Over the years, Club Marine has investigated hundreds of incidents in which people have found themselves accidentally in the water, either because their boat has sunk or because they have fallen overboard. Most have ended well, but far too many have not. Once you're in the water, your chances of injury or worse increase dramatically. But equally, if you are wearing a PFD or life jacket, your chances of surviving are hugely improved — in fact, if you're in the water wearing a PFD, your chances of living to tell the tale are doubled.
"We would certainly strongly recommend that skippers educate their passengers about PFD usage and ensure their boats are equipped with suitable PFDs," said Club Marine's National Claims Manager, Phil Johnson. "The plain fact of the matter is that they save lives, pure and simple. If you find yourself accidentally in the water, whether or not you're wearing a PFD is the single biggest factor in determining your chances of survival."
For most of their long, relatively mundane history, life jackets have been boxy, orange and uncomfortable, but there's a good reason for that. When they were first developed in the 1850s, life jackets were intended for professional mariners facing extreme conditions on the open seas, often thousands of miles from potential rescuers.
Deep-sea life jackets, traditionally, were front-loaded with buoyant material to ensure that the wearer would roll face-up if he or she fell into the sea. During World War II, every soldier serving on the open sea was issued a busty 'Mae West' inflatable life preserver, which saved thousand of lives and convinced many after the war that everybody on a boat should have one.
Since then, life jackets have gradually become a part of recreational boating. But over the years, something became obvious: wearing a bulky orange life jacket while fishing or out for a toddle around the bay is pretty uncomfortable, and when kayaking or sailing, it's almost impossible.
The modern Personal Flotation Device (PFD) was introduced to counter resistance to wearing more traditional and bulky life jackets.
The more compact PFDs offer comfort, flexibility and style. Maritime safety authorities welcomed the development of PFDs because their research had shown boaters were more likely to wear them. They take up less room on a boat and perform their job of saving lives when necessary.
As the new-fangled devices became more popular, the acronym 'PFD' has, to a degree, taken the place of the term 'life jacket' to generically describe any garment that keeps a person afloat. Today, for the most part, the terms are considered interchangeable.
REFINED FIT AND FEEL
Since the introduction of the PFD, manufacturers have responded to consumer demand by refining their fit and feel, making major design changes like extra-large arm holes, adding pockets and introducing shaped fitting to make them more comfortable.
As innovations continued, maritime safety authorities realised they had to keep pace in order to provide consumers with advice on the various types of PFDs and what protection they offered. The result was a standardised rating system.
Most Australian recreational boaters would be familiar with the Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 classifications for PFDs. But recently, the National Marine Safety Committee (NMSC) announced new PFD standards.
As of July 2010, PFDs are divided into four 'levels': Level 150, Level 100, Level 50 and Level 50S.
John Henry, Standards Team Leader for the NMSC, explained why the new system was implemented.
"At one time there was just a Model T Ford and now there are many different kinds of cars you can buy," Henry said. "Sometimes complications are the price of innovation," he added.
Henry said the most important message he had for boaters was that, if you already have a PFD, you don't have to do anything. "There is no problem with PFDs bearing the old labels," he said.
Basically, Australia is trading in the American system of PFD classification for the European system. "In the 1980s, there were a lot of PFDs coming in from America," Henry explained. "These days, due to the strong Australian dollar and other things, we are seeing more PFDs coming in from the European market, so we're adopting the European standards."
It may help if you think of the new PFD levels in terms of buoyancy and safety. Level 150 is the 'super' deep-water life jacket, which exists in a class on its own; Level 100 is the same as the old 'Type 1' category – basically the traditional life jacket; Level 50 (the same as the old 'Type 2') is a buoyancy vest worn in protected waters or near the shore; and Level 50S ('Type 3') is described as a sports buoyancy vest.
Henry said that if you're going to wear your life jacket a lot, it's probably better to shop around and find the one that's right for you. But, if you're confused by the range and types of PFDs on offer, he had this helpful tip: "If the choice is too much, just get yourself a PFD 100 (Type 1) and make sure it complies with safety standards. It will be fairly cheap and it will last a long time. But remember: the best life jacket is the one you will wear."
When it comes to choosing what's best for you and your boating needs, do your homework and shop around. You need to take into account the type of boating you do, who are your regular crew people and what are their preferences. And, of course, you need to be familiar with your local regulations.
Ultimately, PFDs are a matter of life and death – literally. No one expects to find themselves in the water, but a little common sense can mean the difference between misfortune and tragedy.
STATE-BY-STATE PFD REQUIRMENTS
It will be almost impossible to look at this list of state-by-state PFD requirements without wondering, "Why does it have to be so complicated?" The answer, according to a consensus of marine safety professionals, seems to be: "because we live in Australia."
Australia has a widely-diverse geography and an extended coastal territory that spans three oceans and covers around 12,000,000km2. It's the landscape of Australia, not marine safety bureaucrats, that resists streamlined national safety standards. A set of boating rules for Darwin would be completely incompatible for boaters in, say, Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania.
Australia is wild and complex and we like it that way. But in return for enjoying all these wildly diverse boating opportunities, we have to navigate an equally complex range of state-by-state safety regulations.
NEW SOUTH WALES
New rules for the use of PFDs (referred to in NSW as 'life jackets') on recreational vessels in NSW go into effect on November 1, 2010. While it will not be a requirement that life jackets be worn at all times, skippers and their passengers must wear life jackets during 'heightened risk' situations.
Required life jacket (PFD) levels
On open waters, a Level 150 and Level 100 (Type 1) life jacket must be carried for everyone on board, and must be worn when crossing a coastal bar.
For a PWC or sailboard on open waters, either a Level 150, Level 100 or Level 50 (Type 1 or Type 2) life jacket must be carried, or worn when required.
For a kayak or canoe on open waters, a Level 150, 100, 50 or 50S (Type 1, 2 or 3) life jacket must be worn at all times.
The minimum requirement for all vessels on enclosed waters is a Level 50S (Type 3) life jacket to be carried or worn when required.
Life jackets must be worn in these situations…
Children under 12
Must wear a life jacket at all times when aboard a vessel under 4.8m in length.
Must wear a life jacket when in the open area of a vessel less than 8m in length, and when the vessel is underway.
Everyone on board must wear a life jacket…
During 'heightened risk' situations in recreational vessels of all sizes
When the skipper judges a heightened risk exists and requires passengers to put on their life jacket. (For example: rough seas or if a vessel has broken down.)
Anyone being towed on the water (for example: while wakeboarding or waterskiing) must wear a life jacket
Anyone in a canoe or kayak must wear a life jacket when greater than 100m from shore and at all times in ocean waters.
Anyone in an off-the-beach sailboat in open waters must wear a life jacket.
Anyone kite-surfing more than 400m from shore and when kite-surfing alone must wear a life jacket.
Anyone in a PWC (also known as a jetski) must wear a life jacket at all times.
Everyone must wear a life jacket at all times when crossing an ocean bar.
Pleasure craft in the NT do not require registration and operators are not required to hold a licence to drive one. However, it is illegal to operate a pleasure craft or tender at sea if it does not carry the prescribed safety equipment.
One approved life jacket or buoyancy vest is required for each person on board all pleasure craft.
Required PFD levels
When operating on sheltered waters, a Level 100 (Type 1) life jacket must accompany each occupant on board. A Level 150 life jacket is also acceptable.
When the wave height, under normal conditions, does not exceed .05m from Northern Territory cont'd
trough to crest, a Level 50 (Type 2) jacket is the minimum required.
A minimum level 50S (Type 3) life jacket is acceptable for operators of kayaks in sheltered waters.
All water skiers must wear a minimum level 50S (Type 3) life jacket.
Outside Sheltered Waters
When operating outside sheltered waters, a Level 100 (Type 1) life jacket must accompany each occupant on board. A Level 150 life jacket is also acceptable.
The above standards do not apply to a person on or in…
All recreational boats with an engine or auxiliary of 4hp (3kW) or more are considered 'registrable boats' and are required to carry one appropriately-fitting PFD per occupant.
Though not compulsory, life jackets are strongly recommended for all occupants in non-registrable boats.
If the vessel is engaged in diving activities, an inflatable diver jacket is an acceptable alternative to a PFD.
Life jackets must be worn in the following situations…
Crossing a bar
Life jackets are compulsory when crossing a designated coastal bar in an open boat that is less than 4.8m in length.
Children under 12
A properly-fitting PFD must be worn by all children under 12 when in an open boat under 4.8m while it is underway, not at anchor, made fast to the shore or aground ('underway' includes drifting). This applies to commercial, fishing and recreational boats.
Infants under 12 months should not travel on boats unless necessary. When they do, they must be held securely by a responsible adult.
Required PFD levels
A minimum Level 50S (Type 3) life jacket per occupant must be on board all registrable vessels and PWCs operating in smooth waters. In non-registrable vessels, a minimum Level 50S (Type 3) life jacket is recommended.
Exception 1: A PFD is not necessary on board vessels in a river, creek or stream, or waters contained within breakwaters or revetments if the boat has positive flotation, grab handles, lines or a secure hold for each person on board.
Exception 2: A PFD is not required for a registrable tender to a recreational boat if used within 1km of the primary boat and has a positive flotation statement in the approved form.
Partially Smooth Waters
A minimum Level 50 (Type 2) life jacket per occupant must be on board all registrable vessels and PWCs operating in smooth waters. In non-registrable vessels, a minimum Level 50 (Type 2) life jacket is recommended.
Exception 1: PFDs must be worn when crossing designated coastal bars in open boats under 4.8m.
Exception 2: A PFD is not required for a registrable tender to a recreational boat if it is used within 1km of the primary boat and has a positive flotation statement in the approved form.
Beyond Smooth and Partially Smooth Waters
A minimum Level 100 (Type 1) life jacket per occupant must be on board all registrable vessels operating in smooth waters. In non-registrable vessels, a minimum Level 100 (Type 1) life jacket is recommended. For all PWCs, a minimum Level 50 (Type 2) life jacket is required.
Exception 1: PFDs must be worn when crossing designated coastal bars in open boats under 4.8m.
Exception 2: A PFD is not required for a tender to a recreational boat if it is used within 500m of the primary boat and has a positive flotation statement in the approved form.
Exception 3: For skiers or people being towed, a minimum Level 50 or 50S (Type 2 or 3) or wetsuit with in-built flotation approved as a minimum Level 50S (Type 3) is required in smooth waters. A minimum Level 50 (Type 2) is required in partially smooth waters.
A PFD suitable for the vessel type and area of operation must be carried on the vessel for every person on board.
While it is not a requirement that a PFD be worn at all times on most vessels (except for the instances listed below) it is strongly recommended that PFDs be worn on the following occasions…
A PFD must be worn at all times in these situations…
Required PFD levels
A minimum Level 50 or 50S (Type 2 or 3) life jacket must accompany each occupant on all vessels in protected waters.
From June 2010, a minimum Level 100 (Type 1) life jacket must accompany each occupant on all vessels in semi-protected waters.
A minimum Level 100 (Type 1) life jacket must accompany each occupant on all vessels in unprotected waters.
An approved PFD must be provided for each person on board all boats.
PFDs must be worn in any recreational motor boat or motor-propelled tender that is under 6m in length and is under power.
Children under the age of 12 must wear a PFD in a recreational boat or motor-propelled tender of any length while under power.
Boaters are not required to wear a PFD while they are within a deckhouse, cabin or secure enclosed space.
Required PFD levels
On waters of an enclosed nature, including inland lakes and rivers, a Level 150, 100 or 50 (Type 1 or 2) life jacket to Australian Standards is required for occupants on all motor boats. If the vessel is under 6m in length and is under power, the life jacket must be worn.
On all waters not exceeding 2 nautical miles to seaward of land on the north and east coasts, a Level 150 or 100 (Type 1) life jacket to Australian Standards is required for occupants on all motor boats. If the vessel is under 6m in length and is under power, the life jacket must be worn.
On waters beyond sheltered waters as well as waters on the east and south coasts between Cape Grim and South East Cape, a Level 150 or 100 (Type 1) life jacket to Australian Standards is required for occupants on all motor boats. If the vessel is under 6m in length and is under power, the life jacket must be worn.
In accordance with Victorian Marine Regulations 2009, you may be required to wear a specified Personal Flotation Device (PFD) when in an open area of a recreational vessel when the vessel is underway.
PFDs must be worn by all occupants of the following vessels, when the vessel is underway and an occupant is in an open area:
In addition, at times of heightened risk, PFDs must be worn by all occupants of yachts (including monohull, trailerable and multihull yachts) and powerboats greater than 4.8m and less than 12m, when the vessel is underway and an occupant is in an open area.
PFDs on Children
Children under the age of 10 must wear a specified PFD at all times on any vessel when it is underway and they are in an open area of the vessel.
On coastal waters, a Level 100 (Type 1) PFD must be worn by all occupants aboard powerboats less than 12m in length, including recreational tenders and yachts.
Operators of kiteboards and sailboards on coastal waters must wear either a Level 100 or Level 50 (Type 1 or Type 2) PFD.
When operating off-the-beach sailing yachts, more than 2 nautical miles from the coast, a Level 100 (Type 1) PFD must be worn. If operating within 2 nautical miles of the coast, a Level 50 (Type 2) PFD can be worn.
For a PWC, canoe, kayak, rowing boat, raft, pedal boat or fun boat on coastal waters, a Level 100, 50 or 50S (Type 1, 2 or 3) PFD must be worn.
On enclosed waters, a Level 100 (Type 1) PFD must be worn by all occupants aboard powerboats less than 12m in length.
For yachts, recreational tenders and off-the-beach sailing yachts on enclosed waters, either a Level 100 or Level 50 (Type 1 or Type 2) PFD must be worn.
For a PWC, kiteboard, sailboard, canoe, kayak, rowing boat, raft, pedal boat or fun boat on enclosed waters, a Level 100, 50 or 50S (Type 1, 2 or 3) PFD must be worn.
For off-the beach sailing yachts on inland waters, either a Level 100 or Level 50 (Type 1 or Type 2) life jacket must be worn.
For all other vessels on inland waters, a Level 100, 50 or 50S (Type 1, 2 or 3) PFD must be worn.
Exemptions to PFD wearing requirements
Operators of kiteboards and sailboards operating no more than 400m from shore are exempt from the PFD-wearing requirements if they are wearing a wetsuit that is at least 3mm thick.
PFD wearing requirements do not apply to persons…
Note: The Victorian Marine Regulations 2009 approve the use of the Level 150 and 275 PFDs. These jackets are considered to be the high-buoyancy equivalent of the PFD Type 1.
Victoria includes a number of international standards as Type 1 PFDs. Always check with your state's marine regulator.
Vessels operating in unprotected waters (outside the waters contained by any breakwater or in any lake, river or estuary other than the waters of Cambridge Gulf or Lake Argyle) must carry an approved life jacket for each person on board.
Only PFD Type 1 jackets that comply with either Australian Standard AS1512 or AS4758 (Level 150 or Level 100) are acceptable as a life jacket to be used in unprotected waters.
Levels 50 and 50S (Type 2 and Type 3) are buoyancy vests and are intended for sports such as sailing and water skiing and are only for use in protected waters. Special regulations concerning PFDs apply to personal watercraft and sail boards operating within 400m of the shore in unprotected waters.
Each life jacket must suit the weight of the person for whom it is intended, be maintained in good condition, and be kept in an easily-accessible place.
All PFD Type 1 jackets must display an Australian Standards label with the numbers AS1512 or AS4758.
Boaters in WA are not required to wear PFDs, but it is strongly recommended that PFDs be worn…
For more information about Western Australia's marine safety requirements visit www.transport.wa.gov.au and go to Marine or call the State Marine Operations Centre on (08) 9431 1000.
Much like Australia, marine safety authorities in New Zealand have established PFD regulations that reflect the country's diverse boating conditions. However, regulations in New Zealand differ from those in Australia in several ways.
Life jackets must meet New Zealand Standard 5823:2005 – specification for buoyancy aids and marine safety harnesses and lines – or another national standard accepted by Maritime New Zealand (MNZ).
A correctly-sized, serviceable life jacket must accompany each and every person on board a pleasure boat in New Zealand. This is a legal requirement, and this rule applies to all boats, including tenders and larger craft.
Life jackets must be stored so that they are immediately available in case of a sudden emergency or capsize.
It is the skipper's legal responsibility to ensure that life jackets are worn in situations of heightened risk, such as when crossing a bar, in rough water, during an emergency and by non-swimmers.
A law change is currently about to be signed by the Minister of Transport. From October 1, 2010, all persons in boats under 6m will be required to wear a PFD. However, a skipper can give permission to remove them if there is no significant risk to safety.
LIFE JACKET TYPES
Type 401 – Open Waters Life Jacket
Type 402 – Inshore Waters PFD
Type 403 – Buoyancy Vest
Type 404 – Buoyancy Aid Wetsuit
Type 405 – Buoyancy Garment
Type 406 – Specialist PFD
Special note: Rescue buoys are semi-rigid buoyancy aids designed to be thrown to a person in the water to provide buoyancy while awaiting rescue. These are not PFDs as defined by NZ Standard 5823:2001.