PFD Basics

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on July 24, 2019. In nauticalknowhow

PFD Basics

How Many PFDs Do I Need?

You must have at least one, U.S. Coast Guard approved, wearable PFD for each person onboard, and it must be the appropriate size. If your boat is 16 feet or longer (generally excluding canoes and kayaks but check your state’s regulations) you must also have one throwable device (Type IV PFD).

What kind of PFD do I need?

PFDs are categorized by Type, i.e. Type I, II, III, IV or V. Types I, II and III are commonly worn by recreational boaters, while Type IVs are throwable devices such as life rings and buoyant cushions. Type Vs are for special uses, as will be discussed later.

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Type I

pfd2.gif (4409 bytes)
Type II

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Type III

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Type IV

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Type V

When considering a Type I, II or III – remember that, generally, the lower the number the better the performance. (A Type I is better than a Type II.)

Types I, II or III may be inherently buoyant, that is, they will float without action by the wearer, or they may be inflatable (oral and manual inflation at a minimum), or a combination of both (hybrid). Currently, all USCG approved inflatable PFDs are Type IIIs with manual inflation.

Select a PFD based upon your planned activities and the water conditions you expect to encounter.

Type I
Offshore Life Jacket
Type II
Near-shore Buoyant Vest
Type III
Flotation Aid
Best for open, rough or remote water, where rescue may be slow-coming. Good for calm or inland water, or where there is a good chance of fast rescue Good for conscious users in inland water and where there is good chance of fast rescue.
Advantages Floats you the bestTurns most unconscious wearers face-up in water

Highly visible color

Turns some unconscious wearers face-up in the waterLess bulky, more comfortable than Type I Generally the most comfortable type for continuous wearDesigned for general boating or the activity that is marked on the device

Available in many styles, including vests and flotation coats

Disadvantages Bulky Not for long hours in rough waterWill not turn some unconscious wearers face-up Wearer may have to tilt head back to avoid going face downNot for extended survival in rough water; a wearer’s face may often be covered by waves

All wearers need to try it in water prior to going boating

Inflatables: Inflatables: Some brands are now approved. Be sure to check for USCG approval. Type III Inflatables: Will keep many unconscious wearers face-up after inflation, but must be regularly inspected and re-armed to be reliable. Inflatables are not for non-swimmers, or for long hours in rough water. Inflatables are not for use where high speed impact is likely to occur.
Type IV
Throwable Device
Type V
Special Use Device
Advantages: Can be thrown to someone.Are good backup to wearable PFDs. More convenient or useful for specific activities.Continuous wear prevents being caught without protection. Most accidents happen suddenly and unexpectedly.
Disadvantages: Not for unconscious person, non-swimmers or children.Not for many hours in rough water. Less safe than other Types if not used according to label conditions.May be better suited to cool climates or seasons.

Some Type Vs are approved only when worn. If marked this way, they are required to be worn to be counted as a regulation PFD.

Notes: Kinds: Cushions, rings and horseshoe buoys. Hold to chest and put arms through opposite straps. Performance: Equal to either Type I, II or III performance as noted on the label.




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