Table of Contents

Download the PDF Version

It's the Law

When preparing to go out on a vessel, the operator must check that the legally required equipment is on board.

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

All vessels must have at least one U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)–approved wearable personal flotation device (PFD), sometimes called life jacket, Type I, II, III, or V PFDs for each person on board.

In addition to the above requirement, one USCG–approved throwable Type IV device must be on board vessels 16 feet or longer.

Children under 12 years of age must wear a USCG–approved wearable PFD or Type I, II, III, or V PFD whenever above deck on any vessel that is underway.

Each person on board a personal watercraft (PWC) must wear a USCG–approved wearable PFD or Type I, II, III, or V PFD at all times.

Each person water-skiing or being towed in any manner must wear a USCG–approved wearable PFD or Type I, II, or III PFD at all times.

Each person on board a canoe or kayak from September 15 to May 15 must wear a USCG–approved wearable PFD or Type I, II, or III PFD at all times.

All PFDs must be:

  • USCG–approved, which means they are marked clearly with the USCG approval number.
  • In good and serviceable condition.
  • Readily accessible, which means you are able to put the PFD on quickly in an emergency.
  • Of the proper size for the intended wearer. Sizing for PFDs are based on body weight and chest size.
Type I

Type I: Wearable Offshore Life Jackets

These vests are geared for rough or remote waters where rescue may take awhile. They provide the most buoyancy, are excellent for flotation, and will turn most unconscious persons face up in the water.

Type II

Type II: Wearable Near-Shore Vests

These vests are good for calm waters when quick rescue is likely. A Type II may not turn some unconscious wearers face up in the water.

Type III

Type III: Wearable Flotation Aids

These vests or full-sleeved jackets are good for calm waters when quick rescue is likely. They are not recommended for rough waters since they will not turn most unconscious persons face up.

Type IV

Type IV: Throwable Devices

These cushions and ring buoys are designed to be thrown to someone in trouble. Because a throwable Type IV device is not designed to be worn, it is neither for rough waters nor for persons who are unable to hold onto it.

Type V

TYPE V: Special-Use Devices

These vests, deck suits, hybrid PFDs, and others are designed for specific activities such as windsurfing, kayaking, or water-skiing. To be acceptable, Type V PFDs must be used in accordance with their label.

Boat Smart—Wear Your PFD

Approximately 70% of all boating fatalities involve drownings caused by boating accidents. Most drowning victims are not wearing a PFD or are wearing an inadequate one. That is why it is critical that you have a USCG–approved PFD for each person on board.

PFDs must be readily accessible. Better yet, each person should wear a PFD because PFDs are difficult to put on once you are in the water. In most fatal accidents, the proper PFDs were on board but were not in use or were not within easy reach. If you are in the water without a PFD on, retrieve a floating PFD and hold it to your chest by wrapping your arms around it.

PFDs must be of the proper size for the intended wearer. Always read the label of the PFD to make sure it is the right size based on the person’s weight and chest size. It’s especially important to check that a child’s PFD fits snugly. Test the fit by picking the child up by the shoulders of the PFD and checking that his or her chin and ears do not slip through the PFD.

PFDs must be in good and serviceable condition.

  • Regularly test a PFD’s buoyancy in shallow water or a swimming pool. Remember that, over time, the ultraviolet radiation from the sun will break down the synthetic materials used to make your PFD.
  • Frequently inspect PFDs for rips or tears, discolored or weakened material, insecure straps or zippers, or labels that are no longer readable. Discard and replace any PFD that has a problem.
  • If using an inflatable PFD, before each outing check the status of the inflator and that the CO2 cylinder has not been used, has no leaks, and is tightly screwed in. Also check that the PFD itself has no leaks by removing the CO2 cylinder and orally inflating the PFD. The PFD should still be firm after several hours. After an inflatable PFD has been inflated using the CO2 cylinder, replace the spent cylinder and re-arm it. Because an inflatable PFD is a mechanical device, it requires regular maintenance. Inspect and maintain the inflatable portion of the PFD as instructed in the owner’s manual.

In Massachusetts over the last 10 years, 85% of the victims who died in boating accidents did not use life jackets. The majority of these victims fell overboard or capsized and then drowned. Many of these deaths undoubtedly would have been prevented if a life jacket had been worn.

Safe Boating Campaign