Both the RNLI and the RYA are constantly at pains to urge UK boaters to wear their lifejackets whenever they set foot on their boats. It is friendly advice, tactfully delivered, as you would expect of a nation in which personal responsibility is favoured over Draconian legislation. And yet, for some reason, a lot of people persist in ignoring the advice - sometimes by failing to purchase jackets but more often (rather inexplicably) by failing to wear or maintain them. What follows therefore is a brief outline of the basics, so you can equip yourself with the right jacket for your boating lifestyle - and hopefully use it in the way it was intended.
Personal Flotation Devices: the two basic types
Personal Flotation Devices (or PFDs) come in two basic guises - buoyancy aids and lifejackets. A buoyancy aid is a simple, vest-style jacket with a minimum buoyancy of 50 Newtons. It will not turn an unconcsious person the right way up or keep their airways clear of the surface, but what it will do is add some impact protection and make it much easier for a person to float. They are frequently very contoured and stylish and are ideally suited to active watersports where being in the water is a commonplace occurrence.
A lifejacket is a much more complex piece of equipment because it has a more complex job to do. With a minimum UK buoyancy rating of 150 Newtons, it is designed to keep a clothed boater afloat with their face elevated and their position clearly visible, enabling a Man Over Board to wait in relative comfort and security until rescue arrives.
Understanding the standards
Regardless of which type of flotation device best suits your boating needs, its capacity to keep you afloat is measured in Newtons (N). Ten Newtons is equivalent to one kilogram of flotation, so a higher Newton rating denotes greater buoyancy, while a lower Newton rating denotes less buoyancy. Obviously, the jacket you pick should take account both of your weight and the type of boating you tend to do, but to make it easier, there are some fairly transparent guidelines laid down according to specific European Standards. For lifejackets, these are split into four CE categories: 50N, 100N, 150N and 275N - and you should never buy a flotation device that lacks the appropriate CE Mark.
(1) Level 50 (Standards EN 393 or ISO 12402-5)
Intended for use by competent swimmers in sheltered waters when help is close at hand. Be aware that they will not float you face up if unconscious.
(2) Level 100 (Standards EN 395 or ISO 12402-4)
Intended for those who may have to wait for rescue, but are likely to do so in sheltered or calm waters. It may not have sufficient buoyancy to protect someone who is unable to help himself and it may not roll an unconscious person onto his back, particularly in heavy clothing.
(3) Level 150 (Standards EN 396 or ISO 12402-3)
Intended for general offshore and rough weather use where a high standard of performance is required. It will turn an unconscious person into a safe position and requires no subsequent action by the user to maintain this position.
(4) Level 275 (Standards EN 399 or ISO 12402-2)
Recommended for offshore use and for those wearing heavy protective clothing that may adversely affect the self-righting capacity of other lifejackets. It is designed to ensure that the wearer is floating in the correct position with his or her mouth and nose clear of the water.
The fundamental features
The issue of automatic versus manual inflation generates plenty of debate. Both forms use a CO2 canister to inflate the bladder, but the one activates automatically when water ingress triggers inflation, while the other requires the wearer to manually pull a toggle to fire a pin and trigger the jacket’s response.
If you can afford it, however, the benefits of the automatic lifejacket are far too compelling to ignore. The key feature is that if you're knocked unconscious when you hit the water, you will remain buoyant and upright - and this is particularly important given how much people can struggle to operate a manual device when shocked by ejection from a fast boat into cold water.
What is equally obvious is the value of a well-constructed crotch strap. It runs between your legs to prevent the lifejacket riding up your body in the event of inflation. This ensures that your head remains elevated in precisely the position intended by the designers.
Also, if you are in the water for any length of time, you will get weary and at that point, you will be swung round so that you are facing into the waves. Breathing can then become very difficult, particularly if it is windy or choppy, so if you can afford the extra outlay, get a jacket with a spray hood. This great little device is an excellent way to keep choking water away from your face and make things much more comfortable.
As regards the rest of the features, look for bright colours, reflective strips, a whistle and strong metal clasps. There should be plenty of adjustability in the straps too, so you can match it to your body shape - and with such variety and style in the modern lifejacket market, you shouldn’t struggle to find one you like. In fact, there are even now jackets with interchangeable covers, so you can tailor it to the rest of your boating gear. See iZip for a few examples of what can be done.
Top lifejacket buying tips
- Work out whether your activities require a lifejacket or a buoyancy aid.
- Check the buoyancy level of the lifejacket and look for the appropriate CE Mark.
- For fast, open powerboating, try to get an automatically inflating jacket with a crotch strap.
- Make sure your jacket comes with a whistle and reflective strips to help attract attention, plus ideally an automatic strobe light to help pinpoint your position for a rescuer.
- What about the refills? You might not deploy a jacket very often but when you do, the CO2 canister will need replacing, so find out how much the branded replacements for your chosen jacket are likely to cost.
- If you want to go the extra mile, look at getting a small pouch of waterproof flares to help your rescuers locate you efficiently.
- If you can afford it, get a jacket with a spray hood.
- Find out what the rest of your family will be happy to wear, so it there are never any issues over using them.
- Don’t forget your pets. There are now floats, boarding ladders and lifejackets in various sizes to fit just about any kind of dog. Look for adjustability, a lifting handle and bold, reflective tape. See our piece on pet lifejackets..
- Try to buy a lifejacket or a buoyancy aid from a good old-fashioned high street shop. That way, you can try it on and make sure it feels right and fits securely in all respects.
Lifejackets are not what they once were. They are now compact, lightweight, stylish and extremely efficient, so there is no excuse not to invest. Get your family kitted out and then do your best to engender a culture of responsibility, where everyone takes pains to understand their lifejacket and to wear it as a matter of course.