Who Has To Wear A Life Jacket On A Boat?

Who Has To Wear A Life Jacket On A Boat? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

April 10, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Life jackets save lives when wearing properly fitted ones
  • Any child under 13, as a minimum age, must wear life jackets on an underway vessel
  • Make sure to read life jacket labels and understand local life jacket laws
  • Always choose a Coast Guard-approved life jacket when on any vessel
  • It is extremely important to have life jackets readily accessible if you are not wearing one

Many boaters often overlook the importance of wearing a life jacket. But who has to wear a life jacket on a boat?

Children below the age of 13 must wear a fitting USCG-approved life jacket when the vessel is underway, unless inside an enclosed cabin or below deck. Note that state regulations may vary, and the Coast Guard strongly recommends everyone to wear a life jacket while on board.

While the Coast Guard strongly recommends that every adult wear a life jacket, it is not required, but there are times where rules may apply and you must wear one. If your boating activities are within the territorial boundaries of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or any federal, state, or local park authority, there may be additional regulations that you need to comply with to wear a life jacket.


Table of contents

Who Really Needs a Life Jacket?

To put it simply, everyone needs a life jacket while boating in order to be one step ahead of danger on the water. You could argue that water related incidents are much safer when you must wear a life jacket.

Life jackets help everyone that falls in the water to stay afloat. Without one, boating related drownings happen more likely than those who do not wear one.

As mentioned, underway vessels must comply with specific life jacket laws for children under 13, who are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket unless meeting the other two requirements. Boaters must adhere to state-specific regulations, which apply to all boating activities regardless of location.

For any child or adult, ensure your life jacket is U.S. Coast Guard-approved, in good condition, fits the intended user by looking at the life jacket labels, and is properly stored when not in use or if there are extra. Boaters should also consider a whistle and emergency light, but these are not required.

To stay safe during certain water activities, it is recommended by the U.S. Coast Guard and required by some states to wear life jackets. These activities include water skiing, operating personal watercraft, whitewater boating, and sailboarding.

It is important to check with your state's boating laws for specific requirements. While federal law does not mandate life jacket use for racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes, and racing kayaks, state laws may differ, so it is still best to consult with your state boating agency.

Testing the Fit of a Life Jacket

To test out a life jacket before boating or go on board any type of vessel, simply wear a snug fit U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Test its fit by raising your arms straight and ensuring it stays in place without riding up, and by having someone lift it up at the shoulders while it remains secure without the zipper touching your nose or the jacket slipping off.

You should make it a priority to review the manufacturer's booklet and label on every life jacket, as they contain essential details such as size, type, intended use, and Coast Guard approval. When you must wear a life jacket, you will know that it fit properly when trying it on and understanding the information provided with the life jacket.

Once you have the properly fitting life jacket of your choice, it is time to wear it in shallow water. If it is not a properly fitting life jacket, you will know immediately since you will either not float or the life jacket will be up in your neck. Life jackets should fit snugly while wearing, allowing you to know that your life jacket fits properly.

For child sized life jackets, they must wear ones based on weight and height. Children's life jackets are categorized into three groups based on weight while they wear them:

  • Youth: 55 to 88 pounds
  • Small child: 33 to 55 pounds
  • Infant, babies and toddlers: Under 33 pounds

Different Types of Life Jackets to Wear

Life jackets come in many different forms and sizes, leaving some confused when trying to purchase one. However, it should not deter you from wearing one, because most boating related drownings occur while not wearing life jackets.

Each person on board recreational vessels should wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket while the vessel is underway and the vessel must have life jackets for each person on board. Vessels 16 feet and longer (excluding canoes and kayaks) must have a Type IV throwable device onboard. Remember, you must wear a life jacket if you want to improve your chances between life and death.

Type I

This is considered an offshore Life Jacket and provides maximum buoyancy. These are ideal for all water conditions, particularly rough, open, or remote ones, as it can automatically turn an unconscious person face-up in the water.

Type II

The Near-Shore Buoyant Vest, suitable for calm, inland waters and probable rescue scenarios, is an inherently buoyant life jacket that can turn unconscious individuals face-up in water. While not as efficient as a Type I life jacket, it offers superior turning capabilities compared to other inflatable jackets or personal flotation device.

Type III

For peaceful inland waters and probable speedy rescue scenarios, this flotation device is perfect. It requires the wearer to lean their head back to stay upright in the water and has equivalent buoyancy to what you would see in a second level vest. It is comfortable for long periods, which is why a child likely prefers this type, comes in a range of styles, sizes, and colors, and is appropriate for different sports.

Type IV

The Throwable Device is a Type IV rescue equipment designed to be thrown to someone in water to hold onto until rescued, and should not be worn. This flotation device falls under the same category as buoyant cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys. Keep in mind that inflatable Type IV devices lack Coast Guard approval.

Type V

A Type V device can substitute a life jacket if used as approved on the label. If specified on the label, it offers similar performance to the first three classes.

If labeled "approved only when worn," it must be used as directed while on a personal watercraft. Some Type V devices, such as deck suits, work vests, and sailing vests with a safety harness, provide hypothermia protection.

Choosing the Best Life Jacket for You

When selecting life jackets, consider your body size, planned activities, and the expected water conditions. There are various designs, colors, styles, and materials available, tailored for rugged water sports or cold-water temperatures. Be sure to check out new life jacket labels in the event these are updated.

Most drowning fatalities with a personal watercraft occur near the shore in calm waters, not during storms out at sea. Inland bodies of water account for 90% of drowning deaths, and many occur within a short distance of safety. Sadly, some victims had life jackets, which could have saved their lives if they had been worn.

Who Has To Wear A Life Jacket On A Boat?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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