What is the best life jacket for rowing? If you are perplexed by this problem, I am right there with you. It seems like it should be a simple choice. And it is not. At war are facts. Fact: wearing life jackets saves lives, particularly in the cold waters where I boat, with the possibility of cold shock. About 70% of boating deaths occur from drowning. Wearing a life jacket is a golden rule of boating that is seared into my brain.
But when I am rowing, I often don’t wear one. I am not alone. Most other rowers don’t as well, particularly those who are putting in some miles under oar. Why? Because of two more facts that defeat the golden rule. The first is that the majority of life jackets are too thick in the front, and they get in the way of your hands at the end of the rowing stroke. The second fact is that when you are exercising hard, strapping an inch or two of insulating foam all around your core will make you too hot in a short period, even when it is cold outside.
When out rowing my fixed seat Skerry sailing dinghy, all the problems mentioned above are true. I purchased a really good life vest for my boat. A type III MTI Slipstream. I tried to find one that was good for rowing and sailing. But it is definitely is not the best life jacket for rowing. It is too thick in front for a full motion at the oars. And I cook in it.
And sure, when I am rowing that boat the risk of capsize is very small compared to when sailing, when I always wear the vest. But there are still circumstances rowing where I really wish I had a PFD I could wear without it hindering my rowing. Particularly since I plan to build a dedicated rowing boat this winter.
It is important to note that I have chosen not to use a Type I or Type II life vest. Those vests have the majority or all of their buoyancy on the front and behind the neck, and are designed to turn an unconscious person onto their back. That makes them hard to swim in, and difficult to re-enter a small boat from the water. And for the type of dinghy sailing and rowing I do, in our cold waters, self rescue and re-entry of the boat is the most important thing I can do to save my own life. Going unconscious is a secondary concern.
My New Best Life Jacket For Rowing
You can read further down this page for all the thought behind getting this personal flotation device, and why I discounted other options. I looked at every single product on the market. And no 70N vest in the USA had what I wanted.
My new life preserver for rowing is a Baltic SUP Pro Buoyancy Aid. It is rated for 50N of buoyancy, and this level of buoyancy is not allowed to be sold in the USA. I had to order it from Europe. Read all about buoyancy ratings below. What makes it good is that the foam is spread all around the torso more than most, and it is thin in front, with no big pockets or buckles in front. And it is not as hot as vests with more buoyancy foam.
Their Baltic SUP Pro Buoyancy Aid is available in different sizes and colors, but they all have the same 50N of buoyancy. They also make a version designed for rental companies, where each size is a different color. That is what I ended up buying because it was all that was available at the time.
These are side entry vests, that you slip over your head, with a side zipper and an adjustable belt and buckle on the right.
My first choice would have been the RED SUP Buoyancy Aid, also a 50N vest. RED refers to the company not the color. They get the best reviews and have adjustable shoulder straps. But the price was nearly double, and I could not find anyone who would ship one to the USA. In fact, if their website notices you are from the USA they will not even show you the product.
Another option that looked good was the Prolimit Float Vest. It is also a 50N vest.
A friend who uses a sliding seat shared that the VXP Race PFD from Australia is commonly used by rowers, particularly in the SEVENTY48 race. It is also a 50N vest. It is not as long on the torso, so it looks like the foam in front is a bit thicker than the Baltic. It works for her, but others find it cumbersome. Although she noted that sliding seat rowers may need a shorter vest. VXP will ship to the USA, but the vest is over twice the cost of my Baltic.
Ben Fuller also recommended to me the Mustang Khimera Hybrid Dual Flotation PFD. It has 7 pounds of foam buoyancy, and is slender enough to row with. But it can also inflate with a CO2 cartridge, that brings the total buoyancy up to 20 lbs.
As mentioned, you can read more about why I chose this as the best life vest for rowing for me. If you weigh a lot more than me, it may not offer enough buoyancy.
Also note that a 50N vest does not satisfy the legal requirement in the USA that each person must have a Coast Guard approved PFD.
How Does It Work?
I was a little nervous ordering this from Europe. I had not seen anyone else recommend this type of vest for rowers. So far it is pretty dang good. I have not gotten into the water with it yet. But I am confident from my years in the water that this much buoyancy will be very helpful. The fit is good, and it is thin enough on the front that rowing with it on is no problem. It does still get hot, but not as bad as my other thicker vest. It is super visible thanks to the bright color.
With my MTI sailing vest, I have a bunch of safety gear in the pockets and outside. There is a radio on my right shoulder, a knife, a whistle, a flashlight, and a brightly colored neoprene cap. I wanted all of this stuff on my person in case I capsize when sailing and the boat sails off without me.
This new vest is primarily for rowing. Losing touch with the boat is not as likely. So most of the safety gear will be in the boat. I did throw a whistle in the top pocket.
So overall I am very happy with it, and it is the best life jacket for rowing I have used. It is a compromise for sure. But the right one I think for my rowing needs, particularly when I get my new rowboat built and I will be exploring long distances in it.
Test Row Video & Comparison Pictures
Below are pictures of my current sailing PFD, and my new rowing life vest. You can see the fit and size differences.
Life Vest Buoyancy Standards Explained
The reason I could not find what I wanted in the USA is because the minimum allowed buoyancy level is 70N, for a type III vest. N stands for Newtons, which is a measure of force. 10N equals 1 kilogram of buoyancy, or 2.2 lbs. So a 70N life vest provides 15.5 lbs of buoyancy.
Most adults need 7 to 12 pounds of buoyancy to keep their heads above water. I am not a big guy at 155 lbs. One calculator I found indicated I would need 6 pounds of buoyancy minimum. So I am on the low end of the 7-12 range.
Knowing that, I became interested in these 50N jackets, that come in a variety of configurations. 50N provides 11 lbs of buoyancy, and are designed for folks who are competent swimmers, and are in a position to help themselves. This will not turn a face-down person upright.
Why do they have lower standards in Europe? Americans on average are heavier than people from almost any other country.
Once I had decided a 50N would work, I looked for the types of features I wanted, and eliminated about 15 other models. I found that the ones designed for Paddleboarders fit my needs, because they have similar needs. Paddleboarders don’t like pockets or thick padding on the front, because it interferes with getting back on their boards.
Why Not An Inflatable Life Vest For Rowing?
Inflatable life vests solve the over heating problem, for the most part. They achieve buoyancy through inflated chambers, not through heat trapping foam. But, they still tend to be a bit bulky in the front, and often have buckles right in the middle, so they don’t totally solve the rowing interference issue. They are also a little harder to attach safety gear to.
I used inflatable vests for years on other boats. But after several direct experiences in the water with them, I now won’t wear one. I have seen the auto-inflation function take too long to inflate. When you get dunked, you need instant buoyancy. Because that is the moment when cold water shock could hit, and you could easily take in a lungful of water. Some are better than others. More expensive ones can open quicker. If you are going to get one, spend up for the faster technology.
Also, several times I have seen inflatable vests where one side resists inflating, because the Velcro or break away zippers is too strong on the vest. This created a choking restriction at the persons neck. Trying to deal with that issue while slightly panicking in the water is not great. And the other side may suddenly pop open a minute or so later, causing more distraction. It is a common issue. Here is a video showing that problem. And watch how much trouble this fellow has manually inflating his.
There is a second big problem with inflatable life vests for the type of boating I do is that they have big buoyancy chambers in the front and behind your head, which is intended to turn you on our back. As mentioned above, that makes swimming around difficult, and those big tubes in front make getting back aboard a small boat from the water more difficult.
Finally, inflatable vests require a maintenance schedule, and you have to replace parts on them. I don’t much care for that.
You should also keep in mind that in the USA, if an inflatable life vest is your only life vest, you must be wearing it at all times to be legal.
If you do use one though, I personally would not consider one that does not auto-inflate. Because, if in the middle of a capsize of a small boat in our cold waters, if you have to try and inflate your life vest manually, or even pull a string to inflate it, I think you have put yourself in a high risk situation.
If you do like the idea of an inflatable, the Hyde Wingman Inflatable Life Jacket is maybe a good choice for a rower because of its very slim profile. You have to manually pull a cord to inflate it from a CO2 cartridge, which is not great.
Waist Belt Life Vests Are Worse
Often recommended to rowers are the inflatable life vests that are worn around the waist. So if you get in trouble, it auto-inflates, or you pull a string to inflate it, and then you have put it over your head. Adding complication to that is the suggestion for rowers that they wear it backwards, to get it out of the way for rowing.
So now it inflates on your back, and you have to turn it around, and get it over your head, all while gasping for a breath from cold shock, and trying not to lose touch with your boat. And again, it has a big inflatable chamber only on the front of you, with the same swimming and boat re-entry issues. Doesn’t sound great to me.
The Onyx M-16 is a popular choice if you do like the idea.
The ROWSAFEUSA website also has good info on this subject. Although I believe many of the 70N vests on the page are too thick in front for rowers.
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