Straight Dope On Life Jackets

Straight Dope On Life Jackets We can’t eliminate risk, but we can certainly minimize it. Here's everything you need to know about life vests.


Kids should wear life jackets at all times. These are Type II vests, designed to keep the child face up in the water.

Kids should wear life jackets at all times. These are Type II vests, designed to keep the child face up in the water.

Tai Au, an avid tournament bass angler and an agent for Liberty Mutual Insurance, has been following the news about the missing angler in Florida carefully. Because he is one of the founders of a very large Facebook page for anglers (AZ Anglers), he sees hundreds of posts every day. Frankly, he is appalled and concerned by the misinformation out there about life jackets.

   “Six or seven years ago I bought my brother a life jacket for his birthday,” says Tai. “It was an inflatable, and I saw two models: one was $180 and one was $120. I didn’t know the difference, so I got the cheaper one. Then my brother got stopped on the water and almost got a ticket for not having a life jacket on board. Turns out the inflatable I got him was what used to be called a Type V, which means it doesn’t count unless you’re wearing it.” There are different types of inflatable vests just as there are for life jackets, but Type V pertained only to inflatables. In 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard dropped the type codes in reference to PFD’s (Personal Floatation Devices) because people didn’t understand them. But many life jackets still have the Type labeling.

   The highest performing PFD’s, whether foam or inflatable, are designed to help you float face up, even if you are unconscious. These used to be called Type II.  Some wearable PFD’s are not designed to keep you face up. These are swimmer-assisted life vests or floatation aids. These were previously called Type III. The lower the Type number, the better the performance. Tai wears an Onyx Implulse A-33 In-Sight Automatic Inflatable Life Jacket. This one retails for $269. It has mesh in areas that contact you and will fit up to a 65-inch chest. It even has a couple of zippered pockets for credit cards, keys, etc. A marine whistle lets you call for help without wearing yourself out, and since it’s what would be a Type II, it will help keep your face out of the water even if you are knocked out. This Onyx is a USCG approved PFD.

You can even get a life jacket for your dog.This one has a handle on top so you can haul her back onto the boat.

You can even get a life jacket for your dog.This one has a handle on top so you can haul her back onto the boat.

   The new USCG rules define a PFD as a device that is USCG approved under law. A throwable PFD is intended to be thrown to a person who is in the water, and a wearable PFD is intended to be worn or attached to your body. On a recreational vessel 16 feet or longer, you must have a PFD for every person on board, plus a throwable. Each PFD must be used as stated in the requirements printed on the label. The exception is that canoes and kayaks, even if they are longer than 16 feet, don’t have to carry a throwable, and some kinds of racing vessels and sailboards don’t have to carry PFD’s. But for recreational fishermen, the law is clear: have and use PFD’s. Wearables must be readily accessible and throwables have to be immediately accessible.

   Most tournament rules state that you need to wear a vest when the big motor is on and the boat is underway, but a comfortable inflatable can be worn all day long, which not only keeps you safer, it saves you time. And in a tournament, time is money. Tai says one thing you need to remember about inflatables is that they need to be serviced. The CO2 cartridge needs to be replaced when necessary (about $30). He says the easiest thing is to get a vest with an indicator. As long as the indicator is green, you’re good to go. Red – replace the cartridge.

   The stats on boating deaths are sobering. In 2016 there were almost 4,500 recreational boating accidents with 701 deaths. That number of deaths was up 12% from 2015. 80% of these deaths were from drowning, and 83% of those were NOT wearing a life jacket. Also, 80% of boaters who drowned were using boats less than 21 feet long. The top five factors in these accidents were operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed, and machinery failure.

The Onyx A-33

The Onyx A-33

   Collisions with other boats, collisions with fixed objects, flooding or swamping, running aground, and capsizing were the major types of accidents, but capsizing resulted in the most deaths. The thing is, you never know if some yahoo is going to come zooming out of that next cove and run into you, or you could hit a barely submerged tree stump at 70 mph. Storms can come up very suddenly and large waves can capsize your boat or wash you overboard. As Tai says, hitting the water at 40 mph is like hitting concrete – you could be knocked out and drown before anyone can get to you. Be aware that some inflatables do not automatically inflate when you hit the water – you have to pull a cord. Also, if the auto inflate fails, there is a cord as a back-up.

   As recreational boaters and anglers, we have a responsibility to ourselves and the people on our boats to be as safe as we possibly can. 77% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator had never received any safety instruction. You can find safe boating courses online for free, so there is no excuse for not taking one. Just go to and pick your state. You may even be able to get a discount on your boat insurance after you take the course.

   We can’t eliminate risk, but we can certainly minimize it by operating our boats safely, wearing the proper gear, and insisting that our passengers wear proper gear as well. When you shop for a PFD, read the back so you know what it is designed for and how to use or wear it, and remember that one designed to keep your face out of the water will have a substantial collar or flap on the back of the neck. It may still be labeled as a Type II. Try on some PFD’s and choose the best one you can afford that is the most comfortable, because the best PFD is the one you have on when you need it. Let’s be as safe as we can out there so a fishing trip doesn’t become a tragedy.

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