Life Jackets

Buoyancy Aids and Life jackets


Personal floatation devices come in two main forms buoyancy aids and life-jackets. Worn correctly a personal flotation device could save your life.


A buoyancy aid is designed to keep someone afloat. It allows the wearer full movement whilst an active sporting activity is carried out. However if unconscious, the wearer’s head could be face down in the water.

A life-jacket has a buoyancy distribution designed to turn the user to a position where their mouth is clear of the water, even when they are unconscious. Life-jackets come in different styles and sizes and some will work better for different body styles than others.

RYA guidance

Making the decision about wearing personal buoyancy is generally based upon factors such as weather conditions and the experience of the crew, however if you are a beginner or still relatively inexperienced, making these judgements is often not that easy. Therefore in order to help clarify when a life-jacket or personal buoyancy aid needs to be worn, the RYA recommends that you wear a life-jacket or buoyancy aid unless you are sure you don’t need to.

The RYA strongly recommends that you should always wear personal buoyancy:

  • If you are a non-swimmer and there is any possibility of entering the water
  • When the skipper deems it necessary
  • When abandoning ship
  • When you feel you want to wear one or if you are not totally sure that you do not need to wear one.

The personal flotation device needs to be appropriate to the activity and in general the following will apply:

Buoyancy Aids are suitable for:

  • Using personal water craft
  • When sailing a dinghy
  • Novice windsurfers
  • Providing safety cover for such an activity

Life-jackets are suitable:

  • When on an open boat (e.g. small powerboat or RIB)
  • When going ashore in a yacht tender
  • On a sailing yacht or motor cruiser

Levels of Buoyancy

In addition to selecting between a life-jacket and a buoyancy aid, consideration also needs to be given to the level of buoyancy that is required.

Buoyancy aids and life-jackets have different levels of buoyancy. These levels of buoyancy should be considered and influence your choice. There are four main buoyancy levels: 50, 100, 150 and 275.

In general terms, Level 50 is a buoyancy aid designed for when help is close at hand, whereas Level 150 is a general purpose life jacket used for offshore cruising and motor boating.

Specialist life-jackets are available for infants and children.

You should also consider fitting or buying a life-jacket that is fitted with:

  • crotch straps to stop the life-jacket riding up over your head
  • spray-hood to stop waves and spray entering your mouth
  • lights, dye-markers and personal locator beacons to aid location
  • harness D ring for harness attachment to stop you falling off in the first place

Crotch straps, spray-hoods and lights are frequently not fitted as standard to a life-jacket, but are really essential to actually keep you alive in the water and aid your location.

Life-jackets are intended to keep the wearer’s face and mouth clear of the water, even when unconscious. However, everybody is different and size, weight, shape and other physical attributes of an individual may impact on the life-jacket’s ability to perform as intended, in keeping the user’s mouth clear of the water. Even the clothing you wear might affect this. Where it is possible to do so it may be worthwhile to test your life-jacket in a controlled environment to check that it will work for you.

Where it was once rare to see people wearing life-jackets afloat, it is now an accepted norm.

Please remember that inflatable life-jackets and buoyancy aids require regular checks and servicing.

The levels of buoyancy information sheet includes further information on levels of buoyancy and the labelling of personal floatation devices.

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