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PA Boating Handbook
Personal Flotation Devices
Wear It Pennsylvania illustrationPersonal flotation devices (PFDs, life jackets, life preservers, life vests and throwable devices) are the most important piece of equipment on a boat; they are the best defense against drowning. Each person in the boat must have a wearable, USCG-approved life jacket, NO EXCEPTIONS! It is highly advisable to wear life jackets at all times, especially in dangerous conditions.

Since boating conditions can change quickly and without warning (increasing your chance of unexpectedly falling into the water), boating without wearing a properly fitted life jacket is dangerous. Trying to put on a life jacket while in the water is difficult and nearly impossible in moving water.

  • All boats must have a USCG-approved wearable life jacket on board for each person.
  • Life jackets must be the appropriate size for the person intended. Check the life jacket label to ensure it’s the appropriate size for the person wearing it. Also, make sure the jacket fits. (See below.)
  • Life jackets must be appropriate for the activity for which they are worn. See the USCG approval label for information.
  • Wearable life jackets must be “readily accessible.” This means they should be stowed where they can be easily reached or in the open, ready for wear. Throwable devices must be “immediately available,” which means that the PFD shall be within arm’s reach of the operator or passenger while the boat is operated. A life jacket that is sealed in its original packaging is not readily accessible or immediately available.
  • All life jackets must be in good and serviceable condition and legibly marked showing the USCG approval number. This means the life jacket must be functional, free of tears or defects in the material, and all buckles, straps, zippers and other closures must be operable.
  • In addition to wearable life jackets, boats 16 feet and over must have a throwable device (ring buoy, life ring or buoyant seat cushion) on board. Canoes and kayaks, regardless of length, are not required to carry a throwable device.
  • A throwable device may not be used as a substitute for a wearable device.
Types of PFDs
  • Life jackets should be inspected regularly for tears and damage. If damage is present, do not repair the life jacket. Throw it away. Repairs to a life jacket may be the weak spot that causes a drowning.
  • Inflatable life jackets must be checked frequently and maintained according to the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure correct operation.
  • Life jackets must be used in accordance with any requirements on the approval label.

Children with life jacketsChildren 12 years of age and younger on Commonwealth waters when underway on any boat 20 feet or less in length and in all canoes and kayaks.

On Pittsburgh District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes (only), everyone in boats less than 16 feet in length and in all canoes and kayaks.

All water skiers and anyone towed behind vessels, personal watercraft (PWC) operators and passengers and sailboarders (windsurfers). Inflatable life jackets are not acceptable for these activities.

The “Touchdown” Test

For a life jacket to work properly, not only does it need to be on your body, it should fit properly as well. A properly fitting life jacket is more comfortable (meaning you are more likely to wear it) but more important, it functions better. Life jackets that are too large can ride up or even come off when you are in the water.

It’s easy to check a conventional life jacket for proper fit–just put it on. The jacket should fit you snugly with all zippers, straps, ties and snaps correctly secured. With a partner behind you, raise your arms like you are signaling a touchdown in a football game. Have the partner lift the jacket by the shoulders. The jacket should come no higher than your chin. If the jacket covers your face or comes off—that’s what would happen in the water. In this case, tighten the straps or use a smaller size.

Boaters must wear a life jacket on boats less than 16 feet in length or any canoe or kayak. Recreational boating fatalities that occur in Pennsylvania from November through April are primarily due to the effects of cold water immersion. When water temperatures are less than 70 degrees F, cold water shock is a major factor in boating fatalities. Victims who wear a life jacket when exposed to cold water have potentially life-saving advantages such as insulation from the cold, buoyancy for victims who are unable to tread water and reduced risk of aspiration of water. In an effort to reduce the number of fatalities related to cold water immersion, the Commission has amended regulations to require life jackets to be worn on small and unstable boats during the period most noted for cold water temperatures.
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