Sailing Life Jackets 101: Which One Should I Use — A Guide

life jackets hanging

Everyone knows that life jackets—or Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs)—are important when they’re going out to sail or undergo recreational water activities. While it remains basic knowledge that it can prevent drowning, many don’t realize that there are different types for different situations—and knowing all of it can literally save your life.

Before going on a sailing trip or embarking on a water adventure, ensure you have the appropriate sailing life jacket on-hand. Knowing the differences between life jackets and when to use them won’t only protect you from the water, but it will also avoid you from getting in trouble with the US Coast Guard (USCG).

Factors in Choosing a Sailing Life Jacket

More often than not, the sailboat you’re on will have a number of PFDs ready just to remain compliant to the regulations set forth by the USCG. Despite this, however, many don’t know when to wear a sailing life jacket or even if the life jacket is appropriate for the situation at all.

When picking out a life jacket for yourself, there are three basic factors that will determine your choice: the floatation capability, the activity you’re doing, and the size. By keeping these three in mind, you can more or less choose the best most suited for you.

Floatation Capability

A life vest’s floatation capability is the basic reason you’re wearing it in the first place. This factor is measured in pounds (or Newtons for those in the UK) and determines how much weight it can handle. Bigger values mean better buoyancy—meaning its capability of lifting your head from the water is better.

Water Activity Involved

Your life vest is largely determined by the activity you’re undergoing. Some activities do not require constant wear of a vest, while other activities or water situations do. This can also be determined by how much boat traffic a route has or if the area has local security watching over the waters in case of need of a rescue.


While this generally doesn’t matter for adults, children—or pets, for that matter—require special sailing life vests for them to use. Regular life vests may not fit properly, causing it to simply slip off, especially in harsher conditions. By having size-appropriate vests on-hand, you can assure that all passengers have a good-fitting vest in case of an emergency.

Types of Sailing Life Vests According to US Standards

There are five types of sailing life vests aptly numbered (I – V) according to its use and floating capability.

Type I

Also called Off-shore Life Jackets, these are applicable for use in all types of water that may not have access to immediate rescue personnel. These are usually bulky and have at least 33 pounds of floatation—while effective, these aren’t comfortable to be worn regularly.

Type II

These are called Near-shore vests and are perfect for calm, inland waters with easy access to emergency rescue. While it provides 15.5 pounds of floatation, it might not always get to turn an unconscious wearer to a face-up position.

Type III

Floatation aids fall in this category and are only used for areas with easy access to quick rescue. Providing 15.5 pounds of floatation, these are comfortable to move around in, but can’t provide help to unconscious passengers.

Type IV

Throwable devices are the PFDs here and are designed to be thrown towards someone who needs help. These are not usable by people who don’t know how to swim or are unconscious. It provides between 16.5-18 pounds of floatation and is not usually seen in smaller boats.

Type V

Specialized PFDs that are made for specific water activities—such as sailing, kayaking,

water skiing, and windsurfing—fall under Type V. These generally have between 15.5-22 pounds of floatation, depending on the activity.


Preparing the right sailing life jacket for the right situation is crucial to avoid any accidents. By knowing some of its basic differences, you can make the right call for the right situation.

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