Known by many names, including life jackets, life vests, life preservers, flotation suits and buoyancy aids, personal flotation devices (PFDs) are a vital part of marine safety, whether you’re riding a personal watercraft or piloting a boat. Even the strongest of swimmers can be caught in a riptide or undertow, and if you fall overboard while fully dressed, you’re weighed down by wet clothing and shoes, making swimming more difficult. Sometimes, people who fall overboard can also suffer a head injury that incapacitates them, making it all the more essential that a personal flotation device is worn at all times.

The following information provided by Norfolk Marine will educate you on the types of PFDs available and what must be carried on a vessel, as well as the history behind PFDs. If you want to discuss your options further, come visit us at our Norfolk location so that our staff can help you out.

History of PFDs

The earliest flotation devices were extremely rudimentary, used mainly by intrepid sailors as they navigated difficult waters in simple crafts. These were made from inflated animal bladders or skins. Later, vests made from lightweight and buoyant wood were developed. Cork, owing to its high buoyancy and foam-like texture, was incorporated during the 1800s into bulky life vests that were marketed as early as 1804 to sailors.

Because cork was so rigid, it was uncomfortable to wear and took up space, so the more practical solution of a fabric vest with pockets for kapok came about during the early 1900s. Kapok is another vegetable material similar to cork but much more malleable and flexible, making life vests constructed from it more comfortable to wear. Kapok life vests were used through World War II. During the mid-20th century, kapok was supplanted by the use of foam when it came to creating inherently buoyant life vests. New technology allowed the wide use of more flexible and practical flotation materials, as well as modern inflatable vests that can be quickly filled with air or carbon dioxide in an emergency.

PFD Types

There are five primary types of life jacket, which come in either inflatable, inherently buoyant or a hybrid style, depending on manufacturer. The US Coast Guard (USCG) has specifically approved some of these types for boating use.

Type I PFD

Type I PFDs are extremely buoyant devices that will turn the wearer face-up in the water. They are often bulky and uncomfortable to wear, but are reasonably reliable in rough water. However, there are currently no USCG-approved Type I PFDs available on the consumer market, meaning that in order to comply with USCG rules, you may need to have another type of PFD available.


Type II PFDs are more comfortable than Type I PFDs, but will not automatically face an unconscious wearer upright in the water. These PFDs are best in calm waters where the swimmer is monitored and rescue response is likely to be fast. Type II PFDs come in both inherently buoyant and inflatable styles. They are often the most affordable style of PFD.


This style is the most comfortable of all wearable PFDs. Type III PFDs are intended to provide the wearer with more freedom of movement in the form of buoyant clothing. They can come in a coat, jacket or vest styling that provides additional features such as protection against hypothermia and cargo pockets. Type III PFDs are intended for use in reasonably calm water and require the wearer to lift their head up to keep it out of the water. They are not intended to assist in long-term survival in the water. They can be either inherently buoyant or inflatable.


This type of PFD is a throwable life ring that is intended to be used for passengers who fall overboard. Every vessel over 16’ in length must have a Type IV throwable life ring immediately available to throw overboard at a moment’s notice. This ring must be kept within arm’s reach of the side of the boat, not stowed under a seat or within a compartment. Type IV PFDs are not meant to be worn, only used to assist a conscious person overboard. They may also come in a cushion style instead of the traditional ring, and are not intended for non-swimmers, unconscious people or children to use.

Type V PFD

This type of PFD covers all activity-specific flotation devices that must be worn and used in accordance with the activity for which they are intended. Some activities with their own specific PFD style include water skiing, whitewater rafting and cold-weather hunting. The activity-specific PFD will also be classified as a Type I, II or III depending on its styling.

PFD Guidelines & Care

Simply having PFDs available on your boat isn’t enough. These devices must be in line with US Coast Guard guidelines, and there must be one for every passenger aboard any boat over 16’ in length. Each state has its own laws for PFD usage that you’ll want to research, but USCG rules apply in cases where no law is given. In states with no specific law regarding children’s PFD use, the USCG has an interim law mandating that all children under the age of 13 must wear an inherently buoyant (not an inflatable) PFD when on a moving boat. These jackets must be child-sized and must not slip up over the wearer’s head.

Examine your PFDs on a yearly basis, including life rings. Any PFD that leaks, is waterlogged or has undergone fading in the sun should be thrown out and replaced. Stow PFDs properly in a dry place away from sharp objects and out of direct sunlight so that they remain useful for as long as possible. PFDs must also remain easily accessible if not being worn, so don’t lock them in cabinets or inside plastic bags or stow them so high that passengers can’t easily reach them.

Now that you know how to stay safe with personal flotation devices, you may be looking to upgrade your current boat. Visit Norfolk Marine  to see our wide array of new and used boats for sale. Norfolk Marine welcomes our customers coming from Virginia Beach, Hampton and Chesapeake, Virginia!