This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

A diligent sailor always wears a lifejacket. Very often, however, due to summer heat or as sailors usually consider themselves experts, this important equipment lies forgotten in the locker.

In countries which benefit from a widespread nautical culture such as France and Great Britain the lifejacket is considered an essential accessory, more a special personal flotation device than a generic protection instrument each boat has to be equipped with. It should be the same also in Italy where, on the contrary, those who wear a lifejackets are still considered novices or worse “loosers”.



It is important to distinguish between buoyancy aids often used during regattas, which bear only part of the weight (usually 50N) and lifejackets, which save a life by completely keeping the weight afloat and the head out of water and in some cases help unconscious people to rotate on their back thus allowing them to breathe.

Lifejackets for grown-up people or kids (junior models) are available on the market. The latter have to be chosen according to the weight of the child. Those for younger kids may have a thigh strap to prevent the lifejacket from slipping out of the head in case kids fall into water or when they are being recovered onboard.

There are two categories of lifejackets: expanded foam lifejackets (100N and 150N) and inflatable lifejackets (165N, 180N, 200N, 275N and 300N). These values show the thrust capacity in Newton (10 N are about 1.02 Kg) a submerged lifejacket generates upwards i.e. its buoyancy.

At the regulatory level lifejackets sold in Europe must comply with the following standards: 12402-4 as for 100N; 12402-3 as for 150N and 12402-2 as for 275N.

A good lifejacket is practical to wear, should be provided with a head support to hold it in case the wearer is not conscious and it does not have to hinder body movements.


Classical models in stiff or soft expanded foam have an orange coating as well as reflectors to make a person visible and detectable at sea day and night. The closed cell foam padding does not absorb water and therefore lifejackets do not lose buoyancy even if they get wet. Models in soft foam improve buoyancy and increase wearability. They are worn like a waistcoat. Adjustable straps or other fastening systems are provided to fit the proper size.

These are the most common and the less expensive ones, appropriate for coastal navigation and in compliance with the applicable laws.

Vest life jackets are slightly better than the cheapest basic lifejackets. They are also more practical as they ensure an enhanced mobility and are recommended for yachtsmen, windsurfers and water skiers. However, in most cases they are just buoyancy aids, have a reduced thrust capacity and cannot therefore be considered as safety flotation devices required by the law.

Sailors’ favourite lifejackets often used in offshore navigation are inflatable. Automatic or manually activated they are compact and highly efficient if correctly worn once inflated. A hood is provided as an option to cover the head and protect it from sprays: one of the most serious dangers for people shipwrecked under condition of extreme wind is water spraying in the air they are breathing.

It must be taken into consideration that inflatable lifejackets are today the best solution. Their thrust capacity is much higher than 150 N of traditional lifejackets. They ensure maximum buoyancy also taking into account the weight of clothing, oilskin and boots.

When a lifejacket is submerged in water its fabric compartments are immediately filled with compressed CO2 coming from a cylinder pierced by the inflatable mechanism. The inflatable mechanism is hydrostatic (Hammer) or it activates when the capsule mechanism or paper element comes into contact with water and releases the spring which forces a cutter into the CO2 cylinder so that CO2 travels through the gas hole and inflates the lifejacket (UML-5 ). A manually activated emergency system is always present as well as a straw for mouth inflation.


Inflatable Lifejacket Activation System Description Note
MANUAL PULL ACTIVATION User-friendly, it is activated by a cord that pierces the cylinder containing CO2 that inflates the lifejacket It is activated only if the person wearing the lifejacket is conscious. Ineffective as safety flotation device
HAMMAR AUTOMATIC HYDROSTATIC SYSTEM Activated by water pressure after 10 cm immersion of the pressure switch Moisture and water resistant. It may not be activated if the wearer plunges slowly and backwards
AUTOMATIC SYSTEM ACTIVATED THROUGH A CAPSULE OR PAPER ELEMENT (ULM-5) The most common system. A salt pill or paper element comes into contact with water and releases a spring which forces a cutter into a CO2 cylinder so the gas inflates the lifejacket Immediately effective, little maintenance required. It may be accidentally activated in case the salt capsule gets wet due to waves or sprays or if there is water inside the peak



Each lifejacket shall be provided with at least the following accessories required by the law (often supplied also with non-compliant lifejackets):

  • A whistle
  • Side reflective strips
  • A fastening system able to secure the lifejacket to the bod

Extra accessories usually provided with inflatable lifejackets:

  • Battery operated or chemical (Cyalume) continuous or flashing shoulder light. The light has to provide effective luminous intensity for about 10 hours to facilitate night detection at sea and in case of poor visibility
  • Recovery harness/handle ) usually made of red tape
  • Safety harness to be fastened to the boat life line by means of a pendant (better if short)
  • Spray hood useful not to breathe in water spraying. Now mandatory for offshore regattas

When choosing your lifejacket it is very important to take your time to try it -possibly also after it has been inflated- to check its thrust capacity is adequate to the weight of the wearer and also that it is comfortable and practical to wear. Also the collar support has to be appropriate and it has to fit the wearer’s body built.

It is essential the self-inflatable lifejacket is worn over any clothes so to allow its proper inflation.



Wearer Buoyancy aids Life jackets
Canoe, kayak, SUP,
kite-Surf, windsurf
Adults wearing beachwear – 65 to 100 kg Waistcoat 50-70N
Water ski Adults wearing beachwear – 65 to 100 kg Waistcoat 70-100N
Drop keel cruisers and
sport cabin cruisers
sailing buoy regattas
Adults 65 to 100 kg, light clothing Waistcoat100N
Coastal navigation or
inland water navigation (sailing boat or motorboat)
Adults 65 to 100 kg, medium/light clothing 150N o 180N inflatable or expanded foam life jackets
Offshore navigation
(sailing boat or motorboat)
Adults 65 to 100 kg, fully clothed + boots 180N-300N inflatable lifejackets
Offshore regatta
in low temperatures
Adults 65 to 100 kg, heavy clothing + boots 300N inflatable lifejackets



It is good practice to provide your boat with an external lifebuoy on its bracket for easy release or with a Dan Buoy. These accessories are completed by a floating line and a floating rescue light as night warning light. There are also Man Over Board containers installed to the pulpit. These are bags containing buoyancy aids provided with a floating line to be thrown close to the man overboard.

Its container protects the plastic the lifebuoy is made of from the sun, as it tends to deteriorate over time due to UV-rays damaging effects.

The lifebuoy is available in two versions: a soft horseshoe lifebuoy and a stiff ring lifebuoy. The latter is bulkier but it is the most suitable to be thrown into the wind as it has a higher mechanical resistance.

In addition always check the requirements of the legislation of the State flag.


Lacking a dedicated regulation on revision similar to that concerning survival crafts (self-inflatable liferafts) it is advisable to check autonomously the integrity of fabric compartments, straps, buckles at least once a year. Also check the inflatable mechanism and make sure the efficiency indicator of the automatic system is set on the green position. Test inflatable lifejackets by inflating them by mouth and watch them for a couple of hours to ensure pressure is kept inside the device.

To maintain lifejackets efficient, keep them dry, clean and washed from salt. Always bear in mind a lifejacket does not last forever and has to be replaced at the first sign of fabric or strap wear or damage. Never keep on board damaged or inefficient lifejackets.

The cylinder is the only component showing an expiry date within which it has to be replaced. Cylinders vary according to the thrust capacity (in Newton) of the lifejacket and are easily replaced as they are screwed to the inflatable system. They are sold together with Hammar or UML-5 system maintenance parts.

Where to store your lifejacket. Not in the bow locker under the bed but in each cabin closet so that every guest knows where to find his/hers and gets used to it. However make sure lifejackets are dry and within reach for quick recovery.


The choice of a lifejacket is affected by many variables, such as conditions of use and the wished safety margin.

Lifejackets are not only useful for ocean going, on the contrary, according to the statistics of incidents at sea, they are more useful during Sunday sailing or along the shore. Small models for children are available, very useful for dinghy or small boat sailing. Even lifejackets for medium size animals are available on the market.

Your lifejacket has to be comfortable so that you do not wish to take it off as soon as possible. Always wear it before you really need it. Be proud of wearing it and showing it! Get information on the subject and choose properly!



Both the author of this article and the company Osculati shall not be held responsible for the misuse of survival equipment. The article conveys general information.

Davide Zerbinati
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