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The only jacket you mustn’t forget

Life jackets are safety devices per excellence and a must for boaters. Yet they are too often left stored and unused, and not only by amateur yachtspeople.

The recent edition of the Barcolana regatta, during which gusts of bora wind reached 40 knots with consequent damage to boats and even some falls overboard, gave rise to controversy also because of images showing many crews without life jackets in such adverse weather conditions. Although having life jackets on board is mandatory by current regulations from 300 metres offshore sailing, they should be worn even before casting off the mooring and, anyway, also under ideal weather conditions as, at sea, the unforeseeable is always around the corner and accidents happen without warning. But this is an old story and many people still turn their nose up at it, although many fatal accidents (also) caused by failure to use life jackets occur every year.

Basically, life jackets are divided into two main categories: traditional soft foam and auto-inflatable life jackets. The former (like Aurora life jacket 150N (EN 12402-3) (osculati.com) are reliable and failsafe and, not least, really affordable. The latter, however, are becoming increasingly common. Auto-inflatable life jackets, in their turn, fall into two groups: automatically or manually inflatable (with pull cord and grip to trigger inflation)

It goes without saying that auto-inflatable life jackets provide an undeniable advantage in terms of safety, as they inflate automatically in case of unconscious person. Both automatic and manual auto-inflatable models are becoming more popular than soft foam ones. These are surely free from non-inflation risks due to technical problems or punctures (quite rare) but are of course less comfortable than auto-inflatable ones. Nowadays, minimum bulk design models are available for freedom of movement, like e.g. this one FUN self-inflatable life jacket 150 N (EN ISO 12402-3) (osculati.com) provided with a CO2 cylinder for immediate inflation when in water. This occurs in two ways: by means of a dissolving stopper that normally holds the cylinder closed. When submerged in water the tablet rapidly disintegrates and triggers the cylinder. Or by hydrostatic automatic self-inflation once the person wearing the life jacket is underwater. Here is an example: Sail Pro auto-inflatable life jacket 180 N (compliant with EN ISO 12402-3) (osculati.com)

This is intended for those who want to avoid accidental automatic inflations, e.g. during a race in case big waves hit the deck. Auto-inflatable life jackets are often provided with an air nozzle for automatic inflation in case automatic operation fails. They also require proper maintenance. Check the CO2 cylinders regularly to be sure they are in good conditions and not worn or damaged. Replace them if you think they may not work properly. Replacement kits are easily available on the market at affordable prices.

Life jacket security can be improved by a wide range of accessories. One of the most important is the transparent sprayhood. It has been designed to increase the chance of survival by reducing the risk of drowning. It protects against waves and reduces the amount of spray inhaled. This accessory should be taken into the utmost account.

Many models are provided with a whistle, to help draw attention during search and rescue operations and with a safety light, or better, a sealed water-activated battery light, especially useful at night.

Do not overlook the importance of the snap hook, type-approved, for attachment to the lanyard. This avoids having to wear a harness, while ensuring great safety. Thigh straps are also very important as they ensure that the life jacket stays securely attached to the body of the man overboard, thus helping him breathing correctly.

Which buoyancy class is better? It is good to know that 100N life jackets are approved for navigation within 6 miles from coast, while 150N life jackets are approved for offshore navigation within and over 6 miles from coast. There are also other technical details that affect life jackets quality and of course their price such as the capacity of turning and holding the man overboard in the safest position, i.e. face up and keeping his head above water in the quickest time possible.  

Finally, make sure to choose manufacturers and dealers of proven reliability whose products are in compliance with all standards in force. It is absolutely not worth saving on on-board safety devices like life jackets.