Times have changed and it’s no longer an issue of whether or not to wear a life jacket, but of which one to wear. So let's take a look at the life jackets currently on the market, what they should have and do, and what’s a reasonable amount of money to spend.
If you're a first-time sailor or just go on the occasional sailing holiday, you don't need to worry about purchasing a life jacket. The ones from the charter company will be enough for you and the crew, including the kids. Another alternative is to rent a life jacket (and sailing apparel), which is an option offered by some e-shops and specialist sailing shops. However, there comes a time in the life of a regular sailor when a perfectly fitting vest that doesn't restrict deck work becomes a must-have.
Understanding life jackets
Life jackets can be classified according to several criteria. The most useful way to categorise them is by whether they are foam or inflatable, and then by buoyancy (N = Newton) which is a measure of upward force. This is generally what manufacturers and sellers work with, as does the European Directive 89/686/EC on personal protective equipment.
Foam vs. inflatable
Sure, a foam-filled vest might not sound like much but it has several advantages over inflatable ones that are good to know. And in the end, you may find that it actually suits you better. So let's compare the two.
Basically, blocks of foam sewn into the fabric of the vest.
An impermeable liner sewn into the fabric vest which is then filled with gas from a gas canister. Some inflate automatically when they hit the water or mechanically by pulling the cord, but even self-inflating vests have a manual mechanism as a safety device. Both types can still be inflated (or deflated) by mouth through the inflation tube.
YACHTING.COM TIP: For us, inflatable vests with automatic activation make the most sense. Because if you lose consciousness after you fall into the water, you won’t be able to inflate the vest manually. And a vest that’s not inflated is like no vest at all.
See how the auto-activated vest responds to contact with water:
Life jacket approval
CE and ISO standards classify vests into 4 categories according to the conditions in which they provide adequate safety. The standards also distinguish between life jackets and buoyancy aids. You can easily tell that a life jacket meets CE approval by the mark printed on the label. Now let's talk about which circumstances each standard is suitable for:
Buoyancy aid (50 N)
Vests in this category are not life jackets, but just buoyancy aids when swimming in the water. The vest is just enough to keep a person afloat when conscious and able to swim on their own. As such it won’t give non-swimmers and anyone unconscious as much chance of survival. It is primarily designed for riding a jet ski or kayak, and for water sports on the calmer waters of a river, lake or dam. According to the standards, it doesn't have to be able to turn you face-up for air, doesn't have to include reflective elements, a crotch strap, a loop to tie you to the boat, or even a whistle. For sailing, these vests do not provide sufficient protection precisely because an unconscious person who’s drowning can still remain face-down in the water.
Life jackets (100 N)
Vests in this category can already be described as life jackets and can keep swimmers and non-swimmers afloat in calm coastal or inland waters. According to European standards, they should turn a person face-up within 10 seconds. However, some sailors have voiced their concern over whether they can be relied upon, so we highly-recommend trying out the vest in the water first before setting sail. It is mandatory for such a vest to be equipped with reflective elements and a whistle. Whether it also has a crotch strap or a loop to tie it to the boat varies from model to model. For a leisurely cruise with the family on calm seas, this type of vest might be sufficient enough. But for more dynamic sport sailing, we would welcome the greater safety of a life jacket with more buoyancy.
Life jackets for the open sea (150 N)
As sailors, we’d always look for a vest in this category. It includes life jackets for sailing along the coast and in the open sea in all but the most extreme conditions. We’re talking about inflatable life jackets with automatic or manual inflation, which turn a person to a safe position within 5 seconds, even when unconscious. These vests must have reflective elements, a whistle and a loop to tie them to the boat. More advanced models may have a light and other equipment. In our opinion, a 150 N buoyancy vest can keep even the largest crew member afloat and we ourselves wouldn't be afraid to sail the Mediterranean in one. However, for the Baltic or the stormy English Channel we’d rather take along one more suitable for ocean going.
Professional life jackets (275 N)
Vests in this class are primarily designed for sailing in the most demanding conditions of cold ocean waters and are designed to turn a person in heavy sailing clothing face-up within 5 seconds. Of course, they can also be used for sailing in calmer seas or along the coast, but it is not worth buying them just for these voyages. Firstly, the purchase price of such a vest is significantly higher. And secondly, as it inflates considerably more when you fall into the water, you may not be able to climb back onto the boat until you release it manually. Simply put, this is a vest for the harsh conditions of the ocean and we wouldn't venture there without it. However, when yachting in Croatia we’d make do with a simpler and more inexpensive one.
A little technical note: In the last two categories you may come across vests that are designated “offshore” or “ocean”. This is often an indicator that you are on the right track. You may also find vests with a buoyancy differing from the standards, such as 165 N, 180 N or 220 N. Such vests meet the ISO 12402-3 standard for 150 N buoyancy, provide a bit of extra buoyancy and can be a good middle-ground for sailing in more challenging waters.
What to look for when buying a vest
What brand, model and how much you want to invest in a life jacket is entirely up to you. Still, we think some features and accessories are well worth considering. Vests either have them included or can be purchased separately:
- Crotch strap to prevent the vest from being pulling over your head
- Light to attract attention in low visibility
- Fixed loop for attaching with a line to the boat
- Sprayhood to prevent water spray entering the airways
- PLB (= Personal Locator Beacon) to transmit a distress signal
- Knife or cutter for cutting ropes and straps
- Rope or longer fixed line for pulling out of the water
As we have already mentioned, inflatable vests require regular maintenance and will need to be rearmed and refilled after use. Therefore, the price of a life jacket rearming kit (or replacement refill) could also be a factor in your choice. Also consider the fact that inflatable life jackets do have an expiration date. This is usually 10 years from the date it was manufactured, not from its first use. So if you buy a 7-year -old vest, you only have 3 seasons of use left.
How much is a life jacket?
If we’re talking about self-inflating vests that are suitable for sailing at sea, a usable vest can be bought in Decathlon or Sportisimo for under € 60. Among sailors, popular vests from renowned brands such as Baltic, Plastimo, Crewsaver or Spinlock can be bought for prices between € 80 and 160 depending on your needs. Top-of-the-range vests will cost you at least € 200. And if you decide to upgrade them with a PLB, sprayhood, cutting tool and other accessories, the total amount can exceed € 400.
What to take away from this article
- If you are a first-time or occasional sailor, rent a life jacket from a charter company or a specialist shop.
- The life jacket doesn’t need extra accessories, but it should always turn you face-up on its own.
- For sailing in the open sea and along the coast, a vest with a buoyancy of 150 to 220 N is sufficient.
- Inflatable vests are more comfortable and compact, but require regular maintenance.
- Life jackets have an expiration date that must be adhered to.
- We always sail with a life jacket!
I'm clear on lifejackets. Now I want a boat!
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