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Today's life jackets: you don't mind wearing them, and yes, they're safe.

Today's life jackets: you don't mind wearing them, and yes, they're safe If you think all life jackets are too bulky, uncomfortable, and unattractive to wear--look again. You're not only at risk; you're out of date. Today's life jackets range from feather-weight pullovers adorned with pink flamingos to look-alikes of down vests and insulated parkas. Cut, bouyancy, and even front fasteners are now tailored to suit specific sports. New materials make many kinds slimmer, more comfortable, longer-lasting. The result is a generation of life jackets you won't mind wearing. It's a good thing. Though the U.S. Coast Guard requires boaters only to have some kind of approved life vest in the boat, local laws now require canoeists, kayakers, and water-skiers on many Western lakes and rivers to actually wear their life jackets. Those laws acknowledge an unequivocal statistic: about 85 percent of all drownings occur among people not wearing some kind of life preserver.

The new world of active-sports life jackets Traditional "Mae West" and horse-collar life jackets--termed Type I and II--were once virtually the only kind sold. They're still de rigueur on commercial boats. Type I jackets are supposed to turn even an unconscious person in the water from face-down to a vertical, slightly backward position. Type II designs, though somewhat more comfortable and almost as buoyant, don't have the same turning capability. But both are uncomfortably bulky, making for difficult maneuvering in canoes, sailboats, and other small craft. So some 18 years ago the Coast Guard approved a third category for virtually all noncommercial water sport use: Type III personal flotation devices (PFDs). These foam-filled vests and jackets aren't designed to turn you onto your back (we found most initially actually turned us on our faces), but they do make it easy for you to get vertical and then maintain a safe head-up position. On land or in a boat, they let you move much more freely. They're now available in many styles, sizes, and colors. When shopping, study the stiched-on or stamped-on product description. It will state the Coast Guard type--and may give the lift in pounds and impact rating. What does a life jacket do? Primarily, it keeps you afloat. Most adults weigh a mere 7 to 10 pounds in the water; adult Type IIIs must provide at least 15 1/2 pounds of flotation, giving enough buoyancy to keep your head well out of the water. (A new inflatable life jacket, the Hybrid, introduced last year by Stearns, has just 7 1/2 pounds of inherent flotation; this can be extended to 22 pounds by inflating its air chamber by mouth or with a carbon dioxide cartridge. Cost: around $100.) A snug vest or jacket also provides hypothermia protection, possibly doubling your survival time in cold water. And it cushions impact, whether from a fall out of a speeding powerboat or a tumble at the end of a water-skier's line. (Foam ski belts, which have only about 7 pounds of flotation and don't protect the body from impact, are no longer widely sold.)

Buying for a youngster . . . from an infant to a 12-year-old While children browse through life jackets emblazoned with cartoon folk, parents can look for certain safety features some children's life jackets now include. The jackets are sized by weight: infants 30 pounds or less, children 30 to 50 pounds (roughly ages 2 to 7), and youths 50 to 90 pounds (roughly ages 7 to 12). Don't be tempted to buy a too-large vest, expecting your child to grow into it: an oversize vest can easily slip off or entangle a child. To help keep a jacket in place on a child's slim body, many vests come with one or two crotch straps, fastened by ties or more secure D-rings. A girth strap further ensures a snug fit. To win Coast Guard approval, an infant's jacket must turn a floating child onto his back and support his head. This isn't easy, for several reasons. Much of a child's body weight is in his head, which makes designing a heads-up jacket difficult. And young children tend to panic in an emergency; some will flail their arms and legs in an attempt to climb out of the water, and infants "will do anything in their power to stay on their bellies," according to one tester. These efforts can nullify the effect of the jacket. That's why virtually all infant life jackets have some kind of collar. One design encircles the child's head with a thick ring of foam. It's popular with parents, but a child may balk at wearing it (for some tots, it bars thumb-sucking). The real lifesavers, of course, are being able to swim and having an adult at close range. Early swim classes help train infants to react more calmly in water--working with, not against, the life jacket.

More things to look for before you buy The vests and jackets in our pictures are widely available in specialized sporting goods stores and marine supply stores. Most run about $18 to $65 ($18 to $40 for children's sizes); float coats and more fashionable styles cost $55 to $100. Good fit is crucial; a too-large jacket can float up around your head and actually endanger you. Try one on while wearing the same or similar clothes (swimsuit, sweater) that you expect to wear on the water. Check the fit by hooking your thumbs under the shoulders and pulling up; if you can pull the vest up around your head, it's too big. To choose one well suited to your needs, keep these details in mind: Buoyancy. For most adults, 15 1/2 pounds of flotation is plenty; exceptions include whitewater paddlers, hunters wearing heavy clothing, rough-seas sailors, athletes with a high ratio of muscle to fat, and anyone afraid of the water. (You can find vests with 25 or even 30 pounds of flotation in canoe and kayak stores.) Buoyant material. Three types of closed-cell foam--polyvinyl chloride (PVC), ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), and polyethylene (PE)--have replaced waterlog-prone kapok in most jackets. PVC tends to be the softest (and most expensive), PE the stiffest. Don't be too impressed by special brands of foam; often it's the same product with different names. All foam eventually loses some buoyancy, especially if compressed in storage or used as a cushion. Covering. Vinyl-coated foam tends to tear easily and can be sticky on bare skin; wet canvas feels like sandpaper. Instead, most jackets are now covered with more comfortable and durable nylon. Some have softer polyester fabric inside. Mesh-lined vests may be fine for fully clad fishermen, but they're hard on bare skin. Cut. Paddlers and fly-casters need large armholes. So do water-skiers, who prefer long vests that protect more of the body, don't block much wind, and spread out flotation. Kayakers look for short jackets, or longer ones with "skirts" that fold up. Powerboaters and sailors (much less likely than water-skiers and kayakers to fall into the water) can consider the more stylish vests and float coats, which are looser fitting and may provide extra warmth. Front closing. Most vests now fasten with nylon or plastic zippers; look for the large-tooth variety, sewn with a double seam. Water-skiers prefer quick-release buckles: they hold up better on impact. The longer the vest, the more buckles needed to keep it from billowing. Impact resistance. Water-skiers and powerboaters should look for a jacket that specifies it has passed the 50-mph test. A single buckled strap circling a zippered jacket helps keep impact resistance high.

PHOTO : Girth strap tightens fit; crotch straps keep vest from twisting or bobbing upin the water

PHOTO : Her vest fastens with quick-release buckles. Collar stays out of her way on the boat

PHOTO : Foam doughnut will hold her head high above water; vest fastens in back

PHOTO : Different ages, different styles: eight-year-old at left wears slim adult-style life

PHOTO : jacket; preschoolers' vests must meet more stringent requirements

PHOTO : Snug vest with high collar is warm but not bulky

PHOTO : Float coat offers best hypothermia protection

PHOTO : Cool-weather sailors' vest and jacket double as life preservers; slash pockets make them

PHOTO : even more practical

PHOTO : Canoeists and kayakers need short vests with extra buoyancy

PHOTO : Thick slats of foam extend up into shoulder for easier portaging and for better flotation;

PHOTO : side straps, waist tie ensure snug fit

PHOTO : Youngster's vest is miniature version of adult's, with addition of crotch straps

PHOTO : Fold-up "skirt" gives him extra buoyancy; pockets are rare but helpful addition
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jun 1, 1988
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