Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Do Europeans Float Better than Americans?

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? 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.


  1. You should try a float test with both PFDs.

  2. As a European I will, regretfully forgo making any comment on the buoyancy of Americans.

    However, I would like to comment on the plethora of labelling systems that rather than making choice easy for the consumer, merely complicate the matter with bureaucratic gobbledegook.

    While I'm sure most of these systems have good intensions I wonder how many others, like me tend to ignore them.

  3. I'm very hazy on the letter of the law here, and if you sail a Laser, this is probably a moot point, but, in larger boats you're subject to Coast Guard inspections on the high and not so high seas. There's a whole shopping list of stuff the coasties expect to see on your boat at such times and you're busted if you're missing any of them. You've got to have a PFD for every hand plus an extra to toss should someone go in the drink, and I'm pretty sure those PFD's need to be the coastie-approved type or they don't count.

    Also, 'floating' could mean you're floating with your nose below water. I think an extra margin is built into the formula to insure you're floating higher in the water. The higher classifications of PFD's are designed to roll an unconcious person over, face up, and to lift their head out of the water, too.

    But don't quote me - I have only a very vague understanding of most rules and regulations in general. And the real danger in Laser sailing is chopping off a finger.

  4. A buoyancy aid is designed to aid a competent swimmer in self rescue. And is specifically not a life jacket. This is by the EN ISO 12402-5 standard, which a buoyancy aid falls under.

  5. The test results I remember reading about showed that even some Type II PFD's wouldn't turn an unconscious victim face up except in calm water.

  6. I realize this is a 3 year old post however I found it while trying to understand this as well. In doing so I found this on the Irish Water Safety site. It was helpful to me.

    "Understanding Personal Flotation Devices

    Buoyancy is measured in Newton – 10 Newton equals 1 kilogramme of flotation. There are 4 European standards for personal floatation devices, which must all carry the CE mark.

    The 50 Newton Personal Flotation Device is commonly called a Buoyancy aid. It is intended for use by those who are competent swimmers and who are near to the bank or shore, or who have help and means of rescue close at hand. These PFDs have minimum bulk, but they are of limited use in disturbed water, and cannot be expected to keep the user safe for a long period of time. They do not have sufficient buoyancy to protect people who are unable to help themselves. They require active participation by the user. Recommended for Dinghy sailors, windsurfers, water-skiers & Personal Water craft where the user might reasonable expect to end up in the water.

    The 100 Newton lifejacket is intended for those who may have to wait for rescue but are likely to do so in sheltered and calm water. Whilst these lifejackets are less bulky than those with more buoyancy, they are only intended for use in relatively sheltered waters. They may not have sufficient buoyancy to protect people who are unable to help themselves and may not roll an unconscious person onto their back particularly if they are wearing heavy clothing.

    The 150 Newton lifejacket in intended for general offshore and rough weather use where a high standard of performance is required. It should turn an unconscious person into a safe position and requires no subsequent action by the wearer to keep their face out of the water. Its performance may be affected if the user is wearing heavy and/or waterproof clothing. Recommended for general use on coastal and inshore waters when sailing, fishing etc. where the user would not expect to end up in the water.

    The 275 Newton Lifejacket
    is intended primarily for offshore and extreme conditions and for those wearing heavy protective clothing that may adversely affect the self-righting capacity of the lifejacket. This lifejacket is designed to ensure that the wearer is floating in the correct position with their mouth and nose clear of the surface of the water. Recommended for offshore cruising, fishing and commercial users."