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In this question a couple years ago: What do life jacket ratings mean (Type I, Type II, etc)?, we see the traditional types many of us learned about in Boating Safety courses, or in Scout/ Youth camp, or from the America Canoe Association or American Sailing Association. A couple answers there (including one of my own) discuss the definitions and features of the old roman-numeral-typed PFD (i.e. Type I through Type V).

However, it was hinted there regarding the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard had determined the boating public had a poor understanding of the meaning of these types, and was going to eliminate them. This became official with a ruling issued September 22, 2014 (it's a little dry legalese, but you can read it here.)

Along with this announcement, the Coast Guard also stated they anticipated a several year transition period to allow for, among other things, the states to update their boating laws for the new labeling rules, and for PFD manufactures to begin developing the new label system.

Well, here we are at the start of 2019, and the new labels are beginning to appear on store shelves and in training materials. What are the new types, how do they compare to the old types, and how have the rules changed for what I need to carry on my boat?

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The new labeling system gives each PFD not one type, but three attributes ranked on a spectrum: buoyancy, turning power, and size. The label adds a fourth attribute listing suggested activities for which this PFD is best suited. Let's look at these one at a time:

Buoyancy: Will be given by a letter class from A to E. Class A provides the most buoyancy, E the least. (I believe these are short-hand for increments of Newtons, but I am finding conflicting info on this).

Example Buoyancy Label

Turning Power: Will be either None, Moderate, or Maximum. Roughly corresponds to the older Types III, II, and I, in that order, but makes it much more explicit.

Example Righting Label

Size: Will be based on weight and chest size of the wearer. Most adult sizes are 90+ pounds, and child sizes vary. Among adults, there can be variety in chest sizes, not unlike any other clothing article

Example Size Label

Finally, the recommended activities section could list, along with colored icons, things like fishing, sailing, paddling, skiing, PWC, and so on. This section of the label will also mention whether the PFD is rated for impact, and if so, at what speed.


Next, as to how these new labels will be applied in boating laws. The first thing to note is that the term "wearable" will replace "Type I, II, III, or V" and "throwable" will replace "Type IV" respectively. So the most common rule will now look like "one wearable per person on board and have one throwable on board." or similar depending on jurisdiction. Specific rules for certain types of vessels like PWCs, or canoes and kayaks, will have their wording likewise altered.

As might be expected, PFDs bearing the old labels will remain legal as long as they remain in good, serviceable condition.

For some further reading, try these articles at American Sailing Association or PassageMaker.

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