Maybe you fancy yourself a good or even expert swimmer. When it comes to boating, however, perceived swimming ability should be left on the dock. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 76% of annual boating deaths occur due to drowning. Of the victims, almost 85% were not wearing a life jacket, two-thirds of whom were considered strong swimmers. If the numbers have anything to say, it’s this: safety first. The U.S. Coast Guard requires each boat to have approved, wearable life jackets on board for every person on the boat; however, safety advocates recommend that everyone wears a life jacket at all times because accidents can happen in a split second. Time wasted trying to first find stowed life jackets and then put them on can mean the difference between life and death.
Life jacket technology, fashion and comfort has come a long way since the old days of bulky, neon orange vests. Life jackets come in all shapes and sizes and are for various purposes—even for pets!
Form is Function
The type of boating activity you’re doing will dictate the kind of life jacket you’ll want.
For fishing, you’ll want to find jackets that are lightweight and minimize discomfort while casting. You might also opt for models with ample pockets for tackle and D-rings for clippers. Manual inflation allows you to inflate at the pull of a cord so you can wade or fish in rain or spray without the bulk.
A sport life jacket will allow you maximum movement with roomy armholes, slimmer straps, a shorter body length and less torso bulk. They also tend to come in bright, swanky colors so your wake double flip will look even cooler.
For chilly waters and offshore cruising, opt for the head-to-toe coverage of an immersion or Gumby suit that covers your full body, like a wet suit but with the added benefits of keeping you afloat and protecting you from hypothermia for up to 6 hours. Most come in red or orange and are adorned with retro-reflective to attract rescue attention. Some suits also come with a built-in emergency torch, whistle and tagline.
For your four-legged friends, go for a design with a handle on the back to easily pull the animal out of the water if needed.
Ensure a Proper Fit
Like Goldilocks, you’re looking for a “just right” or snug fit, but nothing too large or too small:
- Fasten the jacket properly Secure all straps, buckles and/or zippers
- Hold your arms straight up overhead and ask a friend to gently pull up on the top of the arm openings
- Be sure that children wear kid-sized life jackets as adult sizes won’t work for them
Maintain Your Life Jacket’s Life
Just as important as choosing the right jacket and ensuring a proper fit is life jacket care. Always refer to the owner’s manual for specific maintenance requirements. Here are some common care tips to always keep in mind:
- Use properly
- Watch out for rips, water-logging or mildew (if you see of these things, it’s best to discard and get a new life jacket)
- Dry thoroughly after each use
- Hand wash in mild detergent
- Store in a dry place when not in use
As Kelli Toth of the Alaska Office of Boating Safety said, “Wearing a life jacket is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of wisdom.” Do the responsible thing: wear a life jacket whenever you’re on the water.