Last October the United States Coast Guard did away with the number designations for all personal flotation devices (PFDs), otherwise known as life jackets. We no longer have to sort through whether we need a Type I, II, III or IV. While that should make it easier to purchase life jackets, it’s still up to you to do the most important thing — wear one. And if you’re not going to, at least store them in a spot where you and the crew can have immediate access when needed.
Let’s start with the throwable PFD. In the case of a man-overboard situation, is it easy to grab? On center-console boats I’ve seen it stored on or under the leaning post, where the captain or a crew member can quickly grab it. On boats of all shapes and sizes, try to find a place to stow it in the cockpit on deck, and not packed underneath other gear.
The worst place to store a throwable, or any life jacket, is below deck. I’ve been on countless boats where the owner meets the U.S. Coast Guard safety requirements by sticking a “Coast Guard kit” bag, stuffed with life jackets, whistle, flares, extinguisher and other safety gear, down in the salon or in the stowage under the berth in a stateroom. That means, in an emergency, someone has to go down below. If it’s a man overboard, that requires taking two eyes off the water. If there’s a fire, no one may be able to get down there before having to abandon ship. If there’s a breach and the boat is taking on water, there may not be enough time to go down and dig out the bag.
One of my favorite places to store life jackets is in a zipper pouch underneath a T-top or hardtop, where they can be quickly taken out when needed. On boats without a top it’s easy to designate a storage spot just for life jackets. Make sure that no one stores anything else in the dedicated spot and that the jackets are within easy reach and easy to pull out. As captain or boat owner, it is your responsibility to tell everyone who boards where the life jackets, as well as all other safety items, are. And remember, you’re in charge; you can demand that everyone on board wear a life jacket. I’ve been on boats where the captain handed me a life jacket without asking and I thought nothing of it. It certainly didn’t diminish any part of the trip.
Doing away with the number designations should help boaters with their life jacket choices, but in the end it really doesn’t matter if whatever life jackets you buy sit unused and gather mildew. Then, when you actually do need them, it might be too little too late.
Quick Tip: When buying a life jacket for a child, make sure his or her weight falls within the jacket’s range and it’s not too loose or tight.