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Life Jacket Guide: How to choose the right Life Jacket

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History of the life jacket

Lifejackets have been saving lives for generations. The earliest examples from circa 860 BC were made using inflatable animal skins Their history is a potted one but can probably be traced back to the simple blocks of wood or cork used by Norwegian seamen. The first cork life jacket was patented in 1765 by Dr John Wilkinson. In his book entitled the 'Seaman's Preservation from Shipwreck, Diseases, and Other Calamities Incident to Mariners' , John Wilkinson described the benefits of his life cork life preservers. Being British ourselves, we will credit the invention of the forerunner of the modern lifejacket to Captain Ward, an RNLI inspector in the UK, who in 1854 created a cork vest to be worn by lifeboat crews for both weather protection and buoyancy.

The most ancient examples of "primitive life jackets" can be traced back to inflated bladders of animal skins or hollow, sealed gourds, for support when crossing deeper streams and rivers. Personal flotation devices were not part of the equipment issued to naval sailors up to the early 19th century, for example at the Napoleonic Battle of Trafalgar. Seamen who were press-ganged into naval service might have used such devices to jump ship and swim to freedom. It wasn't until lifesaving services were formed that personal safety of boat crews heading out in pulling boats generally in horrific sea conditions was addressed.

Purpose-designed buoyant safety devices consisting of simple blocks of wood or cork were used by Norwegian seamen. The modern lifejacket is generally credited to one Captain Ward, a Royal National Lifeboat Institution inspector in the United Kingdom, who, in 1854, created a cork vest to be worn by lifeboat crews for both weather protection and buoyancy.

The rigid cork material eventually came to be supplanted by pouches containing watertight cells filled with kapok, a vegetable material. These soft cells were much more flexible and more comfortable to wear compared with devices utilizing hard cork pieces. Kapok buoyancy was used in many navies fighting in the Second World War. Foam eventually supplanted kapok for "inherently buoyant" (vs. inflated and therefore not inherently buoyant) flotation.

Mae West

The Mae West was a common nickname for the first inflatable life preserver, which was invented in 1928 by Peter Markus (1885 ­ 1974) (US Patent 1694714), with his subsequent improvements in 1930 and 1931. The nickname was originated because someone wearing the inflated life preserver often appeared to be as physically endowed as the actress Mae West, as well as rhyming slang for breast. It was popular during the World War II with U.S. Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force servicemen, who were issued inflatable Mae Wests as part of their flight gear. Air crew members whose lives were saved by use of the Mae West (and other personal flotation devices) were eligible for membership in the Goldfish Club.

During the war, research to improve the design of life jackets was also conducted in the UK by Edgar Pask OBE, the first Professor of Anaesthesia at the Newcastle University. Some of his research involved self-administered anaesthesia as a means of simulating unconsciousness in freezing sea-water. Pask's work earned him the OBE and the description of "The bravest man in the RAF never to have flown an aeroplane".

How to choose the right life Jacket

A lifejacket will buy you vital time in the water and could save your life, but only if you're wearing it.It is also important that your lifejacket is the correct size and type for you and your sport, that it is properly fastened and that you understand how to operate and maintain it. Lifejackets are available in a wide price range. You will need one that will provide enough buoyancy for your chosen activity and is a proper and comfortable fit. Lifejackets come with different levels of accessories, but we recommend one with at least crotch straps.

Once you have found your perfect lifejacket, it is vital that you fit it correctly. Secure the crotch straps, if fitted, and make sure all straps are firmly adjusted. Fitting your lifejacket correctly is the difference between struggling to keep your head above water and a relaxed float.

There are a few different fastening methods, depending on your particular lifejacket. These include metal buckles, rubber buckles, clips and zips.

You can then tighten your lifejacket to ensure the perfect fit. Depending on the kind of lifejacket you've chosen, this could be done using a buckle or with 'pull-to-fit' straps, which are 'rocked' backwards and forwards to get a tighter fit.

Once you have your lifejacket tightened, test the fit by placing your fist underneath the buckle. If there is a gap between your fist and your clothing, the lifejacket is a little loose. If you cannot physically get your fist under your lifejacket, you may wish to loosen it for comfort.


Lifejacket buoyancy is measured in Newtons (N). Ten Newtons equals 1kg of flotation. All lifejackets must carry the CE or ISO mark.

Newton ratings are relative to the weight of the intended user. Make sure the lifejacket you choose is the correct size for you and that it has the right Newton rating for your weight. A 150N lifejacket designed for a child or young adult will not sufficiently float an adult. If you are buying for an adult you must get a 150N lifejacket designed for an adult's weight. There are four European (CE) and now International (ISO) standards for lifejackets and buoyancy aids:

Buoyancy aid (50N)

The 50N personal flotation device (PFD) is currently called a buoyancy aid. It is intended for use by those who are competent swimmers and who are near to the bank or shore, or who have help and means of rescue close at hand. These PFDs have minimum bulk, but they are of limited use in disturbed water and cannot be expected to keep the user safe for a long period of time. They do not have sufficient buoyancy to protect people who are unable to help themselves. They require active participation by the user.

Recommended for dinghy sailors, windsurfers, water skiers, and personal watercraft where the user might reasonably expect to end up in the water.

>h2>Lifejacket (100N)

The 100N lifejacket is intended for those who may have to wait for rescue but are likely to do so in sheltered and calm water. Whilst these lifejackets are less bulky than those with more buoyancy, they are intended for use in relatively sheltered waters. They may not have sufficient buoyancy to protect people who are unable to help themselves and may not roll an unconscious person onto their back particularly if they are wearing heavy clothing.

Lifejacket (150N)

The 150N lifejacket is intended for general offshore and rough weather use where a high standard of performance is required. It should turn an unconscious person into a safe position and requires no subsequent action by the wearer to keep their face out of the water. Its performance may be affected if the user is wearing heavy and /or waterproof clothing. Recommended for general use on coastal and inshore waters when sailing, fishing, etc, where the user would not expect to end up in the water.

Lifejacket (275N)

The 275N lifejacket is intended primarily for offshore and extreme conditions and for those wearing heavy protective clothing that may adversely affect the self righting capacity of the lifejacket. This lifejacket is designed to ensure that the wearer of floating in the correct position with their mouth and nose clear of the surface of the water. Recommended for offshore cruising, fishing and commercial users.

Choosing a child's lifejacket

There are many important factors to consider when choosing a child's lifejacket. The main thing is to buy one that fits, not one that the child will grow into. If the lifejacket is too big, the child may slip out of it, or the lifejacket could float too high in the water, leaving the child's mouth and nose submerged.

Types of inflation

There are three inflation methods for air-only lifejackets. It is important to know which method your lifejacket uses and how it works.


Manually inflated lifejackets are operated by pulling a string, which pushes a firing pin into the CO2 canister, inflating the lifejacket. Automatic and hydrostatic lifejackets both have a manual pull string.


Automatically inflated lifejackets rely on a small pellet or bobbin, which holds back a powerful spring. When the pellet makes contact with water it dissolves very rapidly, releasing the spring, which pushes a firing pin into the gas canister.

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