Just 22 percent.
That’s how many American recreational boaters report using life jackets regularly, according to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Coast Guard. The likely reason? Many boating enthusiasts consider life jackets burdensome impediments to swimming, paddling and getting an even tan.
“We’ve heard all the excuses,” said Ted Sensenbrenner, assistant director of boating safety programs at the BoatUS Foundation. “Some people say they’re excellent swimmers, or that wearing a life jacket hinders their movement. A lot say they just don’t think it looks good to be seen in a bright orange horse collar.”
But skipping a life jacket isn’t just unwise from a safety standpoint (it’s been amply proven that they save lives) or a legal view (many states require that boaters wear one, not just carry it aboard). It’s also outdated—because in addition to being far more reliable than bulky life jackets of yore (the first ones appeared in the mid-1800s), today’s life jackets look pretty cool, too.
How to Choose
Currently, life jackets approved by the U.S. Coast Guard are categorized as either throwable (life rings, for example) or wearable—these can range from basic foam vests to heavy-duty survival options used on deep-sea fishing vessels. Older jackets are rated as class I through V, so read the jacket label to determine suitability for your activity. Here are some guidelines:
- Calm-water kayak and canoe paddlers usually choose foam vests to allow for a range of arm movement. They can also take advantage of today’s slim, manually inflatable choices. These compact, suspender-style vests stay flat and trim against your body until you pull a ripcord to inflate them.
- Day sailors and motorboaters can opt for inflatable models but may prefer those that auto-inflate once they hit the water. These styles allow for buoyancy even if the wearer takes a sudden plunge and isn’t able to trigger the inflation mechanism by hand.
- Water-skiers, wakeboarders, and whitewater kayakers and rafters must wear inherently buoyant foam vests, which provide lightweight but protective padding. (These designs are also the right choice for children and anyone uncomfortable in the water, regardless of activity type.)
How to Fit Foam Life Jackets
Modern life jackets are easier than ever to fit properly. All the manufacturers now offer detailed measurement charts for sizing—but you should still test yours out before using it.
- In calm, standing-depth water, try your life jacket on and adjust the straps or belts so they’re snug.
- Try lifting your arms straight over your head; your life jacket should allow you to do this easily without gapping at the armholes.
- Try floating upright while tilting your face back; your life jacket should keep your head above water without riding up around your chin.
How to Maintain Foam Life Jackets
A few easy steps every season can help prolong the life of your life jacket.
- Make sure your life jacket is thoroughly dry before storing it (try to store it in a well-ventilated space—not a crammed locker).
- Avoid sitting on your life jacket or stowing heavy gear on top of it (crushing a life jacket can compromise its buoyancy).
- Check your life jacket for rips, frayed straps or belts that don’t fasten properly. Do the shallow-water test once more to check its buoyancy.
With proper care, a good life jacket will be able to take care of you—and let you spend more time out on the water, doing what you love.
Life jackets protect you—but to protect your boat, make sure you’re covered with boat insurance. Get a fast, free quote today.
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