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Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that approximately 70% of all fatal boating accident deaths are caused by drowning. Of those who drowned, approximately 90% were not wearing their personal flotation device (PFD), also called a life jacket. The U.S. Coast Guard issues citations and fines to boat operators who are found to be carrying improper PFDs for the number and types of passengers on board.

Every boat on the water must have at least one wearable, U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD per person. Wearable PFDs come in four types -- Type I, II, III, and V -- and are described below in Types of PFDs. All boats 16 feet or longer (except canoes and kayaks) must also carry one throwable PFD (Type IV, described below). Type IV PFDs should not be worn.

The safest PFD is the one you are actually wearing. In fact, your state may have laws requiring you to wear a PFD in certain situations. Refer to Chapter 7 to read these laws for your state. If you use your boat in another state, you must know the rules in that state, too.

Some PFDs are inherently buoyant (with foam panels). Others are inflatable and come with CO2 inflation cartridges. Some PFDs are designed for specific activities such as canoeing and kayaking, water skiing, and fishing. You can buy PFDs with hypothermia protection if you will be boating in cold waters.

Who Should Wear a PFD

No matter what types of PFDs you have on your boat, you should encourage everyone to wear one. Capsizing and falls overboard account for over half of all boating fatalities. And it is very difficult to put on a PFD once you are already in the water and in distress.

If you see any danger signs, such as deteriorating weather conditions, hazardous water conditions, high boat traffic, long distance from the shore, nightfall, or inebriation among your passengers, ask everyone to put on their PFD. Children should always wear their PFDs.

The U.S. Coast Guard and many states require wearing PFDs for water skiing and while using a PWC. Check your state boating safety requirements.

Types of PFDs

PFDs are classified as one of five types, according to their intended use.

Type I
Type I PFDs are recommended for all water, including rough, open water, and is found aboard ships at sea where rescue might take a longer time. Its purpose is to turn unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water. Type I PFDs have a minimum buoyancy of 22 lb for adults and 11 lb for children.

Type II
Type II PFDs are designed for use near shore, where the chances of a quick rescue are likely. Its standard "horse collar" fits around your neck and will turn most but not all unconscious wearers to a face-up position. Type II PFDs have a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 lb for adults and 11 lb for children.

Type III
Type III PFDs are designed for inland water where rescue will be quick. These vests require the wearers to place themselves in a face-up position in the water; they will not turn most unconscious wearers face-up. The slim size and large armholes offer the most freedom of movement for activities such as water skiing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and others. Jackets in this category range from vests and pullovers to a combination of the two. Type III PFDs have a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 lb for adults and 11 lb for children.

Type IV
Type IV PFDs are buoyant cushions and rings that can be thrown to a swimmer. They are intended for use in all water bodies with a lot of boat traffic where help is always available. Type IV PFDs should not be worn. These PFDs are not U.S. Coast Guard-approved for canoe and kayak use.

Type V / Special Use
Type V PFDs are designed for specific activities and/or conditions such as sailing, water-skiing, personal watercraft, and paddling. They must be worn according to the instructions and limits for use included on their label.

Inflatable PFDs

Some people prefer wearing inflatable PFDs because they are more comfortable. They are lightweight, provide more buoyancy, and are cooler when worn in hot weather. However, they are not recommended for people who cannot swim or for use in active watersports (skiing, wakeboarding, tubing, or PWC).

Inflatable PFDs contain a CO2 cartridge that inflates the vest. Combination PFDs that can be both manually and automatically inflated either inflate by pulling a ripcord or inflate automatically when you hit the water. Manual PFDs will only inflate when you pull the ripcord.

Most inflatable PFDs come with a second CO2cartridge and cap so that if you accidentally inflate your vest, you can re-arm it right away. If you re-arm your vest with the spare cartridge, you will only be able to inflate it manually by pulling the ripcord.

It's a good idea to have a complete re-arming kit onboard your boat for each inflatable PFD. The complete kit will re-arm your vest so it will work both manually and automatically.

Inflatable PFDs come with an oral inflation tube so that if you are in the water and your vest loses buoyancy, you can keep it inflated.

If you decide to use an inflatable PFD instead of a non-inflatable PFD, you need to remember these things:

  • You must be wearing the inflatable PFD at all times while on your boat.
  • You must be at least 16 years old.
  • You must inspect your inflatable PFD to be sure it has a full cylinder and that all status indicators on the inflator are green.

If you do not meet all the above requirements, an inflatable PFD will not satisfy the U.S. Coast Guard's requirement for carrying PFDs.

PFD Labeling

Take note that the U.S. Coast Guard and the PFD community are working to revise PFD classification and labeling. Take some time to carefully read the label on any PFD to ensure that it is designed for the purpose and individuals for which you have intended.


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