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Life preservers are serious business
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The U.S. Coast Guard recommends boaters wear a life jacket at all times they are on a dock or in a boat.
Life jackets, personal flotation devices, PFD’s – no matter what you call them, if someone says, “Put on your life preserver” you probably know exactly what they mean.

When I purchased my first boat in this area several years ago my salesman told me that my purchase included a “Coast Guard Kit.” When I inquired what was in the kit, he simply said, all the stuff you need to satisfy the Coast Guard so you don’t get a ticket. Seldom have I heard such an understatement, for inside, among a few other little things required by the United States Coast Guard, were six life preservers.

Now, do yourself a favor and please stop reading for a second, and just say “life preserver” to yourself – those two words are profound. Most of you have probably never taken life preservers too seriously unless you take children on a boat. I’ve yet to see my friends with children take a cavalier attitude toward their small kids wearing a life preserver when they are on a boat, and for good reason – the same reason we should all wear them anytime we are around the water.

There are five types of life preservers and my recommendation is that you obtain and wear the best one, so let’s take a look at them and see their pros and cons.

Type 1 life preservers are usually designed to keep you higher afloat in the water than the others, and to automatically roll you on your back with your face out of the water in case you are unconscious or injured in some other way. And yes, they are also the most bulky and uncomfortable type. Life just seems to be that way doesn’t it? To continue with this aspect of unfairness, you can obtain an inflatable version that is quite a bit more expensive, but also less bulky and more comfortable, especially in hot weather. Just make sure to keep the compressed air cartridge in good shape from year to year. Type 1 life preservers are highly recommended for everyone on board and should be considered essential if you go off shore. No matter what the price, it is cheap for keeping you alive.

Type II life preservers are meant for near shore boating and some will turn an unconscious person over in the water. They are completely acceptable for inshore cruising and where the chances of a quick rescue are very high. They are also more comfortable than Type 1’s and come in inflatable models.

Type III life preservers are also called “floatation aids” and are designed to keep a conscious person in a vertical position. Basically, these are designed to aid conscious people in calm water when the chances are very high they are going to reach safety very quickly.

Type IV life preservers are called “throwable devices” and their purpose is to be thrown at someone in the water who needs assistance until they are rescued. They are often ring buoys, floatable cushions, or even some boat seats are designed for this purpose. While it is not required, it is an excellent idea to attach about 60 feet of polypropylene line (the kind that floats) to the Type IV device to assist in retrieving it. If your boat is 16 feet or more in length, you are required to have at least one of these on board, unless your boat is a kayak or canoe.

Type V devices are much more than life preservers. And are referred to as “special use” devices, such as anti-exposure suits. They may be carried instead of a regular life preserver only if they are used in accordance with the specific instructions on their label. When used properly they offer amazing protection from cold weather and cold water, and are highly recommended, and often essential, if you operate off shore during cold weather months.

Children and life preservers: Not only are those mothers right, but it is a legal requirement that every child, age 6 and under, on a boat under 26 feet have a life preserver on while on the vessel.

Adults and life preservers: To meet Coast Guard requirements, every boat must have a life preserver of suitable size available for every person on board, plus at least one Type IV “throwable device.” If not being worn, the life preservers should be kept in place where they can be immediately accessed. Emergencies usually happen without warning, and the Type IV device is lawfully required to be immediately available. In addition, all life preservers must show the manufacturer’s name and approval number.

It is good to remember that accidents aren’t planned. I know from experience that they happen quickly, often without warning, and often with no one prepared. In the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary we are required to have our life vests on every time we approach the water and keep them on the entire time we are on or near the water. Sometimes people fall off boats, or off of boat docks, and if they happen to hit their head, are injured in some way, or can’t or are unable to swim, wearing a life preserver can simply preserve their life. I’m willing to bet that almost no one who has accidentally drowned recently actually thought they were going to drown that day. I’m also willing to bet that most drowning deaths could have been prevented if that person had been wearing a life preserver.

For more information or to register for the free course please send an email to or call 727-898-1324 and you will be advised of the nearest Boating Skills and Seamanship Course in your area.

And remember, be careful out there!

Loren D. Reuter serves as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 7-2, St. Petersburg, Florida.
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