What is a sailing buoyancy aid and is it right for you?
Sailing buoyancy aids are becoming increasingly popular in the United States for three simple reasons:
- They are smaller and more compact than traditional life jackets. They contain less foam and are cut to afford more freedom of movement making them comfortable and easy to move around a boat in (especially when racing).
- Minimalist designs have limited pockets, straps, buckles and attachments giving them a ‘clean’ exterior that is less likely to catch on rigging.
- Their design makes it easy to swim in the water, right a boat in the case of a capsized dinghy, and reenter or board a boat from the water.
What are buoyancy aids intended for?
A buoyancy aid is just that, an aid to buoyancy, and provides just a bit of flotation. It assumes the wearer is a competent swimmer and can, to a degree, help themselves to either swim back to the shore or swim back to their boat. It assumes that help is close by, and that the conscious wearer can swim or is comfortable enough in the water to wait for assistance or self-rescue. They should be worn sheltered waters, as they do not provide enough flotation to always keep your head above the water in rough sea conditions.
Who and what are buoyancy aids are not intended for?
Not recommended for:
- Young children, juniors and infants
- All poor or non-swimmers
- Long duration in the water
- Rough sea conditions
- Replacement for a USCG approved life jacket
Buoyancy aids have integral foam buoyancy to help you float in the water, but they do not have as much flotation as a life jacket and should not replace a required USCG approved life jacket. They are not designed to turn a person the right way up, so they cannot support an unconscious person in the water properly.
Buoyancy Aid versus Life Jacket Flotation
Buoyancy Aids provide 11 pounds (50 newtons) of flotation and are not recognized nor approved by the USCG. 15.5 pounds (70 newtons) of flotation is the minimum in order to considered for US Coast Guard approval.
In Europe, life jackets are approved and conform to either the CE (European Commission) or IOS (International Organization of Standards) standards. These standards have a category for Buoyancy Aids with 50 newtons of flotation that does not exist in the US. European approved buoyancy aids will clearly state either CE or ISO compliant and the flotation as 50 newtons.
This table will show you where buoyancy aids rate as compared to USCG approved life jackets.
|Application||Type||Buoyancy (pounds)||Buoyancy (newtons)|
|Offshore, extreme conditions, wearing heavy clothing or accessories||Life Jacket
Exceeds USCG Type I buoyancy requirement
|61 lbs||275 N|
|Offshore & extreme conditions||Life Jacket
USCG Type I
|33 lbs||150 N|
|Near shore||Life Jacket
USCG Type II
|22 lbs||100 N|
|Near shore||Life Jacket
USCG Type III
|15.5 lbs||70 N|
|Only for swimmers, sheltered water, close to rescue||Buoyancy Aid
Not USCG Approved
|11 lbs||50 N|
Using a Buoyancy Aid when Racing
US Sailing prescribes that every boat shall carry life-saving equipment conforming to government regulations that apply in the racing area.
US Sailing provides the following language for use by race event organizers and their sailing instructions:
Suggested Language for Notice of Race and Sailing Instructions
Organizing authorities may find the following language helpful when writing the Notice of Race or Sailing Instructions. (But be advised, this is suggested language. OAs are advised to check with their own legal counsel if they have questions about this matter.)
“Competitors shall wear a personal flotation device (PFD) approved by the US Coast Guard (or for international competitors, the equivalent authority of their home country)…”
Basically this means that you need to have on board a USCG approved life jacket. On some sport boats this equates to the crew sometimes wearing buoyancy aids while racing, and also storing USCG approved life jackets below for everyone on board. On dinghies, having both a buoyancy aid and a USCG approved life jacket is not usually practical, so by the letter of the law (and maybe your event’s Sailing Instructions) you would be required to wear at minimum a Type III USCG approved life jacket.
There have been growing numbers of sailors who solely wear and carry a buoyancy aid. While this will not suffice if pulled over for inspection by the USCG, it has become more common. If you are sailing in a regatta, check the event’s sailing instructions to prevent a visit to the protest room.
The exception is foreign sailors racing in US waters. They may wear buoyancy aids if the aid is legal in their home country. Unfortunately this puts US sailors at little bit of a disadvantage regarding personal gear.
College and High School Sailing
Simply stated, if you are participating in college or high school sailing you are required to wear a USCG approved life jacket. The two governing bodies make this clear in their procedural rules below.
From the: PROCEDURAL RULES FOR INTER-COLLEGIATE SAILING COMPETITION 2013 – 2016
13, C: Personal Flotation Devices (PFD) – Inherently buoyant personal flotation devices (USCG Certified Non-Inflatable Type III or Type V) shall be worn by all student-athletes while on the water. PFDs shall be worn outside all clothing and foul weather gear, except that a thin shirt or team uniform (See PR 13(e)) may be worn over the PFD. PFDs are not required when ashore or on objects attached to shore. PR 13(c) shall be enforced at all times, in all ICSA regattas. (PR 13(c) changes RRS 40 and the Part 4 preamble.)
From the: OFFICIAL PROCEDURAL RULES For Interscholastic Sailing Competition 2013 – 2016
2.2 PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICES Inherently buoyant personal flotation devices meeting U.S. Coast Guard regulations for Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) Type III or V, shall be worn, properly secured, by all competitors while on the water, except briefly while changing or adjusting clothing. PFDs shall be worn outside of all clothing and foul weather gear, except for a thin Tshirt or team pinnie, which may be worn over a life jacket to prevent snagging of lines or equipment. Inflatable type PFDs are not permitted. (Changes the preamble to RRS Part 4 and RRS 40)