What is a sailing life jacket?
A sailing life jacket is one you will wear when actively sailing. Forget about the big orange offshore vests and the cheap ones sold by the half dozen in a plastic zipper storage bag. Neither of these are designed to be worn consistently each time you go out sailing. What we are talking about is a foam filled vest that is comfortable and happily worn every time you go sailing. In these vests you can swim easily in the water with again and again, unlike inflatable vests that would need constant rearming.
Average adults require about 11 pounds of flotation to keep them above the surface of the water. For our purposes, sailing life jackets are USCG approved Type III and provide at least 15.5 pounds of flotation. This type of life jacket or PFD (Personal Flotation Device), is designed to aid a conscious swimmer in the water either swim to shore, self-rescue or wait for nearby assistance.
Advantages of a sailing life jacket:
- Various straps and adjustments for improved custom fit
- Form fitting thicknesses and shaped foam that better conforms to your chest and back
- Designed to maximize freedom of movement of the arms and at the waist
- Easy entry with front or side zippers
- Use of stretch panels made of soft neoprene
- Nonrestrictive when swimming
- Contoured shapes making reentering a boat easier, or less obstructed.
For adults, chest size, not your weight, will determine your life jacket size. For children, body weight is the determining factor. Refer to the vendor’s sizing chart when choosing a size.
A sailing life jacket should fit snug and hug your body. The more straps and adjustments it has the better fit you can achieve. The cuts of foam, and their placement around the vest need to be comfortable too. Some life vests distribute thinner foam more evenly around your entire chest and back, while others concentrate thicker foam more towards the bottom to free the upper chest.
There are two types of ‘inherently buoyant materials’ used in life jackets. The most popular is closed cell foam and in its many forms can be stiff in less expensive life jackets to softer and more flexible foams used in higher quality PFDs. For comfort and ease of movement, always chose a life vest with softer foam. Kapok (a natural material from tropical trees that is also used in mattresses and insulation) is the other material, it is very soft and flexible (think down pillow) and makes your life jacket more comfortable and flexible. Kapok is only found in a few higher end life jackets.
Women’s Life Jackets
Ladies should consider vests that are women-specific over unisex vests. These are more form fitting, contoured for larger bust lines, and designed and styled for longer torsos.
Checking the Fit
Once you have selected your size, you will want to check that is fits properly (preferably with your sailing gear on).
- Loosen all of the straps on the PFD, put the vest on, and zip it up
- Starting at the waist and moving up, tighten all of the straps. If it has shoulder straps adjust them last. You want to achieve a snug fit throughout, but with no discomfort.
- With your arms above your head, have someone stand behind you and pull the life vest up from the shoulders. If it slides up and pushes your chin up, readjust it. If this continues to happen, it is either too big, or not a good design for your body type (try another life jacket type).
- Go through the motions of sailing including sitting and bending forward. You do not want the vest pushing up into your chin when bending forward, and your arms should not be restricted when reach up, forward or across your chest.
- Lastly, try your life jacket out in calm water (a pool is best) and see how if it rides up to far and also how it floats you. Are you comfortable swimming and maneuvering in it? Do you need to readjust the straps for a better fit? Would you be able to swim to another boat, right your capsized dinghy or make your way to a near shore in it?
Care and Storage
Rinse your PFD with fresh water after use. This helps remove any salt (crystals) which retains moisture and abrades materials over time. It also servers to help remove any chemicals that could have been floating on the surface of the water and where picked up when you were sprayed or while swimming. Store your vest out of the sun in a dry place to prevent sun damage and mold growth. Life jackets loose foam density over time and do not last indefinitely. They should always be replaced if the outside becomes faded by the sun (material strength compromised), are moldy, or if you find that they have diminished flotation and no longer float you high enough.