Marine News from the Great Lakes

Inflatable PFDs presented by Crowley's Yacht Yard

Published: Saturday, April 15, 2017 9:00 am

All life vests have one thing in common - they don’t work if you are not wearing them. Automatic inflatable vests were developed to combat this shortcoming. They are lighter, more comfortable and provide greater freedom of movement, encouraging more frequent use. The first inflatable life vest was patented in 1928. They were widely utilized during WWII. Inflatable vests have come a long way since the “Mae West”. Several generations of modern auto inflate PFDs have emerged and the array of choices can be confusing.  When choosing a vest the most important factors to consider are; will I wear it and will it provide the protections I want. Inflatable PFDs should be comfortable, provide the range of motion and features you need for the type of boating you do. Crowley’s sells the best vests available on the market today.

Here is breakdown of the most common options:

Auto or Manual

Auto Inflate vests contain a small C02 cylinder that inflates the vest when deployed.

Manual vests rely on the user pulling a small lanyard to cause a pin to puncture the top of the cylinder releasing the CO2 and inflating the tube.

Automatic vests inflate when submerged in water. There are two primary types of mechanisms used to automatically activate the C02 inflators. All automatic inflating vests also include a manual lanyard for inflation.

Cup & Bobbin. These rely on a small cartridge that contains a dissolvable element. When these come in contact with water the element dissolves and releases a sprung pin that punctures the C02 cylinder cap. These are reliable and quite safe but are prone to accidental inflation when stored in wet locations or on deck during heavy weather and rain.

 Hydrostatic. This mechanism is activated by water pressure and will not inflate until the cap is 10cm underwater. This design prevents accidental inflation while still providing excellent auto inflating functionality. 

Harness or No Harness 

Many vests include a safety harness built into the vest to allow the wearer the “clip in” to jack lines or an anchor point.  The integral harness is essential for offshore and singlehanded sailing eliminating the need to wear both a vest and a harness.  These vests are heavier and usually more expensive than their counterparts without harnesses. 

Vest or Belt 

Several manufacturers offer Auto Inflate vests that are stored in a pouch you wear on a belt like a fanny pack. These vests are inexpensive and extremely easy to wear. They require the user to pull the vest over their head after it has been inflated.  Some wearers push the pack to their back to get the pack out of the way. This makes it difficult to deploy and even more difficult to don after deployment.  Additionally, they are not as comfortable as a vest after deployed. A belt pack is better than nothing but a vest is better than a belt pack. 


Lights: Many vests include water activated lights that help aid during night rescues.

Whistles: Most vests include a whistle that wearers can use to help rescuers find them.

Leg Straps: Leg straps are a Mac race requirement and also a good idea. If you end up in the water leg straps will help keep the vest lower on your body and your head higher out of the water. This makes finding and retrieving an overboard victim easier.

Cutter: Some brands of vests include a cutter for cutting away a safety harness should you be caught under a boat or attached to a sinking boat. Mac requirements mandate a cutter/knife capable of operation with one hand be attached to each vest. 

Spray Hoods: These are found on the best vests and are designed to prevent secondary drowning. In rough seas and high winds man overboard victims can drown from water ingested after being hit with waves. A spray hood helps protect the wearer from this hazard.    

Oral Inflation Tube: All vests include an oral inflation tube. This is a tube with a one way valve that allows the wearer to blow up the vest manually. You can increase the buoyancy by adding additional air to the tube and top off the tube should you ever be in the water for an extended period.

Coast Guard Approval

Many inflatable vests are United States Coast Guard approved. Type III recreational pfds are clearly marked as such. Some of the best brands are not USCG approved. Their certification is provided through an international certification system ISO or the European CE system. Some of the Spinlock vests are not USCG approved. If you use these vests you will also have to carry a appropriate USCG approved vest for each person on board. The coast guard has announced that they plan to accept ISO and CE certifications but have yet to release a time table for this change. USCG PFD INFO

Mac Requirements

Each crewmember shall have a life jacket that provides at least 33.7 lbs. (150N) of buoyancy, intended to be worn over the shoulders (no belt pack), meeting either U.S. Coast Guard or ISO specifications. Alternatively, each crewmember shall have an inherently buoyant off-shore life jacket that provides at least 22 lbs. (100N) of buoyancy meeting either U.S. Coast Guard or ISO specifications.

Life jackets shall be equipped with crotch or leg straps, a whistle, a waterproof light, be fitted with marine-grade retro-reflective material and be clearly marked with the boat’s or wearer’s name, and be compatible with the wearer’s safety harness. If the life jacket is inflatable, it shall be regularly checked for air retention.

Please visit Crowley's for more information. 

tags: Boating 101, Safety


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