Will Your Lifejacket Save Your Life? 


We’re all familiar with the saying, “It’s only a “Lifejacket” if you wear it”.

Unfortunately though there are occasionally lifejacket failures due to faulty design, poor maintenance, or wrong choice of equipment. This article will not advise you which lifejacket to buy but it might warn you of some dangers and advise you what to look out for when purchasing your lifejacket.


Obviously if it is not comfortable, you will not want to wear it. One of the biggest advances in lifejacket design in the last few years has been ergonomics – ease of putting on, comfort when working on deck, easy to adjust to get a good fit or when you need to loosen it to use the heads. But there is a lot more to lifejackets than comfort.


Bigger is not necessarily better. You need to research the various types and choose one that is suitable for your weight and the type of activity you do. Never buy a lifejacket on the basis of “one size fits all”.

Do I need a harness?

Yes! This should be an integral part of your jacket. Alright, I know it adds quite a bit of weight, but you are much better off being clipped on and not falling overboard in the first place. Don’t rely on being lifted back on board even if your lifejacket keeps you afloat.

Crotch straps

You need one to keep your jacket from riding up and slipping over your head, but whichever you choose is a compromise. Most manufacturers seem to have gone back to a single strap. The two strap versions have the tendency to slip round the back of your legs making it impossible to straighten them; this could be potentially dangerous in water. You need to make sure that it is tight enough to keep the lifejacket in place, but loose enough to be comfortable with out catching on things around the cockpit. Actually a properly adjusted waistband should do the job just as well, but many waistbands are fiddly and awkward and impossible to adjust by the wearer without taking the jacket off. Take some time to practice adjusting your jacket’s fit over different layers of clothing before you buy it and remember you’ll probably have to do it in rough weather when the boat is heeling.

Gas cylinders


Some CO2 lifejackets are prone to failure due to the cylinder becoming partially unscrewed and either not firing or only partly filling the bladders. Some makers have installed a locking mechanism that resists any turning movement. It is well worth taking the time to inspect and service the cylinders regularly, looking for signs of corrosion and maybe use a thread-locking compound when you replace the cylinder.

Too much Velcro?

Useful though it is, there have been instances of straps becoming fouled on the Velcro of a lifejacket and not inflating properly because the excessive amount of Velcro refused to let go. Too much Velcro on the back of the jacket can also be annoying and uncomfortable if you have long hair.

Automatic or self inflating?

Automatic are the best. You may not be capable of inflating your own jacket if you are in the sea, trying to keep afloat, tired or frightened. You may even have been knocked unconscious.

The firing mechanism

Most jackets use the “dissolving pill” method of triggering the firing mechanism. Early models were prone to setting off accidentally when doused with a big wave and some manufacturers started using the Hammar hydrostatic trigger instead, but nowadays the newly


improved pill mechanism is used as standard. Just beware that some models can cause confusion because the green indicator cover that breaks away when triggered manually, leaving a red dot (indicating that it has been fired), still shows green when fired automatically.

Lifejacket tests

A lifejacket isn’t something you can test yourself and take back if you’re not satisfied (unless it has an actual fault), so it is well worth while reading about lifejacket tests in boating magazines. These will tell you what’s available and help you to ask the right questions.

Here are some of the issues I’ve picked up on by reading about tests of the very latest lifejackets available.

  • A good lifejacket should inflate quickly and bring the person to the surface on their back with their head out of the water.
  • Some jackets have a bladder with small inflatable side pockets which aid rapid turnover and stability.
  • A sprayhood is good to keep the water away from the face and mouth, but check how it is attached to the jacket. You want one that is easy to position and attached well without fiddly ribbons. Some hoods have a springy boom to keep the hood off the face and make it less claustrophobic.
  • Some jackets have a chin support when inflated. This keeps the mouth clear of the water and the airways open.
  • Check how comfortable the jacket feels around your neck. You don’t want it to pinch or chafe while you are moving about in the water. Remember you may be swimming.
  • Check not only that the jacket has a light and whistle but that they are easy to reach in an emergency.
  • Find out how easy your jacket is to repack. Some are incredibly difficult. You don’t want to be put off using it simply because you can’t face the repacking process.
  • Don’t be taken in by numbers. One jacket might be advertised as having more Newtons of buoyancy than another but it is how the buoyancy is deployed that makes the difference. Big round bladders are not always comfortable and make it difficult to see and move and even breathe.

Finally – the chief functions of a life jacket should be automatic. If the casualty has to pull straps, unstick Velcro tabs and grapple for inaccessible lights and whistles, their lives could be even more at risk.

So – to go back to my first point; “It’s only a “Lifejacket” if it’s the right one for you and it’s worn properly”.

PS. Many people, me included, sail on friends’ boats and borrow a life jacket. It will not necessarily be the right size or shape for you, you won’t be familiar with it, you may not have bothered to find out exactly how it works and it may not have been serviced regularly. The last one I borrowed had a gas cylinder that was seriously out of date. Be warned!

Author - Dee White

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