By Capt. Fred Davis

Personal flotation devices, called PFD’s, life jackets, life preservers, life vest, life belts and life rings have been evolving since the1800’s. Norwegian seaman first wore simple blocks of wood or cork until Captain Ward, a lifeboat inspector in the UK, in 1854 designed a cork vest to be worn by lifeboat crews. If you saw the film Titanic you may recall passengers wandering the decks in their cork lifejackets.

Around the turn of the century kapok, a fibrous, vegetable material with air cells became the material of choice offering a much softer alternative and seamen could sleep with them on.
In 1936 James F. Boyle invented the Type B-4 inflatable lifejacket to be used during WWII. Because of its design, it was affectionately nick named the Mae West after one of the most popular actresses of that period. This concept would later become the current day inflatable.

The sinking of the ore carrier Carl D. Bradley in 1953 with a loss of 33 brought about a significant change. The crewmen had slipped out of their life vest thus the Coast Guard made it a requirement that PFD’s be designed so an unconscious person could not slip out of them.
A light, flexible body-fitting vest was introduced in the 1960’s replacing the awkward horse-collar design.

Closed-cell, foamed plastic encased in nylon came along in the 1970’s for use in survival wear. Although used for years, inflatable PFD’s were first approved for recreational vessels in 1996 and improvements in their design and use continue to this date.

All recreational vessels must carry one USCG approved, wearable PFD for each person aboard. States have additional requirements for children and specific activities. They must be in good condition, all snaps and ties serviceable, and be of appropriate size for an intended wearer.
The Coast Guard rates PFD’s in five types.

TYPE I - Offshore lifejacket
For use on open, rough water, it provides more buoyancy than any other type. Its design allows an unconscious wearer to be turned into a face-up position. It is bulky and uncomfortable to wear but has multiple belts and ties for security. It is intended for use in emergencies and required on all commercial vessels.

TYPE II – Near shore buoyant vest
Not as dependable as Type I used near shore where a quick rescue is likely. Usually bright orange, used by boat rental companies. They have only one belt and one tie.

TYPE III – Floatation aid
Most popular, comfortable to wear and easiest to put on, this PFD is best for use when a wearer can keep their face out of the water. They are jacket style and usually fit snug with zipper or buckle closures.

TYPE IV – Throwable device
Only for use as a “back-up,” to be used where there is constant boat traffic and rescue is immediate. They can be ring-shaped, horseshoe or cushion style. Note: Even when new and not packed down by use, cushions do little to help keep users safe. Few boaters know how to put them on. Straps are not intended to have both arms through them and fitted on the wears back. This would place users in a face down position. Too properly use place one leg through one strap and the arm on the opposite side through the other strap. This holds the cushion across the stomach.

TYPE V – Wearable special use device
For specific use; white water activities, board sailing, competitive racing. Their turning ability to keep a person face up is rated according to Type I, II and III. Some need to be worn to meet requirements and be effective. Type V devices come in many styles from full body suits to suspender-type vests. They may include a safety harness and even hypothermia protection.
An example of the requirement to meet Coast Guard approval is; if there are 4 people on a vessel over 16 feet there must be 5 PFD’s aboard – 4 wearable and 1 Throwable.

Children’s PFD’s must be carefully selected and are approved based upon weight of user. Most states have their own specific requirements such as age, size of vessel and vessel operation. Although youngsters weighing between 30 and 50 pounds may wish the movement of freedom a Type III jacket offers, most youngsters and especially ALL, who cannot swim should wear a Type I or II.

It is strongly recommended you select a properly fitted PFD for your child, if it does not fit properly, try another brand. It should not slip up over the shoulders and head. Let them test wear it in a safe environment. Although a PFD may keep a youngster afloat, violent movement such as a child’s panic reaction upon entering the water may counteract the PFD’s safety.

Aqua Force‚ has a USCG approved one-piece PFD ideal for active youngsters. It does not ride up over their shoulders like most and is comfortable for continuous wear. It also comes in neon colors so you can easily keep an eye on your tots.

Most PFD manufacturers are participating in child PFD loan or even free programs. The Portland Boat Show provided 5,000 children with free PFD’s last year and the PFD Charitable Foundation is giving thousands of PFD’s to youngsters under 12 who complete a water safety course.

Float Tech has recently won Coast Guard approval for its lightweight, waterproof, breathable all season jackets with zip off sleeves and vest. A removable liner self-inflates upon contact with the water or it can be manually inflated. It’s a bit pricey at $ 299.99.

Although not new, inflatable PFD’s keep re-inventing themselves to encourage greater use. A drawback to their use is the need to be very aware of proper care and use instructions. The USCG Boating Safety Division and manufacturers are quick to alert the public with very specific details regarding defective materials. Consumers should check the model number of their PFD against the defect list kept current on various web sites.

Mustang Survival Company’s marketing rep Rob McMahon passed along information on their AUTO HYDROSTATIC INFLATALBE PFD. It will only inflate automatically when submerged in 4 or more inches of water and no inflator maintenance is required for 5 years unless inflated. Designed for serious users and Uninspected Commercial Vessels less than 40 feet, the USCG approved it for use in lieu of Type II and III PFD’s.

Check on line for all of the unique features of this latest PFD, which is also pricey at $ 350.00.
An exciting new PFD is PAWS ABOARD for pets. Their design offers superior buoyancy, comfort and a secure fit. They are available for 2 to 50 pound dogs and the price is right at $ 24.99. I was able to preview the jackets and new doggie boarding ladder introduced at the Miami boat show last year.

PFDMA (Personal Floatation Device Manufacturers
Association) project manager Bernice McArdle whose organization numbers 35 working members with an additional 50 affiliates outlined an exciting new initiative the group is undertaking. They are working with UL and the Coast Guard to establish new regulations and classification for standards and design of PFD’s. The effort is supported with funding from PFD manufacturers and the group will be reaching out for additional support.

I attended a PFD workshop in 2005 at the Miami Boat Show. Invited guests participated in a lively discussion regarding the Coast Guards direction, including possible mandatory use of PFD’s. A Coast Guard spokesman expressed education alone has not been as successful as hoped for. The question put forth was, “How to reduce deaths and make wearing a PFD an acceptable option.”
It appeared to me throughout the presentation each category of boating; waterfowl hunters, anglers, PWC, sailboat, paddlesport enthusiast and others need different types of PFD’s. It was clear one size does not fit all.

Some great ideas were put forth including asking manufacturers to display PFD use on their vessels for any media release. They were encouraged to buy into and promote the philosophy that wearing a PFD is part of on-the-water fashion and a normal activity all boaters should participate in.

In my opinion, these ideas are starting to take hold and the marine industry is behind it.
The Safe Boating Councils slogan, “Wear it” is that simple. Try a PFD on before you buy it and be sure it fits. As youngsters grow, get them new ones and if someone is unable to swim, don’t let them aboard without putting a PFD on.

Coast Guard Auxiliary, Power Squadron or Safe Boating affiliate members will be happy to provide. A pamphlet entitled, Federal Requirements & Safety Tips for recreational boats is available from the Coast Guard that details all the current requirements. The net provides a wealth of data but beware of out-dated information.

All major retail boating and outdoor sports outlets such as;
Boat U.S., West Marine, Cabelas, Bass Pro and your local marina. I visited a Cabelas – out in the desert of Arizona, and was surprised to see the large selection in all styles and sizes, right down to infants.


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