Boating Basics Online - Basic Boating Safety Course
Chapter 4 - Required Equipment
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Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)/Life Jackets

PFDs/Life Jackets are important life saving devices and are required onboard. Make sure when selecting a PFD that it is U.S. Coast Guard approved, is of the Type (see below) that is recommended for its intended use and is designed for a person of your size and weight.

One wearable PFD for each person aboard is required and they should be stowed where readily accessible and correctly sized for the persons using them. (Readily accessible does not include being in the plastic wrapper in which it came or stowed forward in the v-berth under 5 cases of soda.) It is a good idea to place a PFD next to each seat before getting underway.

In addition to a wearable PFD for each person, one Type IV throwable device, which should be immediately available, is also required on each boat 16 feet or larger.

Federal Regulations mandate that states without child life jacket laws require that youths under 13 wear an approved PFD whenever a recreational boat is underway, unless below decks or in a closed cabin. States with existing regulations are not required to alter their status. Make sure you check your state regulations before getting underway with children onboard.

Arkansas - Who is required to wear a PFD (life jacket):

  • Children under the age of 13 must wear a well-fitting PFD at all times while aboard a boat. The only exceptions are within the enclosed area of a houseboat, cruiser or within the railing of a party barge while the boat is not underway.
  • Occupants of personal watercraft (JetSkis, Seadoos, etc.)
  • Persons being towed on water skis, tubes or similar devices

Approximately 80 percent of victims in fatal boating accidents die because they are not wearing a life jacket. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission encourages you to wear your life jacket at all times while boating!

Life Jackets: They won't work if you don't wear them!

Even if not required, every boater should wear a PFD when in dangerous conditions. Dangerous conditions include:

Any time you feel you are in danger or simply apprehensive about a situation remember the following: when in doubt, get it out, and put it on. According to U.S. Coast Guard recreational boating statistics, drowning is the cause of approximately 70% of all fatal boating accidents. Of those that drowned, approximately 90% were not wearing a life jacket.

Remember, conditions on the water can change rapidly. Be prepared by wearing your PFD.

Putting on a PFD while on land or in a stable boat can be a simple task. However, donning a PFD while in the water can be a very difficult task. You don't have the same leverage or balance you would normally have. Although you should have on a PFD prior to entering the water, you should practice putting on a PFD while in a pool or in shallow water to experience first hand what it would be like.

The following is a list of types of PFDs and their intended use.

TYPES OF PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICES (PFDs)
boating safety course pfd
A TYPE I PFD, or OFFSHORE LIFE JACKET provides the most buoyancy. It is effective for all waters, especially open, rough, or remote waters where rescue may be delayed. It is designed to turn most unconscious wearers in the water to a face-up position. The TYPE I comes in two sizes: Adult size provides at least 22 pounds of buoyancy, the child size, 11 pounds, minimum.
boating safety course pfd
A TYPE II PFD, NEAR-SHORE BUOYANT VEST is intended for calm, inland water or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. This type will turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position. The turning action is not as pronounced nor as effective as a TYPE I. An adult size provides at least 15.5 pounds buoyancy, a medium child size provides 11 pounds. Infant and small child sizes each provide at least 7 pounds buoyancy.
boating safety course pfd
A TYPE III PFD, or FLOTATION AID is good for calm, inland water, or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. This type will not turn unconscious wearers to a face-up position. The wearer may have to tilt their head back to avoid turning face down. TYPE III has the same minimum buoyancy as a TYPE II PFD. Float coats, fishing vests, and vests designed for various water sports are examples. Some Type III PFDs are designed to be inflated upon entering the water.
boating safety course pfd
A TYPE IV PFD, or THROWABLE DEVICE is intended for calm, inland water with heavy boat traffic, where help is always present. It is designed to be thrown to a person in the water and grasped and held by the user until rescued. It is not designed to be worn. Type IV devices include buoyant cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys.
boating safety course pfd

A TYPE V PFD, or SPECIAL USE DEVICE is intended for specific activities and may be carried instead of another PFD only if used according to the approval condition on the label. Some Type V devices provide hypothermia protection. Varieties include deck suits, work vests, board sailing vests, and Hybrid PFDs. A TYPE V HYBRID INFLATABLE PFD is the least bulky. It contains a small amount of inherent buoyancy and an inflatable chamber and must be worn when underway to be acceptable. This type is designed to automatically inflate upon entering the water.

Make sure your PFDs are in good condition before leaving the dock. Ultraviolet sunlight, rough handling and improper storage make it necessary to ensure that your PFD is in serviceable condition. This is a U.S. Coast Guard requirement.

If your PFD is discolored, torn or has torn straps, discard and replace it.

Exposure to sunlight and moisture can deteriorate PFDs rapidly. Let your PFD drip dry thoroughly before putting it away. If your PFD has been in salt water, rinse it thoroughly with fresh water. Stow your PFDs in a well ventilated place.

Inflatable PFDs

Inflatable PFDs are now available in types III and V. However, the characteristics of inflatable PFDs are different than inherently buoyant PFDs. Inflatable PFDs are not inherently buoyant and will not float without inflation.

Although inflatable PFDs are considered one of the most comfortable PFDs to wear when it's hot, inflatable PFDs require regular maintenance and are not recommended for children and young adults under the age of 16, or for individuals who can't swim. Inflatable PFDs are not for use when water impact is expected, such as when waterskiing, riding personal watercraft, or whitewater paddling.

An inflatable PFD requires regular maintenance - the owner's manual should be read and kept as reference.

To insure proper operation make sure that:

Lack of proper maintenance will render the inflatable PFD useless.

Ensure a Proper Fit

There's no question that life jackets save lives. However, a life jacket that does not fit properly can put a person at risk of drowning. Proper fit is imperative for safety on the water.

To insure the proper fit of a PFD, have the wearer put on a PFD and adjust the straps as necessary to ensure a snug fit. Have the wearer raise his or her arms above their head. With his or her arms raised above their head, pull up firmly on the upper straps of the PFD. A properly fitted PFD will not ride higher than the ears or mouth of the wearer. Follow the tips below to insure that the PFD you will be wearing is effective.

What is the safest life jacket? In terms of risk of drowning, the safest life jacket is the one you are willing to wear! There are many good choices to keep you safe on the water. Some choices are better for certain situations than others, and therefore the choices are explained in the "Think Safe" life jacket pamphlet that comes with every U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket. By reading the pamphlet, you can understand how to safely have fun on the water.

Note: The fitting procedure above is not applicable to inflatable PFDs. For inflatable PFDs, the retaining strap should be adjusted loosely to allow for inflation of the device.

Personal Flotation Device Labels

Manufacturers include valuable information about each PFD on the product label. The label provides information about the PFDs intended uses, along with information about the size of person it will fit, care instructions, and how to wear or 'don' the PFD. Keep in mind that using the PFD outside of its listed restrictions and intended use is illegal, and can result in receiving a ticket or, more significantly, the loss of a loved one. The picture below shows a label you would find on a typical life jacket.

PFD LabelPFD Label

Operator's Responsibility

It is the responsibility of the owner/operator of the watercraft to inform passengers of the location of PFDs onboard, the importance of wearing them, how to make sure they fit correctly and under what conditions they are absolutely necessary to be worn. Emphasis should be put on the fact that a life jacket is much harder to put on in the water and passengers should be encouraged to wear them at all times while underway.

If you wait until you are in the water it may be too late.

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