The Coast Guard says that the best life jacket is one you will wear, so comfort and function are important considerations when picking out a life jacket that suits your needs. Here are some things to consider when picking out the right PFD.
1. Getting kids comfortable on the water is a huge task, especially when it comes to gear. Parents of kids attending their first years of sail camp will want to look for an inexpensive option that still meets safety standards, since the lost and found pile grows by the day, and replacing a life jacket adds up. Young sailors also have to be able to put their life jackets on by themselves without needing help to fasten in, so easily accessible buckles are important. A good option is West Marine’s Runabout youth life jacket, which is an affordable option at $20 and Type III USCG certified (westmarine.com). Two buckle closures make it easy to fasten and wide armholes and necklines offer full mobility. This is a great life jacket for kids who are still dipping their toes in the water on water sports.
2. As junior sailors get more competitive, they need a life jacket that will accommodate their racing needs. These include a cut that does not restrict range of motion and padding that is proportional to their bodies so the jackets won’t feel bulky moving around the boat. In junior sailing circuits, the Stohlquist Edge life jacket is popular due to its allowance for a full range of motion and room for growth as sailors get bigger ($115, Stohlquist.com). The adjustability in the torso and shoulders makes room for sailors to continue wearing the same jacket through teenage growth spurts. As a bonus, the side zip and buckle closure ends at the middle of the torso, making it a good option for sailors who wear trapeze harnesses under their life jackets. Graded sizing designed by Stohlquist makes for a comfortable fit at any size with foam bodies that get bigger as the life jacket sizes up. These life jackets are built to last.
3. Like youth racers, offshore sailors will probably want to look beyond the standard offerings of their local chandlery when it comes to staying safe at sea. Conditions in open waters can change quickly, and a life jacket that’s comfortable to wear at all times and has an integrated harness means you’ll be that much more prepared should things take a turn for the worst. In the event a sailor goes overboard on the open ocean, recovery statistics are grim, but being highly visible increases the chances. The Spinlock Deckvest Vito is purpose-designed for the rigors of offshore sailing in collaboration with a team of Volvo Ocean Race sailors ($419, spinlick.co.uk). Its built-in harness has a soft-loop safety line attachment that can be upgraded to the company’s proprietary Harness Release System (HRS). A newly designed spray hood also helps prevent secondary drowning in which the victim inhales was struggling in heavier seas. Once the life jacket is inflated and in the water, a water-activated, flashing LED light makes for high visibility, as well as the Lume-On illumination lights inside of the life jacket bladder.
4. Female sailors also may want to look for specialty gear. Standard designs often don’t have room in the chest, which means either squeezing into a life jacket not built for your body, wearing one that does not fit securely around the waist or risking going without life jacket at all. Fortunately, some companies are rising to the challenge of designing life jackets for curvier sailors. The Mustang Survival Destiny Foam Vest, for example, is specifically configured for women, with less padding on the top and more underneath the chest for support ($110, MTIlifejackets.com). It features eight points of adjustment to better fit the contours of feminine bodies, along with what it calls its Adjust-A-Bust system for further customization.
5. Similar to the sizing issues women face, plus-size sailors may not find that standard life jackets fit their needs. Adjustability, padding that suits the body and wide neck and armholes that don’t rub uncomfortably are features to look for if you’re not comfortable in a regular adult size. Also be sure to check the weight ratings, as some life jackets will not provide adequate flotation. With this in mind, the NRS Vapor PFD is a USCG approved option that has all of the fittings for a good plus size life jacket ($95, nrs.com). Six adjustment straps keep the fit of the life jacket customizable and the design includes six panels that mold to the body. A side buckle makes getting in and out of this life jacket easy with no zipper.