Required Features and Advantages of Inflatable PFDs

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In 1996 the U.S. Coast Guard began approving inflatable personal flotation devices (PFDs) to meet the requirement to have onboard one PFD per person. Although inflatable PFDs are somewhat more complicated than standard lifejackets with inherent (built-in) buoyancy, and certain specific requirements must be met, automatic inflatables offer key advantages for sailors, especially those going offshore.

Inflatable PFDs must meet Coast Guard rules.

Gary Jobson, head of U.S. Sailing and a winner of the America's Cup race, explains the importance of wearing a PFD and the advantages of using an inflatable type.

Many inflatable PFDs now manufactured feature both automatic and manual inflation modes. The automatic mode is simple in concept but more complex in engineering. A cylinder of compressed gas is connected to a firing pin, which is engaged when the mechanism is immersed in water. If this mechanism does not fire automatically after immersion, the user can jerk the manual inflation lanyard (the yellow handle in the photo) to activate the firing.

After firing, the compressed gas rapidly inflates the buoyancy bladder, which expands out of the encased fabric housing worn over the shoulders and around the neck, providing significant buoyancy. A tube with a one-way valve is also connected to the bladder, allowing the user to blow air into the bladder for buoyancy if the automatic device fails or if the gas gradually escapes after inflation.

Legal Requirements

Some inflatable PFDs are Coast Guard Type I PFDs, which means they are designed for use offshore and should turn a wearer who is unconscious on the back and keep the person’s face out of the water. Type I PFDs have the greatest buoyancy. Other inflatable PFDs may be type II, III, or V, with varying amounts of buoyancy and other design differences.

Most important, consider which type is safest and most appropriate for your own boating needs.

Following are the legal requirements for using an inflatable:

  • The PFD must be USCG approved, as indicated by a label on the PFD. (Some early models were not approved and may still be in circulation, although most units manufactured presently are approved.)
  • The PFD must be the appropriate size for the user.
  • The PFD must have a full cylinder and the firing mechanism must have a green status indicator showing that the device is armed and ready for use (shown in the detail photo).
  • The PFD must be in good condition, including the inflating device, the air bladder, the oral inflation tube, and the manual inflation lanyard.
  • The PFD must actually be worn to meet the USCG carriage requirement for having one PFD onboard per person—unlike inherently buoyant life jackets, which are not required to be worn at all times (except by children) but which must be readily accessible.
  • Inflatable PFDs do not meet the requirement for users under age 16 (because they may not be mature enough to understand how to use the manual inflation mechanism if the automatic mechanism fails).
  • Inflatable PFDs are not recommended—though this is not a legal requirement—for nonswimmers (who may not be able to keep their head above water long enough to use the manual mode or the oral tube for refilling the bladder).

    Advantages of Inflatable PFDs

    • They are more comfortable to wear because they are less bulky. An inherently buoyant life jacket that is carried but not worn at all times does meet the legal requirement but can’t save your life if you go in the water without it. Sailors are more likely to actually wear an inflatable type at more times than a regular life jacket, especially when wearing a bulky jacket or foul weather gear.

    • Many inflatables provide more buoyancy. A standard noninflatable adult-size lifejacket provides 15.5 to 22 lbs. of buoyancy, depending on its type. Many models of inflatable PFDs provide 33-34 lbs. and will therefore keep the user’s head higher out of the water, making it easier to breathe and lowering the risk of hypothermia.

    • Many inflatable PFD models designed for offshore sailors have a built-in harness. When connected by a tether clipped to the boat, the harness helps keep the person from going overboard in dangerous conditions.

      The primary disadvantages of inflatable PFDs are their higher cost and need for regular service and replacement of the gas cylinder after use.

      Is an Inflatable PFD Right for You?

      As the Coast Guard says, the best PFD is the one you will wear. Because many inflatables are more comfortable, you can easily get used to wearing one. Common sense says it’s best to wear it all the time, not just offshore, because most drownings occur when people fall off boats relatively near the shore, even in calm water.

      Finally, if you are flying somewhere to get on a boat and want to take your inflatable, note that some airlines restrict carrying PFDs with gas cylinders or have special rules for checked or carry-on baggage. The FAA allows these cylinders but leaves it to each airline to set their own restrictions. Check the airline’s website before you buy your ticket.

      Read more about other sailing safety topics.