What should I keep in mind before buying a life jacket?
The range of life jackets on the market is huge. SEATEC, Secumar, Marinepool, Kadematic and Spinlock have developed various life jackets in different shapes, sizes, weights and prices, which means choosing isn't easy. Whether you buy your life jacket online or in a local shop, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Will only one person be using it or will it be used by different people?
- Where will it be used (inland or coastal areas, high seas, dinghy or regatta sailing, rowing, fishing or canoeing)?
- What clothing will be worn under the life jacket?
TIP: You should only buy life jackets that have the CE mark or the steering wheel symbol (see below). These life jackets have undergone EU type certification checks. In addition to the CE mark or the steering wheel symbol, the life jacket may also be marked with a GS test number. This number is proof of regular production inspections.
Once you know the answer to these questions for yourself and your crew, you are ready to start the selection process and find the right life jacket.
What do the buoyancy class specifications mean for a life jacket?
The buoyancy of a life jacket is calculated in Newtons (N). A Newton is the physical unit for force. According to the DIN EN ISO 12402 standard, life jackets are classified according to buoyancy in different classes: 50 N. 100 N. 150 N and 275 N. The body weight of the wearer alone is not the only thing to consider when deciding which life jacket to buy. Instead, where and with what clothing the life jacket is to be worn is more important. If mainly for offshore sailing and in heavy conditions, your life jacket should have at least 275N of buoyancy. The additional weight that sailing clothing has, as well as trapped water and air, has an enormous influence on the weight of the body itself. This should definitely be taken into account in the selection process.
A life jacket should primarily keep the wearer's head above water, keeping the face and respiratory tract out of the water, even if the wearer is unconscious. In order to ensure that your life jacket can turn an unconscious person to a safe position in the water, it should have sufficient buoyancy to do so. Buoyancy depends on your clothing, your own body weight and the water that collects in clothing when it is wet, so this should be considered when selecting. If you intend to be sailing in calmer waters, or in places where you'll be wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, the life jacket will need less buoyancy to keep you afloat.
TIP: Some manufacturers or guides recommend 8 Newtons per 10 kg of body weight. We would advise against following this advice as an absolute rule of thumb. Instead, you should consider where and how the jacket is to be worn, as there are other factors in addition to body weight that are important (as mentioned). If in doubt, seek professional advice. After all, good, expert advice is better than any life jacket test on the internet.
What types of life jacket are there?
Foam life jackets - The classic jacket
Foam jackets have 50 or 100 N buoyancy. PFDs with a buoyancy of 50 N are known as buoyancy aids, they are not intended to keep people afloat for longer periods of time. These kinds of personal flotation device are also worn in regattas, as they are very light. However, they will not bring an unconscious person into a safe position. Nevertheless, they give the wearer plenty of freedom to move and are also perfect for stand-up paddling or kayaking.
The standard inherent buoyancy jacket is orange with a large collar, which ensures that the head of those who have fallen overboard is kept afloat even if they pass out. These models are very robust, have a lifebelt around the waist and a crotch strap that keeps the jacket in place. Foam life jackets are less expensive than automatic life jackets and require less effort. There's not a lot that can go wrong with this type of PFD and they are more reliable than inflatable jackets. Buoyancy is a constant 100N, no matter which model you choose.
The semi-automatic or manual life jacket - The hybrid jacket
Semi-automatic life jackets are the perfect mix between foam life jacket and automatic life jacket. They combine the positive aspects of an automatic life jacket with those of a foam life jacket. Manual life jackets do not automatically trigger when water touches them, so there's no risk of the life jacket accidentally inflating if this happens.
Semi-automatic life jackets are particularly well suited to dinghy sailing, as they are light and comfortable, yet still have good buoyancy.
Automatic life jackets - The modern jacket
A self-triggering or automatic life jacket comprises an outer shell that surrounds the most important part of the life jacket: the swim bladder (or lung). The triggering system itself consists of an automatic release device with a CO2 cartridge and a releasing mechanism, usually a water-soluble tablet, which is attached to this. Should the life jacket come into contact with water, this small tablet dissolves and a lever mechanism punctures a cartridge. The swim bladder fills with air, thus providing the necessary buoyancy. Automatic life jackets come in different buoyancy classes. These range from 100N to 300N buoyancy.
The type you choose depends largely on where you are travelling with your boat.
Are life jackets compulsory in Germany?
Until now, life jackets have only been compulsory on charter boats in Germany. However, boat owners who are travelling with a crew are also required to provide adequate life jackets for their fellow crew members. The BSH gives clear recommendations on how to use and wear life jackets on board in its publications on the subject of "Safety on the water":
It states that for adults, "All water sports enthusiasts who understand the importance of safety - even good swimmers - must wear life jackets when on the water."
For children: "Children should always wear children's life jackets. This applies to when they are both on and off the boat and in the water."
As the owner, you are responsible for your crew. For this reason, every boat should carry an adequate number of life jackets for all crew members.
What additional equipment should I buy for my automatic life jacket?
If a crew member goes overboard, there will be a much better chance of getting them back on board, and improve their survival rate, if a life jacket is fitted with additional equipment. Find out about useful additional equipment here.
Life jacket spray caps
There is a particular danger for those who fall overboard if they are in the water for too long. Not only is the rapid cooling of the body a factor, they can also breathe in spray in heavy seas or strong winds. The salt in the spray settles in the lungs, where it retains water and moisture, which can increase the risk of internal drowning, without a noticeable amount of water having been swallowed.A spray cap, spray hood or spray guard can prevent this "internal drowning".
A spray cap works in a similar way to a hood. In an emergency it can be pulled over the head and the inflated life jacket. The wearer is thus protected from waves and splashing water.
A spray cap also reduces the risk of hypothermia caused by heat lost through the head. But not every life jacket comes with such a cap. Therefore, be sure to read through the list of available accessories for your life jacket. If there is no spray cap, you can add one yourself without much effort. In this case, please make sure you have the right model. Our experts will be happy to advise you.
Crotch strap for life jackets
Some life jackets come with a crotch strap already fitted or supplied in the delivery. With other life jackets, a crotch strap can be added. This is used to hold the life jacket to the body and prevent the jacket from slipping up. It helps optimise the wearer's position in the water and keeps the jacket in place. This is especially important if the person who has fallen overboard is not conscious. All seafarers will tell you that it's always better to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. After all, it's better to be safe than sorry!
Adding a small additional item, such as a correctly fitting crotch strap, can significantly increase the chance of survival.
Distress lights for life jackets
Most automatic life jackets can be fitted with emergency lights to increase the chance of a quick rescue in poor visibility or darkness.
Here too, there is a wide range of different lights on the market. Some lights are stuck directly onto the air chamber and illuminate the whole jacket, other manufacturers use antenna-shaped lights, which are fastened to the jacket with velcro tape and either activate automatically on water contact or when the life jacket is inflated in the event of an emergency, or can be switched on manually. The light duration of individual life jacket lights is very different and varies between 2 and 10 hours.
Emergency transmitters for life jackets
Numerous distress transmitters are also compatible with life jackets and ensure even faster rescue from the water. The first step when selecting one is to check which type of signal you want to use, whether AIS, DSC, EPIRB/ PLB or a direction-finding transmitter. For example, MOB signals can be transmitted directly to rescue stations or sent back on board (e.g. to a GPS device), as in most cases the boat will be close to the person who has gone overboard and therefore the chances of finding them more quickly are greater.
Once you have decided on a type, make sure that the transmitter is also suitable for life jackets. It should not have any sharp edges or antennae that could damage the swim bladder. In some cases, a life jacket could prevent or block the antenna from extending or the life jacket and distress transmitter may block each other. A distress transmitter must have been approved for the respective life jacket in order to guarantee the functionality of the transmitter and life jacket.
Emergency transmitters for life jackets
Life lines for life jackets
Many life jackets have the option of attaching a so-called lifeline or safety line.
One end of the lifeline is attached to the life jacket via a loop or d-ring, the other is attached to the boat. If a person falls overboard, he is safely anchored to the boat by the safety line and can easily be brought back on board. Lifelines also provide additional safety in bad weather. When moving on deck, the crew member can clip into the jackline leading from bow to stern and thus safely perform duties on the foredeck. Some life jackets come with a safety line as standard.
Be careful with the terminology: There are safety lines (also known as harness line, lanyard or tether) and safety harnesses. The safety harness is worn by the user. It can also be a life jacket with an integrated harness. To provide assurance that the wearer will remain attached to the vessel, the safety line must be securely attached to the safety harness.
Safety lines are available for children and adults as fixed webbing or flexible stretch lines. Discover our SEATEC life jacket sets, which are supplied with a safety line.
Life lines for life jackets
Putting on your life jacket correctly
A life jacket can only really become a part of everyday life on board if it is comfortable to wear and put on correctly. In the following, we explain step by step how to put on a life jacket the right way:
- If you are wearing a sailing jacket or top with a hood or collar under the life jacket, you may want to lift the collar first or put the hood on under the life jacket. This also applies to sailing jackets that have a concealed hood in the collar, take it out and put it on. This will not only make the life jacket sit more comfortably, but the hood also prevents the head from cooling down too quickly in an emergency.
- Now put on the life jacket on.
- Tighten the chest strap so that only your fingertips can fit between the strap and your chest.
- You can now put the hood down (if you want to) or fold the collar to the desired position.
- If your life jacket has a crotch strap, put it on and tighten it so that there is no play in the upright position, but you can still move comfortably. The crotch strap prevents the life jacket from sliding up towards the head in an emergency.
- If you have a lifeline or safety line, attach it to the jacket and secure yourself to the deck of the boat.
Life jacket maintenance
The life expectancy of an automatic life jacket is around 10 years. During this period, the life jacket should beserviced every 2 years. Regular life jacket maintenance ensures that it is ready for use in an emergency and functions as intended. Children's automatic life jackets must also be serviced every two years. A manufacturer-authorised service station in your area can be found on the life jacket manufacturer's website.
When servicing an automatic life jacket, the automatic seals are replaced, the trigger power checked, and the CO2 cartridge inspected for fine hairline cracks. The buoyancy chamber or swim bladder is also closely examined and checked for leaks and damage. Particular attention is paid to the seams here.
If your life jacket is still usable after 10 years,,it must be serviced annually to detect signs of ageing in good time. After 15 years, your life jacket will have reached the end of its useable life and it will no longer be serviced. At this point, we recommend that you purchase a new one. While life jackets are not required to be maintained by law, if an accident occurs due to a life jacket not being maintained to a suitable standard, the boat owner is held responsible. This applies to all life jackets on board.
Spare parts sets for automatic life jackets
Once an automatic life jacket has been activated, the trigger must then be replaced to make it operational again. CO2 cartridges in life jackets can be very different, depending on the manufacturer. There are cartridges with screw thread or bayonet lock and different weights. The correct CO2 cartridge can be found in the operating instructions for your life jacket. The required weight of the CO2 cartridge can also be found on a label inside the jacket or printed on the buoyancy chamber (inside the protective cover). If you know the type of inflation device and the filling quantity of the CO2 cartridge, you can quickly and easily find the right spare parts set consisting of CO2 cartridges, salt tablets and holders for the brand of your jacket in our online shop.
Guidelines and regulations for life jackets
In order to ensure that a life jacket offers the protection it claims to in an emergency, it must meet certain requirements in Europe. The PSA regulation stipulates a detailed EU type-inspection, as well as production monitoring by an official institution. The technical design of PPE (personal protective equipment) is compared with the requirements of this directive or regulation. Europe-wide, uniform standards such as DIN EN ISO 12402 for buoyancy aids and life jackets and DIN EN ISO 12401 for safety lines and safety straps are available for this purpose. The CE labelling of a life jacket confirms its compliance with these requirements. Not only the life jacket, but all its components, such as foils, material, straps and fittings, are subject to standardisation. Older life jackets may still have BG approval. This stands for approval by the Berufsgenossenschaft (SeeBG or BSBG), the German Accident Prevention & Insurance Association, which has since been replaced by CE approval.
In commercial shipping, a so-called SOLAS wheel identifies the life jacket as a tested model. The term SOLAS stands for „International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea“ and refers to a UN convention on ship safety. Life jackets that are certified according to SOLAS must, for example, be equipped with a sea emergency light.
In Germany, the similar legal requirements of the EU are implemented via the Production Safety Act (ProdSG), which comprises regulations on the safety requirements of consumer products and technical aids.
It’s worthwhile testing your life jacket, even if you have to put a new cartridge in after!
Written by our SVB (technical) experts
Our SVB safety experts regularly carry out maintenance checks and tests on our safety products, such as life jackets, life rafts etc. They test products and base their recommendations on many years of experience and their own know-how.