Find the best life jacket for you
The best life jacket is the one you’ll wear all the time. Using common sense while operating your boat safely includes wearing a personal flotation device before leaving the dock and asking everyone on board to do the same.
Annual studies of recreational boater fatalities consistently show marginal success for putting on a life jacket in an emergency. Conditions change too quickly. Even in calm conditions, it’s almost impossible to put one on in the water because of its buoyancy.
Life jacket requirements
Federal and state regulations require recreational boats to carry at least one wearable personal flotation devices for each person on board. Jackets should be readily accessible, of the proper type and size, and in serviceable condition.
Additionally, all boats over 16 feet long must carry an immediately accessible throwable flotation aid. (Some human-powered boats are exempted.)
Most states mandate wearing USCG-approved life jackets by water skiers, tubers, personal watercraft operators and riders, and when participating in similar high-speed water activity.
Selecting the proper jacket
Choose a life jacket approved by the U.S. Coast Guard for your intended type of boating. For example, life jackets for paddle boaters have large arm openings to facilitate paddling. Those for high-speed watersports require more straps and buckles with less bulk. These design features keep the jacket on if the boater falls into the water at high speeds.
All personal flotation devices should have a whistle and light attached. They should be made of high-visibility material to speed recovery operations. Open water jackets should have reflective tape to help with night recovery.
Try on your life jacket to see if it fits comfortably snug. Fasten all zippers, belts, and snaps. Pull up on the jacket shoulders to ensure that it doesn’t ride up and interfere with movement or breathing. Test it in shallow water to see how it handles.
Inspect your jacket before every outing. Check for rips or tears, intact seams and properly working fasteners. Adjust the fit, and label your jacket with your name for easy identification.
Other factors to consider
Most adults only need an extra 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to keep their heads above water. A life jacket provides that extra lift to keep you afloat until help arrives.
To check the buoyancy of your life jacket in the water, relax your body and let your head tilt back. Make sure your chin is above water and you can breathe easily. If your mouth isn’t well above the water, get a new one or one with more buoyancy.
Your weight isn’t the only factor in determining how much buoyancy you need. Body fat, lung size, clothing and whether the water is rough or calm all play a part.
Caring for your life jacket
Follow these pointers to keep your personal flotation device in good shape:
- Don’t alter your life jacket. If it doesn’t fit, get one that does. Play it safe. An altered personal flotation device may not save your life.
- Don’t put heavy objects on it or use it as a kneeling pad or boat fender. They lose buoyancy when crushed.
- Let it drip dry thoroughly before putting it away. Always stow it in a well-ventilated place.
- Don’t leave your life jacket on board for long periods when the boat is not in use.
- Never dry it on a radiator or any other direct heat source.
- Put your name on it if you’re the only wearer.
- Practice throwing your Type IV personal flotation device (a throwable buoyancy aid). Cushions throw best underhand.
(During these times, you should take extra precautions if you think your personal flotation device has been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. You can find those steps here.)
Checking your life jacket
Check your device for rips, tears, and holes. Ensure that seams are intact and that fabric straps and hardware work. Check for signs of waterlogging, an odor of mildew or shrinkage of the buoyant materials.
Users of inflatable life jackets should follow the manufacturer’s instructions for annual testing and pre-boating checks. Replace used or punctured carbon dioxide cylinders, and rearm.
If your jacket uses bags of kapok (a naturally buoyant material), gently squeeze the bag to check for air leaks. If it leaks it should be thrown away. When kapok gets wet, it can get stiff or waterlogged and can lose some of its buoyancy.
Don’t forget to test each device at the start of each season. Remember, the law says your personal flotation devices must be in good shape before you use your boat. Ones that aren’t serviceable should be cut up and thrown away.
To sum up, read the label on your life jacket to be sure it’s made for someone your weight and size. Test it. Then, in an emergency, don’t panic. Just relax, put your head back, and let your life jacket help you come out on top.
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