Life Jackets

By Don Casey

Revised by BoatUS editors in April 2012

Type I, Type II, Type III: What is the difference?

Type I

Will save your life without your help. It has the most fixed buoyancy--at least 22 pounds--and more important, it floats you face up even if you are unconscious.

Type II

Is the least expensive, but you get what you pay for. This personal flotation device (PFD) has a third less fixed buoyancy than Type I, it doesn't necessarily float you face up without your help, and it is the least comfortable to wear.

Type III

Satisfies Coast Guard requirements, but is, at best, suitable only for near-shore emergencies.

The big advantage of a Type III PFD is that it is comfortable enough to be worn all the time. Even the best life jacket won't help you if it is in the bottom of a locker. However, Type III PFDs have the same fixed buoyancy as Type IIs, making them suitable for water-skiing or dinghy sailing, for example, but less appropriate offshore.

Manually inflatable PFDs

Are also classified as Type III, but they perform like a Type I offshore vest, providing at least 22 pounds of buoyancy (usually more) when inflated and keeping the wearer's head above the water. Inflatable vests are by far the most comfortable to wear aboard, making them an excellent choice for nearly all circumstances.

Automatic inflatables

Only recently approved by the Coast Guard-are inexplicably classified as Type V, meaning they must be worn to satisfy the regulations. Despite this oddity, their combination of comfortable wearability and high buoyancy give automatic inflatables the potential to provide the highest level of protection of any PFD. All automatic inflatables can also be inflated manually.

Don Casey has been one of the most consulted experts on boat care and upgrades for 30 years, and is one of the BoatUS Magazine's panel of experts. He and his wife cruise aboard their 30-footer part of the year in the eastern Caribbean. His books include Don Casey's Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual, and the recently updated This Old Boat, the bible for do-it-yourself boaters.


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