I’m an expert on life jackets:
- I have a dim memory of being 3 years old and in a small boat with my father, grandfather, and some great uncles. I reached for something pretty in the water. I fell overboard. I was wearing a life jacket.
- I have vivid memories of being reminded of that incident at every wedding and family reunion since then.
Mustang M.I.T. 100 Inflatable PFD (Manual)
Good value for inland and coastal daysailing
Model MD2014 02. Manual inflation, waist belt only, low cost, 2 year warranty, U.S. Coast Guard approved.
Regular price: $134.99
Shipping: free for orders over $100.
Spinlock Deckvest LITE+ Inflatable Vest with Harness
Built-in harness, for inland and coastal daysailing
Automatic inflation, waist belt and crotch strap, built-in harness, weighs just 1.9 lbs, 5-year warranty.
Note: Despite being approved pretty much everywhere else, this life jacket is not approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. It’s mostly a regulatory thing, not a safety thing. The bottom line is that to pass a U.S. Coast Guard inspection, even with this life jacket you still need to carry an approved life jacket for each person on board.
Regular price: $199.99
Shipping: around $11, free for orders over $199
Comfort, not extra safety
An inflatable is out of the way when you don’t need it but saves your ass when you do.
The most popular inflatable life jacket for recreational sailors is a Type V with either Type II or Type III performance. In U.S. Coast Guard-speak, this means a specialized life jacket (Type V) made for saving your ass in “calm inland waters, or anywhere there is a good chance of quick rescue.”
A Type II does its best to turn your face toward the sky, a Type III doesn’t care if you’re blowing bubbles.
A Type II or III inflatable offers the same safety as a Type II or III foam life jacket, no more no less. The only advantage you can brag about without getting laughed at is that a comfortable inflatable that you wear all the time is better than the Michelin Man foam life jacket you last saw under the anchor chain.
When to get or avoid an inflatable life jacket
Get an inflatable if you don’t like the bulkiness of a foam life jacket. And if you sail in hot weather you’ll be cooler, literally and figuratively. Who can resist a non-sweating sailor?
Don’t get an inflatable if:
- You can’t swim. An inflatable does’t burst into action like a Formula 1 airbag. It takes a few seconds to inflate.
- You’re under 16 years old. Inflatables are designed for people above a certain weight and body size.
- You anticipate getting fully immersed as a normal occurrence. If dinghy racing under Niagara Falls is your thing, get a foam jacket. An inflatable inflates only once then needs to be rearmed. There’s little sense in trying to save a few bucks by refusing to inflate.
- You anticipate getting into some messy weather. In this case, get a Type I life jacket, good for “open, rough, or remote waters.”
And don’t get an inflatable unless you commit to read the manual and do the regular maintenance and testing. Yes, a full-on manual. Unlike a regular passive life jacket, an inflatable uses active floatation with moving parts. You need to do things like inspect your inflatable regularly and replace inflators as needed. .
The maintenance is simple to do. But for peace of mind or to save time, you can pay manufacturers to do it for you. The better manufacturers offer this service.
Manual or automatic inflation
Both manual and automatic have these methods for opening the cartridge: manual and oral.
Tip: Do not google “inflatable manual oral” at work to get to this article.
Manual inflation means that you decide when to inflate. You jerk a tab to open the CO2 cartridge.
I am not making this up. The industry term is “jerk.”
Pro tip: Do not google “inflatable manual oral jerk” to get to this article.
Oral inflation means blowing into a tube to inflate. Use it as a backup when the cartridge can’t inflate fully or you want to test the life jacket.
Pro Pro Tip: Do not google “inflatable manual oral jerk blow” at work to get to this article.
An automatic inflatable has an extra method for inflation: a water-sensing trigger opens the CO2 cartridge. You don’t have to deliberately inflate, the life jacket does it for you.
The risk of accidental inflation is close to non-existent. Yes, there’s that guy’s plumber’s cousin who lost life, limb, or lunch money when an errant rain drop bullseyed an automatic inflator. But today’s inflators work just fine when installed correctly and used as intended.
You have two choices of trigger:
- The trigger dissolves in water. To avoid accidental triggering, this type sheds water that falls from above. So rain and spray can’t reach the trigger. Only full immersion, or turning yourself upside down during torrential rainfall, will expose the trigger to water. Use it in good to unpleasant weather.
- The trigger is hydrostatic, which reacts to a change in pressure. Getting a hydrostratic inflator wet has no effect. You need to put it in water for it to activate. Use this trigger in extended heavy weather.
1. U.S. Coast Guard. A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats. Retrieved March 2019.
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