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June 27, 2011

New Lightweight Life-Jackets

Streamlined life-jacket designs might encourage willingness to wear

There’s no denying that wearing a life jacket while aboard your boat might help prevent you from drowning if, for some reason, you end up in the water. The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Association of Boating Law Administrators would love to see a law forcing everyone to wear life jackets all the time on every vessel under 26 feet. However, our semper paratus friends know that’s one regulation too big to bite off for a number of reasons.

• Not enough manpower to enforce;
• Not enough comfortable approved life jackets on the market;
• Approval process for new life jackets too long, expensive and cumbersome;
• Too many boaters become instant libertarians when the dock lines leave the cleats — expected “push-back” would be enormous.

Though the government moves ever so slowly, like a glacier, it does move and has quite an impact. Here are some of the steps being taken to answer the Coast Guard’s desires.

Comfortable, Approved Life Jackets
In the area of life-jacket design, Europeans have a leg up on America. Many of their new personal flotation devices are lighter and much more stylish. After all, who really wants to wear an orange horse collar? One recommendation the National Boating Safety Advisory Council made to the Coast Guard at the council’s April meeting was to allow people to wear whatever life jacket they want — approved or not — as long as the boat carries jackets that meet the existing carriage requirements for their vessel.

One of the foremost issues concerns a new style of jacket called a 50 Newton, also known as a Level 50. Flotation capacity is calculated and expressed in newtons. A newton (named after Sir Isaac Newton) is a unit of force equal to 0.2248 pounds. In other words, 1 pound of force equals 4.4484 newtons. When used in life-jacket nomenclature, it refers to the amount of buoyant force the jacket produces. A 50-newton life jacket provides 11.24 pounds of buoyancy. How can that possibly hold up a 200-pound man you ask?

Approximately 80 percent of a human body is water. Water, when immersed in water, has no weight. So take away 80 percent of that 200 pounds, and you’re left with 40 pounds. The average body (if there is such a thing) also carries about 15 percent fat, a substance that is lighter than water and so provides buoyancy. Remove 15 percent from the 200-pounder — another 30 pounds — and that brings the actual dead-weight total that a 200-pound angler needs to float to a mere 10 pounds.

An adult Type I PFD is rated for 22 pounds of buoyancy. Adult Types II and III provide a minimum of 15.5 pounds of buoyancy. European jackets are rated according to the their buoyancy rather than some artificial Type I, II or III designation. The CE Newton ratings are Level 50 (11 pounds of buoyancy), Level 100 (23 pounds), Level 150 (33 pounds) and the Level 275 (with whopping 62 pounds of buoyancy).

Levels 50 and 100 are suitable only for good swimmers, according to the European certifying agency, and are not guaranteed to turn an unconscious victim face up. In fact, the Level 50 isn’t even referred to as a life jacket but rather as a buoyancy aid.

So, what’s the point of trying to get Level 50 jackets accepted in the United States? Common sense would dictate that a boater actually wearing a lightweight, comfortable and good-looking Level 50 jacket stands a much better chance of avoiding drowning than someone not wearing any jacket at all!

New Certification Process
In a move toward streamlining the approval process, the Coast Guard has changed the rule mandating the Underwriters Laboratories as sole tester for life-jacket certification. Several others have stepped into the picture, including potentially the American Boat and Yacht Council. This should make the approval process both faster and less expensive.

Another favorable sign is the Coast Guard’s new willingness to discuss an inflatable-life-jacket standard that would allow youngsters 16 and under to wear the slimmer inflatables instead of the bulky, orange ox yokes or other “certified” types. Again, comfort and style weigh heavily on the minds of youngsters, and such a move portends a higher voluntary wear rate among that age bracket. Additionally, if Level 50 jackets are allowed, boating segments like paddling, kiteboarding, stand-up paddleboards, and the like that depend on flexibility and ease of movement should find mandatory wear ­considerably less onerous.

The Official Mandatory-Wear Resolution
After more than a year of work, the council finalized a Mandatory Life Jacket Wear resolution in April and delivered it to the Coast Guard. Translated into plain English, the part that concerns us all the most reads:

1. Initiate efforts that target a future regulatory project to pursue requirements for life-jacket wear for recreational boaters while under way and riding in or upon (with consideration given to appropriate exemptions):
a. personal watercraft regardless of length;
b. human-powered vessels (such as canoes, kayaks, rowboats, etc.) regardless of length;
c. any vessel less than 18 feet in length;
d. for any person towed while engaged in water sports.

Please note the “appropriate ­exemptions” statement that adds flexibility to the regulation. Yes, some facets of boating will fit the regulation but be exempt from adherence.

So, say you’re a charter guide with a 17-foot flats skiff and you pole your clients around the flats. Yes, that qualifies the skiff as a human-powered vessel while being poled and a vessel under 18 feet while motoring — a double whammy. But don’t start muttering under your breath just yet. Now that the Coast Guard has the recommendation, it must undergo a lengthy public-input phase. That’s your chance to fight back. Remember, there will be specific room for exemptions.

Finally, even under the best of circumstances, any mandatory life-jacket-wear regulation could take eight to 10 years (or more) before it goes into effect. In some cases, I am thankful for the extremely low rpm of the ­government’s wheels!