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Life Jackets

New technologies are making flotation devices more comfortable and convenient.

By Gibbs Milliken

Safety on the water starts with selecting the correct personal flotation device (PFD). Like seatbelts and airbags in a car, you never need them until an emergency occurs. Knowing how to swim is sometimes not enough to save your life. Circumstances like a bad fall from a fast-moving boat can cause a person to be knocked unconscious or injured and therefore unable to remain afloat. The only practical answer is a good PFD that will keep your head above water and be clearly visible to rescuers.

Types of PFDs

Flotation devices take two forms —those that are inherently buoyant and those that must be inflated to function. These are categorized by types I through V with the most popular styles — II or III — typically worn by recreational boaters. The general rule: The lower the type number of the PFD, the better the performance.

Type I is an offshore life jacket designed for maximum buoyancy and best suited for surviving rough oceanic conditions and extended periods in the water. The bulkiness of this style restricts some movements and can become uncomfortable when worn aboard ship in warm climates. Typical of this type is the Kent Commercial Life Vest. It is lightweight, durable and highly visible in international orange color with large reflective patches. This vest meets or exceeds U.S. Coast Guard standards for persons over 90 pounds in weight. ($39.99, Adult Life Jacket, Kent Sporting Goods, 419-929-702, www.kentwatersports.com)

Type II vests are intended as inshore, bay and freshwater safety devices that offer unrestricted movement with minimum bulk. One of the newest, most comfortable and reliable of these is the Mustang Survival Auto Hydrostatic Airforce. This deluxe inflatable has a hammer activator that needs only to be submerged 4 inches for hydrostatic pressure to open a valve releasing a firing mechanism that automatically inflates the PFD. In addition, there are manual overrides by simply pulling a tab on the cartridge activation cord or blowing into the hand-held mouth tube. It will not inflate prematurely due to rain, humidity or water splash. ($281.55, Airforce Auto Hydrostatic Vest, Model # MD3183, Mustang Survival, 800-526-0532, www.mustangsurvival.com)

Type III flotation aids are for use on calm and open waters where rescue will more likely occur quickly. It is the responsibility of the wearer to maneuver and remain in an upright position by tilting the head back. It is the most common and comfortable type used for recreational boating and fishing. A good design is the Body Glove Torque Vest that can take high impacts from water ski or wakeboard falls. This stylish four-belted unit comes in a wide range of sizes and color combinations. ($49.99, Torque Vest, Body Glove, 310-374-3441, www.bodyglove.com)

The Type IV is a throwable device, such as a floating cushion or life preserver ring, that is tossed to the person being rescued. In addition to the standard PFDs, these are required on board vessels 16 feet or longer (excluding kayaks and canoes).

The Type V special-use jacket, vest or belt pouch is intended for quiet water activities. These are comfortable but somewhat less safe in a major emergency. Most models must be inflated manually by mouth or pull-tab CO2 cartridge, so if you’re knocked unconscious, you’re out of luck. One of the best we tested is the Stearns Inflata-Belt Max, a small waist pouch that inflates into 32 pounds of buoyancy. ($95.49, Inflata-Belt Max, Stearns, 800-333-1179, www.stearnsinc.com)

Most important is to select a style of PFD that best suits your size, planned activities and the water conditions you expect to encounter. Read the label inside each unit to determine the proper type and weight range you should select for each individual.

When boating on public waters, Texas law requires a U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD be worn or readily available to every person aboard. Children under age 13 must wear a PFD at all times when underway in power crafts. Remember: “The best PFD is the one you wear.”

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