Here comes summer! And for 142 million Americans, that includes boating-related fun. As part of National Safe Boating Week, we’re spotlighting personal floatation devices (PFDs) because without a doubt, PFDs save lives.

Drowning is fast and silent, and accidents are sudden and unexpected, making it important to wear a PFD when on or near water. In 2016, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) counted 4,463 boating accidents involving 701 deaths, according to Recreational Boating Statistics. Where cause of death was known, 80 percent of fatal boating accident victims drowned, and of those, 83 percent were not wearing a life jacket. Half of these fatalities occurred in calm water. Two-thirds of victims were considered good swimmers.

Choosing a Life jacket


PFDs are more comfortable than ever and come in many styles. For example, people

age 16 and older can choose a minimal-profile PFD for boating or fishing that

inflates only if immersed in water. This kind, called inflatables, require more

care during use and are best suited for swimmers, points out the USCG. They’re also

comfy and lightweight – and can keep the wearer cooler than older bulkier


The USCG regulates life jackets, and labels bear one of five rating codes. The Washington State Park’s Adventures in Boating Washington Handbook explains that most boaters need Type I, Type II or Type III, with specific activities like water skiing and personal watercraft operation requiring Type III or Type V. Very specialized activities, like kayaking, require Type V. Here’s what each rating means:

Type I: Offshore

Wearable Vest.

Best for open, rough or remote water where rescue may be slow. Provides the

most buoyancy. Turns most unconscious wearers face-up in water.

Type II: Near-Shore Wearable Vest. Good for calm or inland water where fast rescue is likely. Less bulky, more comfortable than Type I. Will turn some unconscious wearers face up.

Type III: Wearable Floatation Aid. Vest or jacket made for conscious users in inland waterways where fast rescue is likely. Available in many styles.

Type IV: Throwable Device. Ring or

cushion designed to be thrown to someone in distress.

Type V: Special-Use Wearable Device. Available in many styles, like vests, deck suits, etc., designed for specific activities such as windsurfing, fishing or whitewater kayaking. Must be used in accordance with their label only for the approved activity.

As of Oct. 22, 2014, the USCG removed the requirement of rating codes on labels for PFDs to allow the PFD industry to adopt new standards that simplifies labels for the public. However, while the industry works on new labeling standards, PFDs still are manufactured and tested to USCG rating codes by independent rating agencies like UL, and labels still include the type designation.

For help choosing the right PFD, take the Safe Boating Campaign’s quiz.

Fitting a Life Jacket

To fit a PFD, the USGS says, check the label to ensure that the

life jacket is the right size based on the wearer’s weight and size. Kids need

a PFD specifically for kids that fits now (i.e. it’s not something that they can

grow into). Then, check the fit for each person’s PFD with these steps:

1. Properly fasten it.

2. Hold arms straight up

over the head.

3. Have someone grasp

the tops of the arm openings and gently pull up.

4. Make sure there is no

excess room above the openings and that the jacket does not ride up over the

chin or face.

Most states require kids 12 and under to wear a USCG-approved PFD while boating, and many require kayakers and personal watercraft operators of any age to, as well. For adults, most states only require a PFD on board the boat, but stowing them won’t help in an emergency.

“Accidents on the water happen much too fast to reach and put on a stowed life jacket,” points out the National Safe Boating Council. So choose a life jacket that fits your body and your activity – and that you’ll wear.