Now that I have found a personal flotation device I really love, I have to consider that it is not a PFD, as in a proper name with capital letters, but a Buoyancy Aid, a somewhat distant and estranged cousin of the “real” thing. It seems that the US Coast Guard now owns the phrase “personal flotation device” and it only applies to objects that meet their specific criteria. So is there something suspicious about “Buoyancy Aids,” or are they merely life jackets produced outside the US and sanctioned by a different authority? Do manufacturers just avoid the bureaucracy of the Coast Guard approval, or do they make a lesser product? If the products are inferior, why do I see them being sold by every sailing gear supplier I look at?
The Zhik Buoyancy Aid I have, and many other brands I have seen for sale, are CE approved. This is a European seal of approval similar to a UL product approval in the US. It is a required safety approval for all products sold in the European Common Market. Apparently it is coveted around the world, even in far away New Zealand where Zhik is located. A CE approval is respected globally, so what is the Coast Guard approval vs. CE approval all about?
A brief internet search reveals that the two approvals have clearly different flotation standards. Coast Guard type II, III, and V PFD’s are required to have 15.5 pounds of flotation, while CE approved Buoyancy Aids are required to have only 50 newtons (11 pounds) of flotation. More flotation is probably better (don’t Americans usually think more is better?), but is 11 pounds enough?
Boatsafe.com has an explanation for quantifying the amount of needed flotation. According to them, our bodies are typically composed of 80% water, having neutral buoyancy, and 15% fat, which floats, leaving only 5% of our body weight that needs to be held up by the life jacket. A 200 pound person therefore needs 10 pounds of buoyancy. At 170 pounds, I require only 8.5 pounds.
Working with this simplified physics, it seems that Europeans define the “standard” as a person weighing 220 pounds or less, while the US Coast Guard feels it necessary to float a 310 pound person (a truly awesome sight in a laser or a sailing dinghy). By the estimation of the local sanctioning authorities, it seems that Europeans are considerably smaller and more buoyant than Americans.
So is it un-American for a European sized, more buoyant person to sail with a CE approved Buoyancy Aid? If a Buoyancy Aid makes a capsize less likely and a capsize recovery far easier, isn’t it safer and therefore a better choice? Is it treasonous and defiant to the US Coast Guard to supplant Coast Guard approval with CE approval? Can’t we be accepting of globalization and be citizens of the world so long as we safely obey the law of physics?
I’ll keep my Coast Guard approved type III in my gear bag, just in case. And I’m still on the lookout for a life jacket with the slimmer profile and better fit of a buoyancy aid combined with the Coast Guard approved flotation of a PFD.
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