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The ABC's of PFD's (Personal Flotation Devices or Life Jackets)

Simply put, all persons on a vessel should have a USCG PFD they can wear for themselves. The law requires that you have one type I, II or III (or V) PFD per person on board. Make sure that you have enough.

Remember, PFDs will keep you from sinking, but not necessarily from drowning. Take the time to select a properly sized PFD to ensure a safe fit. Testing your PFD in shallow water or a guarded swimming pool is a good and reassuring practice.

Types Of PFDs

Tips on PFDs


Though not required by law, it is advisable to wear a PFD at all times when underway. A point often overlooked is the great danger present in using small dinghies away from the large boat. Small boats are inherently less stable and seaworthy than larger ones. PFDs are required on board all vessels large and small. There are some federal and state exemptions for racing kayaks, wind surfers, and other special circumstances.

When applicable, it is important to buy PFDs that are specifically designed for small children. Most adult-sized flotation devices do not fit a smaller person or child properly and, in fact, may cause the person wearing one to float in a dangerous position. If the PFD is not sized for a child it can be unsafe and possibly illegal. Some states require that PFDs be worn by children of specific ages under certain conditions. Check with your state boating safety officials.

PFD Requirements

To meet USCG Vessel requirements, PFDs must be US Coast Guard approved and in "good and serviceable" condition. They should be the appropriate size for each person wearing them, must be readily accessible, and must be removed from any plastic or other wrapping. Obviously, they should not be stored in locked or remote lockers. Other gear should not be stored on top of PFDs. All throwable devices must be instantly available. Boats less than 16 feet in length (including canoes and kayaks of any length) must carry at least one Type I, II, III, or V PFD for each person on board.

Boats longer than 16 feet must carry at least one Type I, II, III, or V PFD for each person on board. In addition, at least one Type IV (throwable device) must be carried. This is important, you may not use a Type IV "flotation cushion' as your sole PFD in your small rowboat or sailing dingy. Note: If a Type V device is used to count toward requirements, it must be worn. Federal regulations require PFDs on canoes and kayaks of any size; they are not required on racing shells, rowing skulls, or racing kayaks. State laws may vary. Water-skiers are considered to be aboard the vessel and PFDs are required for them. It is advisable for skiers to wear PFDs that are designed to withstand the potential impact of a fall at high speed. State laws may differ and be more strict. Some States require skiers to wear a PFD; IN ALL CASES, please contact your local USCG office and State Law Enforcement for clarification for the laws regarding PFDs where you are boating.

Type I PFDs are designed as offshore life jackets. They provide more buoyancy than other types and are designed to turn most unconscious wearers in the water to a face-up position. Type I jackets come in sizes for adults and children. The smaller jackets provide a minimum of 11 pounds of buoyancy; the larger jackets provide at least 22 pounds of buoyancy.

Type II PFDs are designed as near-shore life jackets and, although they will turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water, the turning action is not as pronounced as with Type I PFDs. Adult sizes provide at least 15.5 pounds of buoyancy; medium children's sizes provide about 11 pounds. Small children's sizes provide at least 7 pounds of buoyancy.

Type III PFDs are to be used in near-shore waters when there is a good chance of a quick rescue. Wearers will usually have to turn themselves face-up in the water and may have to lean back to avoid turning face-down. Type IIIs have the same minimum buoyancy as Type IIs and come in many types and styles. They are often designed with fashion in mind, as well as safety. Float coats and vest styles can often be worn to provide extra warmth in addition to safety.

Type IV PFDs are throwable devices intended for use in near-shore waters. They are not designed to be worn in the water. The most common type is the popular flotation cushion, which is often used in dinghies and small craft. Horseshoe buoys, another Type IV PFD, are often found on the stern pulpits of offshore boats. Finally, Life Rings are carried aboard commercial vessels. These devices often remain in the sun for long periods and should be inspected frequently for wear, with special attention to the rope/web attachment points. Note that Type IV PFDs no longer fulfill the personal PFD requirement for vessels under 16'.

Type V PFDs are special-use devices designed for particular water activities. They may be carried instead of another PFD only if used according to the approval condition on that label; often stipulating that they be worn. These devices include deck suits, work vests, board sailing vests, and hybrid PFDs. With air inflatable PFDs the primary motivator for design is to encourage wearability. Buoyancy of type V inflatables varies from under 30 to over 40 pounds. To be rated as "for use as" a Type I or II, they need to have a minimum of 34 pounds buoyancy from the inflation cartridge and for a Type III, 22.5 pounds buoyancy from the inflation cartridge. Read more information on inflatable PFDs.

HYBRID PFDs are the least bulky of all when compared to conventional type I/II/III foam PFDs. They incorporate both inherent buoyancy and inflatable chambers to provide additional buoyancy. Their performance is equal to a Type I, II, or III PFD (as noted on the PFD label) when inflated. Hybrid PFDs must be worn when underway to be acceptable.
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