A good lifejacket is a fundamental piece of safety equipment, so it’s important to look at the options and ensure you choose the best lifejacket for your needs. David Harding checks out some popular options.
Whatever else you might find on a boat, you will usually find lifejackets. In the context of this feature we’re talking specifically about the best lifejacket options as opposed to buoyancy aids: lifejackets that will inflate to turn you on to your back in the water and provide you with at least 150 Newtons of buoyancy.
Because inflatable lifejackets like this are relatively slim and unobtrusive (at least when compared with the solid foam variety), some people wear them nearly all the time when afloat. Others wait until conditions get rough, and then there are those who don them under duress; only when the rules insist or the skipper says so (which isn’t necessarily as reckless an approach as it might sound, because their views are often based on hard-won experience).
What to look for in a good lifejacket?
Whether you’re a regular or an occasional wearer, it’s pointless to wear a lifejacket that won’t do the job should the need arise. Sailors will typically choose one that incorporates a harness with an attachment point for a safety line so they can clip on when on deck and it’s also easier to haul them out of the water.
Many lighter, slimmer and less expensive lifejackets don’t have a harness and are more likely to be worn by motorboaters. Another difference between lifejackets is the firing mechanism, which fires a pin into the gas cylinder to activate the inflation. Most rely on a tablet that dissolves in water, some being more prone to dissolving accidentally than others.
Alternatively you might prefer a hydrostatic mechanism, because it’s activated only when immersed a given depth below the water. Further choices include whether you want features like a spray hood (to help prevent secondary drowning), a light, a whistle or provision for electronic recovery aids such as an AIS or PLB.
There are a lot of choices to make, so here we look at examples of various types.
The best lifejackets available right now
Crewsaver Ergofit+ 190N
Crewsaver has long been a name synonymous with lifejackets, and the Erogofit+ 190N is the company’s top-of-the-range model in the 150 Newton category. Like many lifejackets that conform to the 150N standard, it provides substantially more buoyancy than the minimum required.
Buoyancy in the bladder is distributed in such a way that, if you land in the water on your front, you should be turned on to your back within three seconds as it inflates. The inflated bladder is also designed to act as a wave-break to stop water sloshing over your face, and to maximise mobility so you can climb back aboard or into a liferaft.
Given the importance of keeping water away from the airways, the Ergofit comes with a special design of spray hood that supports itself and provides plenty of clearance over the face.
Further features include a double crotch strap and buckle that’s easy to operate with cold hands.
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Crewsaver Crewfit 180 Pro
For a lifejacket that’s lighter, slimmer and less expensive than the Ergofits, Crewsaver’s line-up includes the Crewfit 180N Pro.
Again providing substantially more buoyancy than the 150N base level, it comes without some of the features of the Ergofit+, such as the spray hood, but has attachment points for one as well as for an AIS unit that’s activated automatically on inflation. Also included is a surface light that comes on in contact with the water to help attract attention.
A window in the cover lets you check the status of the inflation mechanism to make sure it’s ready to go. To help you come back aboard, the Crewfit is compatible with the MOB Lifesaver recovery system.
Inflating to provide 170N of buoyancy, Ocean Safety’s Kru Sport is one of the lightest and least obtrusive offshore-spec lifejackets you can buy.
Once inflated, the two sides of the bladder interlock to help stop water being funnelled between them and over your face. A hood is also built in to offer further protection.
Speed of rotation from a face-down position is taken seriously by all reputable lifejacket manufacturers and the Kru Sport is claimed to have you on your back in less than five seconds.
A single back strap and crotch strap help minimise weight and bulk and a side buckle makes for easy adjustment.
Spinlock Deckvest Lite
With the introduction of the Deckvest, Spinlock were among the first manufacturers to offer a lifejacket that’s slim, comfortable and unobtrusive enough to woo people who might traditionally have §chosen not to wear one.
The Deckvest range has now expanded to include four models, the Deckvest Lite and Lite+ (the latter incorporating a harness) being the lightest and slimmest.
Unlike many of their competitors, they open for donning at the side rather than the front. Options include a light on a stalk to raise it above the wearer’s head, another light to illuminate the inflated bladder, a spray hood and an AIS beacon. Welcome features include the ability to convert it to manual-only firing, while something else that might encourage those of us who are reluctant to wear lifejackets is the ability to attach a chest pack to compensate for restricted access to our jacket pockets.
If budget isn’t a consideration and you’re after a top-of-the-range lifejacket, Spinlock’s Deckvest Vito will almost certainly be on your shortlist.
Developed with Volvo Ocean Race teams, it has a Hammar hydrostatic inflation system and a bladder-illumination light. Distinctive features that have proved popular with wearers include a pocket on the back for the spray hood to minimise bulk around the neck. The crotch strap also lives in a back pocket so it’s out of the way but easy to reach for use when needed.
Given that being towed by a safety line can be a very quick way to drown, Spinlock developed the Harness Release System (HRS) that allows you to open the soft loop to which the line is attached, thereby releasing the harness’s hook.
Incorporating a toggle attachment point for a chest pack, the Vito is designed to be easily and accurately adjustable for a comfortable fit according to the number of layers you’re wearing.
Decathlon Tribord LJ150N
This is one of the least expensive 150N lifejackets to include automatic inflation, a crotch strap and a built-in harness.
Designed with technical input from French Vendée Globe sailor Tanguy De Lamotte, the LJ150N follows the current trend in having the outer cover secured with a zip that bursts when the bladder inflates, rather than the poppers and hook-and-loop fastener widely found on older lifejackets.
It comes in black and its slim fit and good value make it a contender if you’re in the market for a basic lifejacket that’s functional and economical.
Helly Hansen Sailsafe Inflatable Race
Closer to the top end of the price range for lifejackets we find Helly Hansen’s Sailsafe, designed with offshore racing in mind. To this end it has a low profile for minimal restriction of movement and it comes with many of the features you would want for offshore use including a harness, light and spray hood. There’s also space to fit a PLB.
As with some other offshore lifejackets, the inflation system is of the hydrostatic type from Hammar. Unlike most of its competitors, however, the Sailsafe doesn’t use a conventional crotch strap. Instead you find thigh straps, which are potentially more fiddly to fit but more comfortable in use. They tuck away into pocket on the back when you don’t need them.
TeamO 170N Coastal Backtow
Wearing a lifejacket and being clipped on with a safety harness might increase your sense of security on deck, but people have drowned after falling overboard and being towed along by a safety line with their head under water.
That’s why Oscar Mead developed the TeamO lifejacket so that, instead of being towed on your front, you’re towed on your back with your head above the water. Your reviewer was involved in TeamO testing back in 2012.
The lifejacket has an attachment point on the front for normal use on board. If you find yourself in the water and clipped on, you manually activate the backtow mechanism to release the attachment from the front and it moves to the back.
Coastal and offshore versions of the Backtow lifejacket are available, both of course incorporating harnesses and the former coming with double crotch straps and a whistle. The offshore version costs from £220 and gives you a choice of inflation systems.
Lalizas Alpha 170N Automatic
While some of the big-name manufacturers have been placing great emphasis on creating lifejackets that are discrete and stylish, Lalizas have stuck with the simple, functional, tried and tested with the Alpha design.
It comes in red – practical if no longer quite so fashionable – and with no talk of 3D sculpting or a contoured shape. Another departure from the modern norm is that the cover is fastened with Velcro rather than a zip.
Inflation systems are automatic and manual and there’s an oral inflation tube as well as a whistle. Lalizas say that re-arming and re-packing is easy and economical.
The integral harness incorporates a stainless steel D-ring for attaching a safety line. There’s also a version without a harness.
Seago Active Pro 190N
This is one of the higher-buoyancy lifejackets in the 150N category, inflating – as its name suggests – to 190 Newtons. That means it needs the larger 38g gas cylinder as opposed to the 33g size used by many smaller lifejackets.
As you would expect from a lifejacket at this level, it has a window in the cover so you can check the status of the firing mechanism, plus a spray hood and light, while a crotch strap can be added.
A range of colours includes various combinations of red and blue. The Active lifejackets sit in Seago’s range between the more economical Classic and the top-end 3Dynamic.
Baltic Winner 150N
Having been making lifejackets since the 1970s, Baltic has become one of the biggest names in the business and offers one of the widest ranges, including flotation clothing, floatation suits, buoyancy aids, belt packs, safety lines and harnesses, and buoyancy aids for pets.
The Winner 150 sits broadly in the middle of the range of inflatable lifejackets and comes with a choice of manual or automatic inflation. You also have a choice of harness or no harness.
Features include a fleece-lined collar for comfort (lifejackets can rub around the back of the neck) and retro-reflective patches. A light and a spray hood are among the options.
SeaSafe I-Zip 170N
If you find most lifejackets rather boring in appearance, SeaSafe have the answer: choose your own cover. The standard range includes everything from plain blues, black and red to zebra stripes, Union Jack, tiger or leopard print, camouflage grey or green or even Harris tweed in different hues. And if you decide afterwards that you’ve been too flamboyant – or safe – it’s easy to change the cover for another one.
Inside is a 170N lifejacket with integral harness, made in SeaSafe’s factory on the Isle of Wight. Standard features include a crotch strap, a whistle and a padded collar. You can then tick the boxes for a host of options including manual or automatic firing, safety beacons of your choice, a light, an MOB Lifesaver and even embroidery on the cover.