By: Captain Bill Jennings
It has always been frustrating that the legal requirements for PFD's were different between Canada and the USA. Now, a North American standards group has revised regulations to harmonize the two countries regulations and standards. Better late than never.
The new labeling system is simple. It clarifies the activities for which a jacket is designed, and how much life saving buoyancy it will carry. The tag lists things for which it is not approved and a list of boat sizes for which the life jacket may be used. The tags even identify the weight sizes of the person that can wear it.
Understanding and complying with the new joint standards is critical for every boater. The old system that used "Type" descriptions to categorize PFDs has been replaced by “Performance Level” groups. As noted, this system lists on the PFD tag, the activities for which the PFD is not approved. "Type" numbers are replaced with "Performance Levels" -- 50, 70, 100, or 150. Instead of each "Type" having a specific buoyancy, as labelled in the old system, the new system allows for a range of buoyancy ratings within each "Performance Level." Boaters can simply check the size panel on each PFD to identify the body weight and buoyancy for which it is approved.
We all know what buoyancy means, but do you know how it relates to life jackets? It goes way back to Mr. Archimedes who discovered that any object, or person, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, experiences an upward thrust or buoyancy force, equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces. Sadly -- for all his understanding of buoyancy Archimedes never owned a powerboat. However, life jacket manufacturers today take advantage of his discovery by building jackets with sufficient buoyancy that when coupled with the Archimedes buoyancy, will keep your head out of the water.
Did you know that 15.5 lbs of flotation is sufficient flotation to keep 95% of adult heads out of the water? And a jacket with 22 lbs. of flotation will keep 99% percent of heads out of the water. If you think you could be a fathead, you should check the label before you buy.
Adult life jackets are sized by chest circumference. Know your chest size and check the tag on the jacket to see if it will fit. Similarly check that the buoyancy number covers your weight. Did you know that it is illegal to wear a poorly fitting life jacket? This is because of the danger a poor fit presents. Once your size is selected, check the fit by first cinching up the bottom strap below the ribcage. Then lift up on the shoulder straps. If the jacket does not slip up and over the face it's a good fit.
Existing rules state that boaters are required to have at least one approved lifejacket or Personal Flotation Device on board for each person on the watercraft. Did you know that this includes all human-powered craft, including paddle boards?
For most life jackets, manufacturers use Polyvinyl chloride and polyethylene foams because these foams do not readily absorb water over time. And you must keep your jackets away from chemicals, fumes or excessive heat, as these will break down the integrity of the foam. Did you know that you can't dry clean a life jacket? Well I guess you can, but it will ruin your jacket.
Inflatable PFDs are growing in popularity because they are very comfortable to wear, but did you know this? Inflatable vests, both manual and auto-inflate, are not approved for use by people less than 16 years of age or people weighing less than 36.3 kg (80 lbs). Furthermore, they are not counted at all as one of your onboard PFD's unless you are wearing it. This rule was added for Inflatables because they are trickier to put on than a wet T-shirt - which eliminated them from the "readily accessible" category. You probably already knew that inflatables are not approved for use on a personal watercraft, or for participants in any tow sport.
Do you know how long the CO2 cartridge in an inflatable vest is designed to last? Most have a three-year expiration from the date of manufacture, while hydrostatic cartridges have a five-year expiration. There should also be a status dial beside your CO2 canister which must be in the green (same as your fire extinguisher) to tell you when to replace your CO2 canister. Shop around for a good price on these cartridges, because like many marine products, they range from 'really good deal' of under $10 to 'a greedy vendor' price close to $40. Be sure to match the gram contents to your specific inflatable and check there is a threaded top on the canister.
We also have some new rules for jackets to mitigate impact, both from landing in the water and striking something inside the boat. The jacket committee have stated that no life jacket should be used for waterskiing or similar use unless it has been tested and approved for at least a 50 mph impact. Labelled as "Impact Vests," they are similar to a ski vest with a front zipper, but their primary purpose is to protect you from hard falls and bumps that may occur. They are not required to turn you face up in the water. A standard PFD has more floatation in the front and sometimes a collar to assist in rolling you over. Ratings for impact jackets are on the label and read in Newtons. What is a Newton? It is a force that will give a one kilogram mass an acceleration (where there is no friction), of one meter per second every second. You don't have to recall this fact as you fall out of your boat, but do remember that a larger Newton number rating for an impact vest is good.
Lets take a general look at what some of the new performance number ratings include in their classification. A level 50 PFD is a buoyancy aid designed for smooth and mostly smooth waters. They are designed for fishing, kayaking and other activities where you expect to regularly get in the water but do not need a self-turning ability to keep your head above water. They are not recommended for weak or non-swimmers.
Level 70 buoyancy aids are equivalent to the old system’s Type III PFDs. They are the most common PFDs worn by recreational boaters. They are intended for use by those who have a means of rescue close at hand, or who are near shore. These devices have minimal bulk and more than 15.5 pounds of buoyancy, but less turning ability than a type ll. They are not designed to keep the user safe for a long period of time in disturbed water.
Level 100 life jackets feature high flotation and a reasonable self-turning ability. They are for open but sheltered waters. You can compare them to the old type 1 category, ie the traditional life jacket. Size recommendations are provided.
Level 150 life jackets are an open water, offshore deep-water life jacket. They feature high flotation with excellent self turning ability. Approved body weight and chest sizes are noted.
Level 275 life jackets are built for specified commercial applications and extreme offshore water conditions;
Interestingly, there does not seem to be a prescribed standard as yet, for babies under 20lb (9kg).
A major improvement in the new PFD system is the wide choice that is now offered boaters. Considering the multiple manufacturers for each performance level, boaters can now choose between over 40 different models. This should put an end to boaters concerns over finding a jacket that is comfortable.