device to keep it from riding up when inflated. Mustang Survival

When it comes to how the vest gets inflated, you have options there too. If your main use will be sports where you’re apt to get wet a lot, a manually inflated device would be your best bet because you decide when to deploy it. These PFDs are equipped with a fill tube that allows you to inflate the vest by blowing air into it, and a pull cord that sets off a CO2 cartridge to inflate the vest. However, the disadvantage of this type of vest is also that you have to decide to inflate it, meaning it won’t work if you’re incapacitated.

Automatically inflated PFDs are another option; again, you’ll have a couple of choices to make when you shop. Some vests rely on an inflater that employs a water-sensitive chemical bobbin to trigger the CO2 firing mechanism. (A manual inflater cord and inflation tube are also included.) Should you go overboard, the bobbin quickly dissolves and the vest inflates. The downside is the bobbin can also dissolve in particularly wet conditions, such as heavy rain; once inflated, the vest will need to be rearmed.

The alternative is a vest that uses a hydrostatic inflation system that senses water pressure and automatically goes off when the sensor is in 4 inches of water. We prefer this type of vest, though they are a bit more expensive.

CO2 canisters
Make sure to check the expiration date of the CO2 canister and triggering mechanism inside of your PFD; most need to be replaced at five-year intervals. Mustang Survival

Maintaining Your PFD

Any inflatable PFD requires a bit of attention, and don’t be afraid to unzip the outer cover to have a look at the bladder and inflation mechanism inside. Most manufacturers recommend you use the inflation tube to inflate the vest before the start of each boating season. Leave the bladder inflated for at least 24 hours to be sure it doesn’t leak. Also, check the expiration date of the CO2 canister and triggering mechanism; most need to be replaced at five-year intervals. It also pays to have spare recharge kits aboard in case a vest gets inflated, either on purpose or accidentally. We’ve replaced the bobbins, CO2 cartridges and hydrostatic valves on several vests. Although the details vary according to brand, it’s a simple job, and most rearm kits come with clear instructions.

When armed and ready to go, you should see a green indicator through the clear window over the inflation mechanism. If it’s red, the CO2 canister and trigger need attention.

Other than that, an occasional rinse with fresh water and a cleaning with soap and water are all that are required to keep an inflatable vest in good working condition.

comfortable life jacket
Top tip: find a comfortable life jacket, then put it on and keep it on until the anchor is down or you’re back at the dock. West Marine

A couple of last pieces of advice: Get in the habit of checking to see if the inflater indicator is green every time you put on the vest. And if you go aboard a boat and are given a vest to use, be sure you understand how the PFD inflates. Again, be sure there’s a gas canister installed and ready to go. Then you’ll be ready too, should your boating adventure take an unexpected turn that lands you overboard.

Ready to buy a PFD? Head to your local West Marine or visit www.westmarine.com to start shopping and to find more useful advice on all things boating.

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