Personal Flotation Devices

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Whenever youíre out on the water, or even just on a dock, safety experts recommend wearing a proper-fitting life jacket (or personal flotation device, PFD). With several different styles and features available, we find out which best keeps you afloat without sinking your wallet.

The Basics

  • The most important thing is for your PFD to fit snugly, without impeding movement.

  • Look for PFDs that are labelled as tested by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

  • Red, yellow, and orange PFDs are best for visibility. Blue and green are hard for rescuers to see.

  • If you engage in many different water sports, consider a sport-specific PFD. For example:

    • Kayaking PFDs have bigger armholes for ease of movement.

    • Extra straps keep water-skiing vests on during wipe-outs.

  • A great choice if you don’t like the constriction of regular vests are PFDs with CO2 cartridges that inflate when you hit water. But be aware: They can inflate with even the slightest contact with water, including a sudden splash. A replacement cartridge is needed after each inflation, so add that into the overall cost.

Be Aware

  • Once a PFD has been altered, its safety approval is no longer assured. If you’re buying used, avoid PFDs that have been patched, have badges or logos sewn on, or have been excessively written on.

  • Avoid buying used jackets made of kapok, which is found in some older PFDs. This is a natural fibre encased in plastic, but if the plastic rips, it absorbs water, turning the jacket into an anchor, not a life preserver.

  • Check the Coast Guard’s website for any recalls.

  • Remember PFDs only work when they are worn, and in the case of children they do not take the place of parent supervision!


We invited some casual boaters, water ski enthusiasts, and professional sailors to help us test these three PFDs:

  • Stearns Boater’s Vest: $35
  • Buoy-O-Boy Float Coat: $229
  • The Mustang Air Force (CO2 inflatable): $289

Buoyancy Test

We jumped into the water from one boat and swam to a nearby lifeboat to test the buoyancy and swim comfort:

  • The Buoy-O-Boy Float Coat was buoyant and warmer than the others.

  • The Stearns and Mustang Air Force both provided sufficient buoyancy as well.

Typical Use Test

  • Our professional sailors definitely preferred the Mustang for its slim fit. The others were too cumbersome for them to work in.

  • The Bouy-O-Boy was also cumbersome and meant for use in colder weather situations.

  • The Stearns Boater’s vest did the job for those of us who didn’t need lots of maneuverability.


Our avid sailors liked the Mustang Air Force inflatable PFD, but with a price tag that could sink your wallet, we picked the more reasonably-priced Stearns Boaters vest, for more casual on-the-water use.

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