Buoyancy Aids & Lifejackets

Personal floatation devices come in two main forms buoyancy aids and lifejackets. Worn correctly a personal flotation device could save your life.

The RYA recommends that you wear a lifejacket or buoyancy aid unless you are sure you don't need to.

You can base this decision on factors such as weather conditions, the type of activity you are doing and your level of experience. If you are a beginner or still relatively inexperienced, making these judgements is often not that easy, so if this is the case, wear one at all times.

The RYA strongly recommends that you should always wear personal buoyancy:

  • If you are a non-swimmer and there is any possibility of entering the water
  • When the skipper deems it necessary
  • When abandoning ship
  • When you feel you want to wear one or if you are not totally sure that you do not need to wear one

Selection of the correct personal buoyancy is critical and needs to be appropriate to the activity.

What is the difference between buoyancy aids and lifejackets?

Buoyancy aids are simply that - an aid to buoyancy that generally relies on help being close at hand.

It assumes that the wearer is able to help themselves to some degree by swimming to safety or by keeping themselves afloat while assistance arrives if required.

Buoyancy aids are suitable for personal watercraft (PWC), dinghies, windsurfing and generally for activities where the wearer might reasonably expect to end up in the water.

A lifejacket is intended for use where a high standard of performance is required. It will turn an unconscious person into a safe position and requires no subsequent action by the user to maintain this position.

You should consider whether an automatic lifejacket or manual inflate lifejacket, both with sprayhood, light and whistle, is appropriate to the boating activity you are undertaking.  Ideally you should fit or buy a lifejacket that is fitted with crotch straps; these will stop the lifejacket riding up over your head.  You should also consider a lifejacket that is fitted with dye-markers and personal locator beacon to aid location and harness D ring for harness attachment to stop you falling off in the first place.

Lifejackets are suitable when on an open boat (e.g. powerboat or RIB), when going ashore in a yacht tender, on a sailing yacht or motor cruiser and generally where you do not expect to enter the water.

Lifejackets come in different styles and sizes and some will work better for different body styles than others.  Where possible test your lifejacket in a controlled environment to check that it will work for you. 

Watch: how to wear a lifejacket correctly.

Levels of buoyancy

In addition to selecting between a lifejacket and a buoyancy aid, consideration also needs to be given to the level of buoyancy that is required.

Buoyancy aids and lifejackets have different levels of buoyancy. These levels of buoyancy should be considered and influence your choice. There are four main buoyancy levels: 50, 100, 150 and 275.

In general terms, Level 50 is a buoyancy aid designed for when help is close at hand, whereas Level 150 is a general purpose lifejacket used for offshore cruising and motor boating.

The levels of buoyancy information sheet includes further information on levels of buoyancy and the labelling of personal floatation devices.

Specialist lifejackets are available for infants and children.

Remember that inflatable lifejackets and buoyancy aids are useless unless they work.  They must be checked regularly and serviced in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.