Lifejackets and Buoyancy Aids

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Lifejacket vs Buoyancy Aid

There is a subtle but very important difference between a "lifejacket" and a "buoyancy aid". A lifejacket is designed to help you float (conscious or unconscious) and keep your airway out of the water. A buoyancy aid, as its name suggests, is simply there to provide buoyancy, but it won't turn an unconscious casualty the right way up. Remember though that it can be difficult to swim in a lifejacket - inflated, you will find it hard to turn onto your front, so you may have to stick with a kind of backstroke if you want to get anywhere. If you get the opportunity, in controlled conditions (e.g. a swimming pool shallow end), try and see what it's like using them "in anger".

ARA Rule change from April 2005 - coxes in bow-loaders MUST ONLY wear manually inflatable lifejackets. So no buoyancy aids with any permanent buoyancy, and no automatic inflation devices of any sort. Why? Because in a capsized bow-loader, until the cox has escaped, any unnecessary additional buoyancy will only hinder their escape, with potentially life-threatening consequences. Once safely out of the boat, then pull the toggle!

Manual vs. Automatic

The Crewsaver website has a clear description of the inflation options available for "air only" lifejackets. So Option 1 only for bow-loaders.

Air-only vs Foam

Air-only (inflatable) lifejackets have negligible inherent buoyancy unless inflated, and when not inflated are generally the least cumbersome option, and are now compulsory for bow-coxed boats. Foam buoyancy aids a) provide less buoyancy than an inflatable lifejacket (50 or 100 N vs 150 N), tend to be bulkier, and in a capsized bow-coxed boat could very easily hinder the cox's exit, and MUST NOT be used in this type of boat.

What to look for?

Buoyancy Standards

The ARA Water Safety Code provides some rather inconsistent advice about lifejackets / buoyancy aids. It requires lifejackets to meet EN396, but has no equivalent standard for buoyancy aids. My advice, and choice, is to use an air-only lifejacket meeting EN396. If you choose to use a foam buoyancy aid, then I would prefer it to have at least 100 N of buoyancy (i.e. meeting EN395). Under the current WSC, a permanent buoyancy lifejacket providing only 50 N buoyancy is satisfactory. I disagree.

Some lifejackets and buoyancy aids come with harnesses. Don't buy them for rowing, you don't need the harness. In any case, there's nothing to clip it on to, and in bow-coxed boats, it's quite possible that the harness could get caught up in the steering mechanism.

What do I use? - as I don't cox (well, at 6'2" and 70 kg who would want me to!), but I do drive launches and umpire from them, so I have gone for a Crewsaver Crewfit 150N with Hammar (hydrostatic) automatic inflation mechanism. An automatic inflation device makes a bit more sense for launch-based people (drivers, marshals, umpires, coaches) as there's a more significant chance that you might hit your head and enter the water unconscious. Coxes in bow-loaders MUST NOT use automatic lifejackets, and the benefit for stern-coxed boats is negligible (in my view anyway).

Coxes - do yourselves a big favour and make sure your lifejacket / buoyancy aid a) is the right size and b) is correctly fastened - it will only work properly if it's worn and used properly! Expect umpires on Control Commission to ask you to fasten your lifejackets before you go afloat - and better still, arrive correctly dressed before you step into the boat. Set the example for others to follow.


Lifejacket maintenance is pretty straightforward, and requires no specialist tools or expertise. Your lifejacket should have come with maintenance instructions. If you've lost them, then contact the manufacturer for a new copy. They're normally happy to help. Crewsaver produce a CD-ROM with a load of useful material on it, including maintenance instructions (which can be applied to other makes as well).