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Whether you are racing a yacht offshore, cruising the coastline or heading out into the bay in a dinghy, lifejackets are an essential safety item for all sailors. However, the type of sailing you are doing will affect your choice of lifejacket, and there are a wide variety on the market to choose from.
Questions to ask when choosing a life vest –
- Do you need it to inflate automatically or would a manual pull mechanism be more suitable?
- Do you need a harness attachment so that you can clip a safety line onto your lifejacket?
- How much buoyancy do you require?
- Which added features do you need?
Manual lifejackets have a string which when pulled pushes a firing pin into the CO2 canister to inflate it.
Automatic lifejackets have a salt tablet firing mechanism. When the salt dissolves in water, a spring loaded pin is fired into the gas canister head which inflates the lifejacket. Salt tablet firing systems may very occasionally be set off while still onboard if the lifejacket is heavily doused in water.
Hammar lifejackets are designed to use hydrostatic pressure to activate the firing pin. The hammar firing system will only fire with submersion in the water.
Both the Automatic and Hammar automatic options have a manual override too.
Manual lifejackets are more commonly used aboard motor boats.
Automatic lifejackets are suited to yachts where the risk of being knocked out during a man overboard situation is increased.
If you require a harness attachment, the fastening buckle on the lifejacket may vary from the standard male/female clip that is used on a lifejacket without harness attachment. This is because the attachment needs to be weight bearing. In most cases it means that the lifejacket is more expensive.
Safety harnesses are most commonly required on sailboats. These allow sailors to clip onto a jackstay or strong point with a safety line or tether and keep them from falling overboard.
Most motor boats do not have jackstays fitted.
Lifejackets come with different levels of buoyancy.
150N is the European Standard required for an adult inflatable lifejacket.
Lifejackets are available with higher buoyancy – 165N, 190N, 290N.
The extra buoyancy will keep you floating higher in the water, so if you are venturing further from the coast into offshore or ocean sailing then it may be worth considering a higher level of buoyancy.
Buoyancy Aids, or PFD’s (Personal Floatation Device), have less buoyancy and are designed to keep a conscious person afloat. They are not designed to turn someone onto to their back and keep their head out of the water like an inflatable lifejacket.
Buoyancy aids that have a rating of 50N are primarily used by dinghy sailors who are able to swim and have help close by.
Lifejackets generally come with crotch straps as a standard feature but it is worth checking as they prevent the lifejacket slipping over your head.
If you have a lifejacket without crotch straps it is possible to purchase them so that they can be fitted retrospectively -
JIMMY GREEN UNIVERSAL LIFEJACKET CROTCH STRAPS
Other features, such as lights, hoods and pockets for location devices can be included as part of the lifejacket or bought separately to be fitted before use.
The RNLI Lifejackets page has additional information that you may wish to read before purchasing your lifejacket -
RNLI COMPLETE GUIDE TO LIFEJACKETS