Inflatable Life Vests

There’s no arguing the fact that life vests save lives. However, the truth of the matter is that most boaters purchase U.S.C.G. approved personal flotation devices and simply stow them in the hopes they’re never needed. For some strange reason most boaters believe they’ll have time to prepare for an emergency. In reality, if you’re not prepared, it’s often too late.


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No matter what style PFD you select, be sure it provides sufficient flotation to keep your head above water. Photo: Mustang Survival

Historically, life vests have been bulky, uncomfortable and restrictive, so it’s no surprise there’s been a wide resistance to wearing these essential safety devices. With the recent introduction of comfortable, less restrictive life vests hopefully this mentality is a thing of the past. Wearing a life vest on a boat should be just like wearing your seatbelt in a vehicle.

While auto inflation is still the talk of the town, the latest development in inflatable life vests is the hydrostatic inflation valve.

After an extensive testing process inflatable life vests received U.S.C.G. approval in 1999. The original prototype utilized a simple manual inflation valve with a lanyard for activation. When the lanyard was pulled, the firing pin punctured a small CO2 bottle, thus allowing pressurized CO2 to fill the floatation chamber. Soon thereafter, automatic activation was introduced. This technology incorporates a salt tablet that dissolves when it becomes wet, thus activating a firing pin on the valve. The primary purpose of the automatic inflation valve is to enable the life vest to inflate should you fall into the water while injured or unconscious.

The U.S.C.G. was somewhat apprehensive to approve a device that relied upon a salt tablet for activation, and it didn’t take long for problems to arise with the auto valve. The salt tablets were unreliable and subject to misfiring. As it turns out, manufacturers didn’t take into account that salt tablets were susceptible to moisture from humidity and water spray associated with marine related activities. This prompted manufacturers to coat the salt tablets with a substance that made incidental dissolving a thing of the past. They also made improvements to the salt tablet bobbin in an effort to lessen the chance of direct water spray from reaching the important tablet.

While auto inflation is still the talk of the town, the latest development in inflatable life vests is the hydrostatic inflation valve. This design simply requires pressure associated with depth to force water into the salt tablet bobbin. Because of the pressure needed to allow water in, the bobbin becomes less vulnerable to moisture associated with humidity and salt spray. With the advancement of inflatable life vests there comes certain responsibilities required to properly maintain these essential safety devices. Whether it be manual, automatic or hydrostatic, you must take excellent care of your safety equipment. In years past one could simply take a foam life vest and toss it under a seat or in a stowage compartment. The usual problems found were the musty smell of mildew and the occasional contact with fish slim and oils, but the vests were still effective after years of neglect. The problem with placing inflatable vests under this same scrutiny is that the bladder material is much more prone to damage from constant exposure to sunlight, moisture, and oils. As a general rule, inflatable life vests should be treated with the same care as delicate electronic equipment.

It’s a well-known fact that most boaters don’t wear life vests because it may portray them as inexperienced or inferior in their abilities to operate a vessel. The typical excuse is that life vests are bulky and get in the way, but because new inflatable style life vests are neither cumbersome nor intrusive this excuse no longer applies.

Inflatable life vests have many advantages and are available in numerous configurations, styles and colors. The two most popular include a belt pack that resembles a fanny pack and the basic suspender type. The belt pack is very unobtrusive and the bladder in these PFDs can be easily donned prior to water entry or even after entry into the water. The bottom of the bladder is attached to the belt and you simply open the Velcro flap and pull the top of the bladder over your head. Although these models are available with automatic inflation, I highly recommend the manual style, as it is much easier to pull over your head while un-inflated. Suspender style vests are narrow, thin, super lightweight, comfortable and inconspicuous. With these vests all you have to do in the event of an emergency is pull the lanyard or wait for the automatic inflation.

It’s easy to understand why wearing a life vest is important. They serve as a means to stay afloat and increase your target size for rescuers. They enable you to perform the heat escape lessening position (HELP) and provide a means to attach survival equipment. Don’t become another statistic—wear a life vest every time you’re on the water.

U.S.C.G. Regulations

All vessels must carry one Type I, II, III, or V U.S.C.G. approved personal floatation device for each person on board.

All personal floatation devices must be in good and serviceable condition, and legibly marked showing the U.S.C.G. approval number.