We test eight of the best coastal lifejackets available right now to see which comes out top in a series of real-world criteria…
A lifejacket is a lifejacket is a lifejacket, right? They all conform to a similar set of safety standards (ISO 12402-3 for coastal/non-harness or 12401 for harness versions) meaning they must all do the following:
- Turn a person over and float them in the safety position
- Maintain a minimum height of chin above water
- Have a whistle and a lifting strop
- Be constructed from a material that is highly visible and recognisable as a safety or distress colour (bright orange/yellow)
- Have a minimum area of reflective tape
And yet all lifejackets have their own characteristics. The design of the casing and buckles, the position of the CO2 inflation bottle; the shape of the bladder; the location of the whistle, inflation tube and lifting strop, and other key attributes that can all affect how comfortable and practical they are to wear and use both in and out of the water.
To determine this we put a selection of popular 160-180N coastal lifejackets through a series of real world tests on a range of different body types carried out by nine experienced professionals at Western Maritime Training in Plymouth.
Their comments are their own personal findings based on hands-on use rather than official laboratory tests. Needless to say, all the lifejackets meet the official safety standards required by their ISO ratings.
That’s why our scoring is based on ten other criteria which we feel are important to owners of motorboats:
- In water – What it’s like to wear when inflated.
- Adjustability – Ease of adjustment.
- Buckle – Ease of fastening and unfastening.
- Comfort – When worn uninflated over a foul weather jacket or a T-shirt.
- Practicality – Do any parts snag or catch?
- Equipment – Do all the accessories work and are they intuitive to use?
- Visibility – Of the casualty in the dark.
- Arming check – Ease of inspecting.
- Repacking – Ease of repacking and re-arming.
- Style – Does it look and feel good to wear
8 of the best coastal lifejackets tested
This is the cheapest lifejacket, something of a blast from the past for those of us who were boating back in the 1980s and 1990s. But, this is a tried-and-tested way to construct a reliable lifejacket and if you can live with its basic comfort levels, it’s a reliable piece of kit.
Mike, who tested it in the pool, commented: “It inflated quickly when manually activated and has good bladder positioning. It turned me quickly from face down and the oral inflation tube is easy to reach.
“It’s relatively comfortable. I found the lifting strop but it’s not marked. A bit fiddly but it’s simple and it works.”
The Waveline isn’t the most stylish of lifejackets on test but it performs as well as any other lifejacket in this category when it comes to the basic safety functions.
The flat Velcro closure of the casing makes it easy to check the arming mechanism and to repack the lifejacket after inflation. There’s also space in the casing to add a light and sprayhood.
Not the most stylish or comfortable choice out there but undeniably effective and good value.
Pros: This Waveline is the lightest on test and weighs just 800g fully armed. The Velcro closure makes this lifejacket really easy to check and simple to re-pack. Attractive purchase price.
Cons: It has about as much style as a flat red thing can have.
In water: 8/10
Arming check: 8/10
Overall score: 61%
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Ocean Safety Kru Sport 170 ADV
This well-respected jacket from Ocean Safety’s long-running Kru range features a scooped neck to relieve pressure or rubbing on the neck and a plastic buckle closure for quick, easy fastening. The harness version has the option of a two- and three-bar stainless steel buckle.
It features Ocean Safety’s ‘Wave Barrier’ technology, which promises a sub-five second turning speed, to ensure the wearer’s airway is raised above the water as quickly as possible. It also features an interlocking bladder which aims to prevent the flow of water into airways, “dramatically reducing the threat of secondary drowning.”
However some wearers had concerns about other elements. Anna commented: “The mounting of the CO2 bottle feels wrong. The bladder forced the canister against my chest. A sprayhood and light are included and the light came on straight away.
“The sprayhood doesn’t feel as rigid as some, though, and dropped too close to my face. Despite tightening the crotch strap in the water, it still didn’t quite feel right.”
Toby commented that the zip is on the opposite side to the top-up tube, which makes it tricky to remove the air completely when repacking it.
Pros: Smart-looking. Ocean Safety brand is well established and trusted with service centres readily available everywhere. Crossover bladder design.
Cons: As per a previous test conducted on this lifejacket, it has suboptimal positioning of the CO2 canister on the curve of the bladder which causes it to rotate on inflation and jab into the chest or ribs of the wearer.
In water: 5/10
Arming check: 4/10
Overall score: 65%
Helly Hansen Sail Safe
This is a well-constructed ergonomically styled jacket with a secure crossed backstrap design. Available in two understated colours (red or navy), it’s a fairly strappy design compared with the more modern, structured vest types.
This means if it was pulled out of a locker or kitbag in a hurry, it might take a few more seconds to ensure there are no twists in the webbing before putting it on.
The bottle positioning is on the inside of the bladder facing the wearer’s body, but it works fine. The bladder is yellow not fluoro yellow like some of the others.
It’s flexible enough to stow away into a kit bag and though it took some time to repack despite its loose fitting outer casing, it is relatively easy to zip and unzip once you know how to check the firing mechanism.
James commented from the pool test: “It’s very comfortable and everything is to hand that needs to be, although the lifting strop isn’t marked.”
The Helly Hansen Sail Safe lifejacket is a lightweight coastal lifejacket with the ubiquitous HH branding. You get good performance but for the (relatively high) price it does feel that you are paying a premium for the name. Better specified lifejackets are available at a lower price.
Pros: Soft casing and easy to stow, no-frills design. Neat stowage for the crotch strap on the back of the lifejacket straps.
Cons: Awkward to repack, relatively expensive for what it is.
In water: 8/10
Arming check: 5/10
Overall score: 56%
Spinlock Deckvest Lite 170
This is a stylish, comfortable, sculpted jacket at a competitive price point. As the name suggests, it feels light and unobtrusive to wear even for long periods in hot weather.
Fox commented: “To activate this manually I had to pull three times and it really took some effort to get it to go off. I wouldn’t put this on someone without first checking they are strong enough to activate it.”
Children and adolescents moving up to their first adult lifejacket should take note. It does auto-inflate but you should always be able to activate them manually too. This has one of the brightest bladders in a fluorescent yellow.
Fox also said: “When in the water, the waist buckle slipped too easily and became loose. I had to keep retensioning it while moving about in the water which wasn’t easy.” (New webbing straps have a tendency to slip, until there’s a natural ridge worn into the webbing – ed.)
“However, it was very comfortable when worn in the dry and in the water and it was very easy to locate the clearly labelled lifting strop. Climbing into the liferaft, I had to let out a bit of air from the bladder. I love the slim, body-hugging profile of this when worn every day.”
Pros: This is a smart-looking lifejacket with a slimline feel with very few things to snag. It comes in a variety of colours and is easy to repack. Fits smaller adults well.
Cons: The over-the-head method of donning might feel a little restrictive for some, and it might not suit larger frames.
In water: 8/10
Arming check: 7/10
Overall score: 84%
Baltic Athena 165
It’s about time a lifejacket was shaped to cater for women sailors’ different body types and this one was designed for exactly that purpose.
The main element of this design is that it places the 33g CO2 inflation valve on a diagonal axis lower down the bladder of the jacket than is usual in order to sit below the bust and prevent discomfort and chafe.
In the water, Anna noted how tight around the neck the bladder felt when worn over her foul weather jacket, and she needed to release a little air from the valve to allow her room to breathe.
It was also riding quite high around her head despite being fitted snugly as per standard lifejacket fitting. The lifting strop and whistle are under the bladder and were not easy to find or where Anna thought they would be.
Paula commented how comfortable this lifejacket was to wear in the dry and that its form fitted really well. The fastening uses an unusual crossover Velcro method which confused some people initially, but we all soon got used to it.
The surplus webbing from the waist band stows neatly in a roll to stop it flapping around. Needless to say unless you’re a barrel-chested, slim-waisted man, this isn’t for you!
Pros: Specific women’s cut. Comfortable and easy to move around in. Easy to fasten in all conditions. Easy to repack and check the firing mechanism.
Cons: Some testers found the bladder uncomfortably tight around the neck when inflated.
In water: 6/10
Arming check: 8/10
Overall score: 83%
Seago Seaguard 165 Automatic
The flat, unsculpted profile of this jacket looks a little unstylish compared with some of the other jackets on test here, but Seago has cut away at the neck area to combat the dreaded chafe that often comes with a traditional design.
It is lightweight, available in casing colours that won’t show the dirt, and look at the price for a 165N lifejacket! Mike says the best feature of this lifejacket is the cross-over bladder design which works really well at avoiding waves funnelling up and hitting you in the face when in the water.
He notes that the reflective tape on the sides of the bladder is the least visible as it is located towards the edge rather than on top and, like many of the lifejackets in this price range, it doesn’t come with a light as standard. The rate of inflation was excellent though.
The manual toggle was tucked away and was initially tricky to find; this was as a result of our dry testing where we looked at the possible pitfalls of having an exposed trigger toggle and did what real-world users often do with them, which is to tuck them up inside the casing making them much harder to locate when you need them most.
Although this wasn’t the manufacturer’s fault, it does demonstrate what users tend to do if they feel the cord is too exposed and might be triggered accidentally.
Pros: This is a great budget-friendly option. The cross-over bladder design works well.
Cons: There’s a few little snaggy areas where straps or toggles could be better tucked away.
In water: 8/10
Arming check: 8/10
Overall score: 69%
Crewsaver Crewfit 180 Pro
This is ISO 12402-3 (150N) approved but it’s built with additional buoyancy (180N) to float the casualty higher in the water. It has a Peninsula Chin Support which is intended to keep the casualty’s airway higher to reduce the likelihood of secondary drowning in rough conditions.
It performed really well in the pool, excelling in all areas of safety and comfort, so much so we re-armed it (it took our RNLI man 30 minutes of cursing with the anti-twist mechanism – so we re-armed it without the sticky mechanism the second time around) and threw our sea survival instructor in from a diving board, ‘unconscious’ to see how it would perform. It flipped him onto his back within about three seconds.
In the opinion of our onsite RNLI lifejacket inspector and sea survival instructor, all lifejackets, even coastal ones, should come as standard with a sprayhood and light as this one does.
James tested this in the pool and liferaft, commenting positively on the wide bladders (moving buoyancy lower in the water, lifting the casualty more) and sprayhood, and the light which triggered instantly.
It was fiddly to locate the sprayhood but it was easy to fit over the bladder in the water. The lifting strop isn’t marked, but the end of the top up tube is well positioned. His only criticism was that it felt quite stiff around the neck.
Pros: Understated. Has sprayhood and light as standard. Well designed wide bladder. Very comfortable. Easy to adjust.
Cons: Unpacking and repacking is a bit of a fiddle and re-arming the firing mechanism is really fiddly.
In water: 10/10
Arming check: 8/10
Overall score: 81%
TeamO Micro Ultra Light
This is a new lifejacket from TeamO that forgoes the company’s USP of a harness connection point that can be moved in the water to prevent to drowning, but instead focuses on being lightweight and comfortable.
This Compact jacket really is the most skinny looking thing that almost disappears in the folds of a wet weather jacket. If it weren’t for the bright turquoise colour you might miss it altogether. To make it this thin, the bladder is rolled quite tightly inside the casing, which makes it feel rather rigid.
Over the top of a T-shirt this was quite noticeable and created, albeit small and light, pressure points where it touches. This might be annoying after a long day wearing it.
In the pool it performed well, though some smaller-framed wearers found it difficult to get it tight enough to fit snugly. This would probably suit a slightly larger body than average.
Given the skinny casing and how the lifejacket is packed long and thin, it wasn’t entirely surprising to see the bladder was twisted when it was first inflated and had to be untwisted by one of the other testers next to me. Caution is therefore required when repacking to ensure there are no twists.
Pros: Super-skinny lightweight lifejacket – one of the lightest on test at 860g.
Cons: A bit of a nightmare to repack. Fairly basic spec with no room for add-ons such as a light or sprayhood.
In water: 6/10
Arming check: 4/10
Overall score: 77%
About the roll test
Some of the lifejackets on test failed to roll all of our (simulated) unconscious casualties every time in pool testing. This will come as no surprise to anyone involved in the maritime lifesaving industry.
It’s actually a very tough ask for lifejacket manufacturers to control all the variables to the point where they could guarantee righting of an unconscious casualty in all circumstances.
A wearer’s weight distribution and therefore where they carry their natural buoyancy differs widely, and clothing, especially waterproofs, can trap air in places that fight against the bladder’s designed direction of rotation.
This means that the buoyancy you require is defined more by what you are wearing than your weight or size. Cruising in lots of layers and wellies will require more buoyancy than shorts and T-shirt.
Similarly, don’t assume that a lighter crew needs less buoyancy, as a heavier crew’s weight actually creates a stronger righting moment to act against the lifejacket’s bladder.
Pool testing is also not the easiest environment for a lifejacket to self-right an ‘unconscious’ casualty. Our testers were not allowed to lift the slightest finger to help the jackets right them in any way.
Even very limited wave action will move a face-down casualty enough to start a rotation that the unevenly (by design) inflated bladder can then complete.
Verdict: Which were the best lifejackets on test?
It is clear to see that all lifejackets are not created equal, certainly not in how they feel from person to person. One boater’s meat is another’s poison.
While all of our lifejackets on test performed well according to basic safety standards, they all have elements that could be tweaked and adjusted to be better functioning or designed and all of them have their unique selling points.
It’s not just your personal preference or body shape that can make any given lifejacket more or less suitable, different activities might also influence your choice depending on whether you are an adventurous RIB owner who cruises offshore regardless of the conditions or a fair-weather river-based owner of a slow displacement cruiser.
For good value and no frills you can’t go wrong with the Seago Seaguard or Waveline 165. They weigh very little (from 800g), they stow easily in a kit bag and they are inexpensive to buy making them a good option for occasional users or to keep on board for guests.
However, on the basis that the only lifejacket worth having is the one you are wearing the day you need it, comfort, lightness and style are just as valid attributes for the more regular boat user as the latest offshore survival equipment.
In this instance it’s worth spending a little more on the Spinlock Deckvest Lite, a favourite of many of our testers, TeamO Micro Ultra Light or Ocean Safety Kru Sport. The Crewsaver 180 Pro’s extra buoyancy and safety features also looks conspicuously good value for money.
Last but by no means least, for women who find some of the unisex designs uncomfortable to wear, the Baltic Athena could be a genuine gamechanger. Hats off to Baltic for recognising this issue and doing something proactive about it. Give it a try, you might be surprised how much of a difference it makes.
First published in the July 2022 issue of MBY.
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