Understanding the Different Types of Life Jackets

Gill Life Jacket

No matter where you are sailing in the world it is important to understand what type of life jackets or PFDs (Personal Flotation Device) you have on board and available to you.  There are four common standards that are found in life jackets (or vests) around the world which we will discuss.  Other standards exist, but they are generally derived from one or more of the following:

  • US Standards – USCG Approved
  • International Standards – ISO
  • European Standards – CE
  • Commercial Standards – SOLAS

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Key factors to consider when choosing a sailing life jacket:

  • Flotation – This is measured in pounds (US) or Newtons (Europe).  The more buoyant foam in a life jacket or air in the inflation bladder the more pounds of flotation is provided, and the higher your head is buoyed above the water.  The rougher the conditions or the more heavy clothing and accessories you wear, the more flotation you may require.
  • Type of Sailing – Are you looking for a life jacket that is stowed and only donned in an offshore emergency in potentially rough conditions? Are you sailing near shore and looking for basic life vest to stow away just to be USCG compliant?  Are you a cruising sailor who always wears an inflatable life jacket for comfort and safety or a small boat racer who wants to maximize freedom of movement and requires only flotation aid in the water?  Be sure of the type of sailing activity you need your life jacket to best perform for.


US Standards – USCG Approved

Type I: Offshore Life Jackets:
    • Type 1 Life jacketBest for all waters; open ocean, rough seas, or remote water, where rescue may be slow coming.  Though foam types are bulky, inflatables ones are not.  They have the most buoyancy, reflective tape, a bright color and can turn most unconscious people face up in the water.  Type I foam life jackets can be uncomfortable to wear while sailing.  Foam type I jackets provide 33 pounds (100 Newtons) of flotation, while type I inflatable life jackets provide 33 pounds (150 Newtons) of flotation.  There are currently no USCG approved type I inflatable life jackets.
Type II: Near-shore Vests:
    • Type II Life JacketType II Inflatable Life JacketCalm inland waters, where a quick rescue is likely, is the intent of these PFDs. They will turn some unconscious wearers to the face-up position but not all of them. Foam Type II’s are ‘bulky’ and not generally comfortable to wear while sailing, but less ‘bulky’ than foam Type I’s.  Foam type II jackets provide 15.5 pounds (70 Newtons) of flotation, while type II inflatable life jackets provide have 33 pounds (150 Newtons) of flotation.  Type II foam life jacket are usually the inexpensive type stowed on board to insure USCG compliance.  Inflatable Type IIs offer higher flotation and comfort and are popular for wearing at all times.
Type III: Flotation Aids:
    • Type III Life jacket Type III Inflatable Life jacketThese are suitable for most sailors where there is a chance for a quick rescue. They offer freedom of movement and the most comfort for a conscious person. Foam type III’s are designed so wearers can put themselves in a face-up position, but they may have to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in water.  Inflatable type III’s generally float a person head back.  Foam type III life vests provide 15.5 pounds (70 Newtons) of flotation, while inflatable type III life jackets provide 22 pounds (100 Newtons) of flotation.  Type III foam life jackets are comfortable and popular for those wearing them as all times.  Inflatable type III’s inflatables offer higher flotation and even greater comfort and are popular for wearing at all times.
Type IV: Throwable Devices:
    • Type IV Throwable Type IV ThrowableCushions or ring buoys are designed to be thrown to someone in trouble and provide backup to a PFD. They are not for non-swimmers, rough waters or the unconscious. The USCG does not require these for dinghies, canoes, kayaks.  These are not worn like a life jacket, generally just held onto by someone in the water.  Type IV ring buoys provide 16.5 pounds (75 Newtons) of flotation, and throwable boat cushions provide 18 pounds (82 Newtons) of flotation
Type V: Special-use Devices:
    • Type V Life JacketType V Inflatable Life JacketThese are specialized PFDs for specific activities. To be acceptable by the USCG, they must be used for the activity specified on the label. Varieties include sailing, kayaking, water skiing, windsurfing, hybrid vests and deck suits.  For sailing these generally consist of inflatable life jackets with harnesses, or over the head entry foam life jackets for dinghy sailing.  Type V life jackets provide 15.5 – 22 pounds (70 – 100 Newtons) of flotation, while inflatable type V life jackets provide 22 – 34 pounds (100 – 155 Newtons) of flotation.  These vests will usually be labeled either ‘Type V with Type II performance’ or ‘Type V with Type III performance’.  The label will also specify what specific ‘Special use’ the life jacket is designed for.

International Standards – ISO

ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies and has established and recognized standards for life jackets. If a jacket is compliant with their standards it will be marked with ‘ISO’ on the vest and the flotation type.  ISO compliant does NOT make the vest USCG approved.

European Standards (EN) – CE

The CE standard is determined by the European Standards (EN) and is recognized by the European Union and by the European Free Trade Association.  CE compliance is recognized by some 34 member European countries.  If the vest is compliant it will be marked with ‘CE’ and the flotation type.  CE compliant does NOT make the vest USCG approved.

ISO & CE Types

Both types are the same in terms of their buoyancy and generally in features too.

life jacket approval 50n50N – Buoyancy Aid:

Designed for competent swimmers in sheltered water were help is close at hand. They only provide support to conscious people who can help themselves, and are an aid to flotation only.  They have 50 Newtons (11 lbs.) of flotation.

life jacket approval 100n100N – Life Jacket:

For swimmers and non-swimmers in inshore waters. They give reasonable assurance of safety from drowning in relatively calm waters. Not guaranteed to self-right an unconscious user, and should not be expected to protect the airway of an unconscious person in rough water.  They have 100 Newtons (22 lbs.) of flotation.

life jacket approval 150n150N – Life Jacket:

For swimmers and non-swimmers for use in all but the most sever conditions. They give reasonable assurance of safety to people not fully capable of helping themselves.  May not immediately self-right an unconscious used wearing heavy waterproof clothing.  Has 150 Newtons (33 lbs.) of flotation.

life jacket approval 275n275N – Life Jacket:

For swimmers and non-swimmers. A high performance device for offshore and severe conditions when maximum flotation is required or where heavy clothing or tools are worn.  They give improved assurance of safely from drowning to people who are not capable of helping themselves while they cannot be guaranteed to self-right an unconscious person wearing heavy clothing or tools, they should in the great majority of cases.  The have 275 Newtons (61 lbs.) of flotation.

A noticeable difference between USCG approved and ISO & CE types are the 50N and 275N types.  These do not exist in the USCG type categories, and provide a broader range of flotation options.  Additionally, the ISO & CE types do not differentiate between foam and inflatable life vests and the amount of flotation they provide.  USCG approved life jackets have different flotation requirements for foam and inflatables for any given type.When sailing internationally on a noncommercial vessel, foreign countries widely accept life jackets that are compliant in your vessels’ flagged country and do not require compliance with their local life jacket requirements.

Commercial Standards – SOLAS

SOLAS (The International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea) is an international maritime treaty which requires signatory flag states (participating countries) to ensure that ships flagged by them (registered in their country) to comply with minimum safety standards in construction, equipment and operation.  SOLAS compliant does NOT make a vest USCG approved, although many manufacture’s life jackets are both SOLAS compliant and USCG approved.  Recreational boats are not required to have SOLAS compliant life jackets.   SOLAS Type I life jackets generally provide up to 35 pounds (155 Newtons) of flotation.  They are required to have a safety whistle, hauling in/up strap for recovering wearers, reflective tape, an attachment line for joining to others in the water, among other features.

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