Viewpoint: Should Lifejackets be Mandatory on Sailboats?

Lifejacket Law Should be Mandatory!

The author sports his lifejacket with prideFew issues in recreational boating are more emotionally charged than lifejacket legislation. Most sailors—and boaters in general—feel the government has no right to enact laws that interfere with their choice to wear or not wear a lifejacket. If a sailor chooses not to wear one and drowns, that’s sad, they say, but the only victim of that decision is that sailor.

With National Safe Boating Week beginning on May 17, it’s important to understand how myopic and callous that attitude is. The presumption that a person must drown to be a “victim” is naive. Clearly, those making this point have never witnessed the heartache and despair that results from such a senseless and preventable death.

With so much at stake, the question of why so few sailors choose to wear lifejackets (fewer than 10 percent of boaters overall wear them, according to U.S. Coast Guard-sponsored studies) needs to be reexamined. “They’re bulky and uncomfortable,” most say. “They’re hot, and they mess up my tan,” others protest. But with the advent of lightweight inflatable vests and belts, some as unobtrusive as a fanny pack, this is more of an excuse than an explanation. 

Some sailors, especially those with limited experience, don’t wear them because they don’t fully understand the risks. They don’t realize how quickly a 12-foot pram can swamp when the chop grows. They don’t understand how unstable a small cat can become when the wind kicks up. They’re not aware that a rogue wave can send them tumbling over the transom of their 22-footer or that the boom can knock them, unconscious, into the cold waters with just a wind shift.

Many solo sailors I’ve talked with justify their choice not to wear lifejackets by boasting about their swimming skills. Even though there’s no one aboard to throw them a line, they’re great swimmers, they profess, and could easily swim back to their boat or even to a distant shore if their life depended on it. Still others believe that if they’re careful and respect the water, the likelihood of being separated from their boat is almost non-existent, so why bother? 

Finally, all too many sailors have fragile egos. For many, lifejackets are for children and non-swimming adults, not strong swimmers and skilled sailors like themselves. To be seen wearing one on a beautiful summer afternoon is embarrassing. Donning one, except during extreme weather, is perceived as a sign of insecurity.

Unfortunately, history tells us, this irrational stigma won’t disappear on its own. Lifejacket use by adult boaters won’t increase significantly until there’s an excuse to wear one: an excuse in the form of a law that mandates it and allows sailors to protect themselves without appearing insecure or inexperienced.

Seatbelt legislation and motorcycle helmet laws helped remove similar biases in the past. In fact, many bikers who wouldn’t consider wearing a helmet before helmet laws were enacted now wouldn’t ride without one.

While sailors comprise just 3 percent of the 3,970 boating deaths by drowning since 2005, according to the USCG, that number exceeds the percentage of registered boats in U.S. waters powered by sail. It’s not, as many sailors believe, just a powerboater problem. It’s every boater’s problem.

According to Coast Guard statistics, the vast majority of drownings happen from boats less than 26 feet long, with solo boaters especially at risk. Isn’t it time for the United States to make lifejacket use mandatory aboard boats of this size or when boating solo? It’s unfortunate, but educational programs and catchy slogans simply haven’t worked. According to Coast Guard estimates, lifejacket wear rates were lower in 2012 than in 2000.  

Hundreds of lives could be saved every year if all boaters were making the right choice. But they’re not. It’s regrettable, but sometimes it takes a law. 


No, It Shouldn't

Young kids, tippy boat: an appropriate place for a lifejacket

For some time, contributing writer Alan Keene has been trying to talk us into printing his essay on lifejacket use—make them compulsory, he says! We finally gave in, and you can read Alan’s rationale for compulsion above.

Personally, I couldn’t disagree more—there are times when I’ll wear a lifejacket and times when I won’t, but I’d rather not have some bureaucrat making that decision for me, or some humorless goon in a uniform writing me up for not wearing a lifejacket on a 50-yard row to shore on a blazing hot summer afternoon—because you just know that’s the sort of thing that’s going to happen.

SAIL’s position is that we strongly encourage sailors to wear lifejackets, but leave it up to the individual to decide when and where to do so. Most states already have some form of law concerning lifejacket use by children, and for those that don’t there’s a Coast Guard rule in effect. Some northern states have cold-weather laws requiring lifejackets to be worn during winter; these mostly apply to small boats, kayaks, SUPs and the like, which are tippy by nature and on which you’d have to be pretty stupid not to wear a lifejacket.

I’d be interested to know what others think, though, so if you have an opinion on the matter of compulsory lifejacket use, drop us line at

– Peter Nielsen, SAIL's Editor-in-Chief



What the Readers Think

The issue of enacting lifejacket laws has been a hot topic, and we've received great letters from readers. Here are a couple of our favorites.

As a 67-year-old life-long competitive sailor, I always wore a lifejacket on ocean racers in bigger wind. I have spent many more hours sailing in warm weather climates where a lifejacket would have turned a pleasant sail into a sweaty, uncomfortable "I’d-rather-be-doing-something-else" experience. It’s time we took responsibility for ourselves rather than rely on laws to dictate common sense. I’d rather take responsibility for myself and enjoy the freedom that comes with doing so than surrender my freedoms to a government agency. If you're smart enough to earn the money to buy and skipper a boat, you should be smart enough to know when you and your crew should be wearing lifejackets. Before setting out, you should have the required seamanship skills, including knowing how to rescue someone who goes overboard, as it's all part of taking responsibility for yourself and developing your own critical thinking, rather than expecting to be told what to do.—Peter Wormwood, via Email


I could not help but notice the bare feet of L. Alan Keene in the photo accompanying the story, and I was appalled by his callous disregard for boating safety. Failure to wear rubber-soled shoes that can grip a boat’s wet deck results in tens of thousands of foot injuries every year, from bruised in-steps to stubbed toes, and from gashed heels to chipped toenails. Failing to wear such shoes can also lead to slipping on deck, which causes injuries and can lead to falling overboard. Thousands of feet could be saved from injury every year, along with an indeterminate number of lives, if sailors wore appropriate footwear. But they’re not. It’s regrettable, but sometimes it takes a law.—M.J. Moye, via Email


I agree with Peter Nielsen's opinion—we don’t need the government micromanaging our lives. I wear my lifejacket when I deem it necessary or when it’s advisable. I don't need a bureaucrat with a badge in his 20's or 30's with little sailing experience writing me a citation because I decided, with over 60 years of sailing behind me, that it wasn't necessary to wear at the time. As for children, they can make the decision on their own once they're of age. Until then, they should wear a lifejacket on the water. As always, thanks for a great magazine.—Charles Smith, via Email


Kudos to Mr. Keene for voicing his opinion on this controversial topic. While in the U.S.C.G Auxiliary, I was party to rescuing more than one person who fell overboard and could not get back into his or her boat. Thankfully, most were wearing lifejackets. Needless to say, if we hadn’t shown up and they weren’t wearing lifejackets, we’d have read obits for these folks. When rescuing, the first thing we have people who are still in their boats do is sit down and don their lifejackets to keep them safe—no explanation needed. Two thumbs up for this article.—Linda Hoffecker, via Facebook

I don’t think it necessarily takes a law, but it does take more than SAIL’s position of “strongly encouraging sailors to wear lifejackets,” while the editor only wears his “when necessary.” If SAIL wants to strongly encourage lifejacket use it should have a policy that magazine photos—including the ads—should show people on boats wearing lifejackets when on deck. The ad agencies would scream at the end of swimsuit models on the bow of a boat sailing in tropical blue water with white beaches and palm trees in the background, but if we don’t do more to actively encourage lifejacket use, we will have a law. I don’t want a law either, but we do need good role models. What better role model than a respected sailing magazine and its editor?—Tom White, Grove, Oklahoma


SAIL's position is right on. I read Mr. Keene' s essay twice and still struggle see how more regulation helps develop common sense and personal responsibility. One can argue the benefits of wearing a lifejacket, helmet or seat belt all they want, but we cannot allow the government to mandate such laws for adults—period! Going by this logic, the government should make it a law to not to consume fatty foods.—Ken Carlini, Nashua, NH

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22 comments on “Viewpoint: Should Lifejackets be Mandatory on Sailboats?

  1. clarkbeek

    Hear hear, M.J. Moye. Well Said! In the same vein, head injuries, leading to traumatic brain injuries, are the leading cause of accidental death and injury in the United States. We should all be mandated to wear helmets at all times – aboard, at work, at home, while driving – and we can surely reduce the 2.5 million annual cases to zero.

  2. Jeffrey Blake

    I have been in, on, under, and about the water all my nearly half century of life. I have helmed "vessels" from small ice flows in the river where I grew up, to the USS Saratoga (CV-60). Our current boat is a lovely little C&C30 we sail about Penobscot Bay, Maine.  I am an avid recreational diver and spent several years as a commercial diver on the coast of Maine. My point being, I am not exactly ignorant of the risks involved when on the water.  PFDs, like any other piece of safety equipment, certainly have their place aboard. I often wear mine when circumstances dictate. These include outside the cockpit when sailing solo (or as the only sailor aboard), sailing at night or in foul weather, or performing some admittedly questionable task.  That being said, the draw to sailing is, for me, the act of being self reliant and accepting personal responsibility for myself and my vessel.  One or the true joys of being at sea is the escape from terra firma and civilizations need to demand compliance in every aspect of society.  In the end these nanny laws not only fail to make our lives safer, they promote the belief that we are "not" responsible for our choices and actions. What is really needed is a return to sense, to accepting responsibility for ones actions.  The world isn't a safe place. I, for one, thank God for that gift. 

  3. L Alan Keene

         The centuries old maritime tradition of coming to the aid of fellow sailors in a time of crisis is one that's honored by boaters around the world.  A Mayday over the airwaves brings boaters from near and far.  Four hundred US boaters every year, sadly, never get the help they need.  Mandatory pfd use would go a long way in providing that help.  In the spirit of that time honored tradition, a little inconvenience on our part seems a small price to pay for returning hundreds of loved ones safely home to their families.

  4. firstlast

    I, for one, wear a life jacket whenever I single hand or I am in a non keel boat. 

    I have participated in the rescue of 150 persons that had to abandon ship because of a fire. The rescue took place at night.  All were saved except one, who drowned.  I do not know the circumstances of the drowning.  It was over an hour before all persons were pulled aboard the rescue crafts.   But, ALL wore lifejackets.  The reason they all wore lifejackets: it was mandatory per company rules for all passengers from the off shore platforms to wear lifejackets.  All the maritime companies I have worked for make it mandatory for the boat crews to wear a lifejacket when ever they are on deck..without exception.

    Some of the arguments are rather specious.  It reminds me of the discussions when "Helmet Laws" were enacted.

  5. cristberry

    I have experience as a sailer and a sailor AND as a Naval Aviator.  I have been struck by the differences between sailing and aviating.  In aviation, safety is paramount and is drilled in from day 1.  No jet pilot would think of not buckling in (it's hot, sweaty and uncomfortable–but if, in that 1 in a ten thousand time you need to eject, it won't work if you are not buckled in.)  I am appaled by the number of people who refuse to wear a life jacket–or worse, who say I'll wear it when the conditions demand.  I wonder what those who drowned thought–oh, sxxx, I meant to put it on!!

    I feel that all these people who claim to be experts and leaders in the field should be taking a much more assertive posture towards wearing life jackets.  And you are right–we don't need laws.  We need  a change in attitude and a change in providing a positive example.  Sure–wearing one near the dock seems foolish–but I thought the idea behind sailing was to get away from the dock and out where mother nature has her way–which means that without warning, it can be nasty, windy and dangerous.

    Don't pass laws–change our courses and our examples.  Don't leave the dock without everyone on the boat wearing a life preserver.


  6. firstlast

    Hear, hear.  Better wear a lifejacket in the bath tub and shower.  You may also slip and fall into deep puddle in the street.  Your example is not noteworthy.  Helmets and lifejackets are for specific activies and not to satisfy a gambler's book.

  7. gwlester

    Living in a warm weather area (summer, May through October, air and water temps +80F) and not doing "blue water" sailing and beliving in personal responsibility — I say no mandatory lifejackets (I do require children on my boat to wear them even though they are not required by law).

    I do wear one when conditions warrent and always have enough on board for whoever wants to wear one.

    Actually, helments would make more sense for something mandatory — the boom is *HARD*.  And I be against that too.

  8. vaughanwj

    On my boat, lifejackets are mandatory when entering and leaving the harbor/dock. The rest of time it's at the individual's discretion, unless I turn on the seatbelt sign (which looks a lot like me shouting 'put your bloody jacket on')




  9. howboat

    I've never raced without wearing my inflatable vest.  On the other hand, I'm not sure if it would automatically inflate as advertised.  I'm not certain how often the cartridges should be replaced.  I don't mind wearing a lightweight  automatic inflating vest, but I wonder if it will work when I need it?  That issue seems even more important than whether I should wear it or not!  I'm convinced that the manufacturer has an obligation to CLEARLY print the user service obligations on the vest.  I currently wear a West Marine vest that does have a analog gauge display…hope it's accurate because a couple times I've nearly gone overboard.  Would I ever wear a regular life vest that limits my movement while sailing….hell NO…!!!!!  Way too dangerous.  I wonder if the laws will get so extreme to the point that the boom will be required to have a car-like air bag that automatically inflates during accidental gybes??  Let's be PRACTICAL..!

  10. Captbiggie

    Lifejackets for kids yes, a law mandating lifejackets for adults, STOP don't we have enough laws in this country? Some goverment idiots that have never been in a boat making rules on things they know nothing about. We are adults we make our own choices, keep the goverment out just look what they are doing to this great country now.

  11. geoffrogg

    It is all very well to say I know when I need or need not to wear a life jacket but it is an extremely selfish way of looking at things because there is a social cost to any such decision should things go wrong. Perhaps if self-inflating tube vests were more affordable there would be less resistance as they are far less bulky and bearable in the hot and sultry months which are also notorious for their unpredictable and violent storms. Skippers should remember they are wholly responsible under the law for the safety of all on board. Talking about what should be mandated and what should be voluntary, it would help a lot if skippers had to be coast-guard certified and all boats carry full all risk insurance. I know the industry lobby fights skipper certification but they are also being irresponsible.

    Remember when taking about rights for this and that, that with rights come responsibilities.

    I have been sailing for over forty years in the Solent, the Med, Long Island Sound, Lake Champlain and presently in Banderas Bay on the Mexican Pacific Coast in my 1984 Wauquiez Pretorien "Paradis".

    Thank you for your excellent publication.

  12. LennyR

    I agree that a law would probably cause more (enforcement) problems that it would cure–and would be a terrible burden on the Coast Guard and other enforcers. What we need is for sailing magazines to regularly print stories that demonstrate the importance of wearing life jackets, those magazines to only use photos of moving boats with crew visible if they are wearing life jackets, and the Coast Guard and other government agencies to put out a stream of "boater service announcements" promoting safety in general and the wearing of life jackets in particular. Will everyone wear them? No, but probably a lot more than now do.

  13. rustypearsall

    "I am from the government and I am here to help!"

    I have been boating for 55years have never had a life jacket on,if it was made mandatory I would quit boating!I live on my boat should I sleep with it on too?

    Please find some worthy cause that doesn't involve inflicting you personel view on the rest of us.

  14. johnachim

    I challenge your number of % ratio that more sailors die than powerboaters.

    I have my own rules on my boat. I do require everyone to wear a PFD.

    BUT that is my rule, and not the right of the government to tell me how to run my boat. 

    The government needs to fix its own house before it wants to tell me how to run mine.

  15. raylaracuente

    The heck with the life jackets! Sailing is a dangerous activity and it should be outlawed alltogether.

  16. SV_Orion

    As a former liveaboard cruiser, I find this utterly absurd.  At some point, the people who live on the beach should stop making rules for the people who don't.  Terrestrial life comes with infinite amounts of risk that we take for granted daily, and I don't think we can ever legislate it all out of our lives, nor should we try to.  I'm all for education and licensing, but there has to be a point where people are encouraged to exercise their own judgment and abide by the consequences.


  17. Nicholas

    Wait a minute.  Aren't we talking about safety and saving lives.  Yes, many of those objecting are old salts for which I am also (an old salt).  But I not against wearing a flotation device.  In the past, the MayWest was really uncomfortable.  Nowadays, not really, so comeon folks, it isn't so uncomfortable.  To comment on the strained enforcement responsibilities!  They are not happy to pull bodies from waterways and the sea, with disasterous results to life and limb that follows.  

    To sacrifice a life for comfort, well, we know all about that, especially concerning the past objections of car safety, bus's, trains, and school bus's, pools, traffic, etc.,etc..  So have any of  you objecting asked yourself if one of my siblings or relatives had drowned because of not wearing a life jacket(???) would that then be convincing enough to be in favor of them?  I am sure their answer would be in favor of wearing them.  

    In addition, I feel like I am  preaching to the choir cause most boaters are  interested in safety, but some are nontheless distracted when operating boats, and some are not so careful.  I guess to relax the need of wearing lifejackets, would be to allow those vessels that have a cabin where passengers are down below, to not wear them, and those that come on deck should wear them while underway.  If no cabin exists than a boat is considered open and a floatation device would be necessary.  There would be exceptions such as ferry's and cruise ships and others.  

    I don't think we could depend entirely on how responsibile we are or when the occasion arrises to decide to put on a life jacket.  

    Finally, the law at sea, Maritime Law, places the Captain/Operator responsible for the lives and safety of all passengers at all times.  I am a Captain of my vessel and will require all to wear a lifejacket.  No questions asked.


  18. majmccuin

    For government to pass a law that restricts personal freedom, there must be a compelling state interest to do so. Saving a person from their own stupidity is insufficient.

    Seatbelt laws can be justified by the savings to the state from medical costs incurred by emergency room treatment of non- or under-insured individuals after automobile accidents. (Never mind the fact that driving a car on public roads is considered a privilege and not a right, giving the state the right to put conditions and restrictions on driving).

    Falling overboard and drowning does not necessarily cost the state. Yes, there are emotional costs to the family of the dead sailor, but preventing sadness is also insufficient cause to compel me to wear a lifejacket.

    I usually wear a lifejacket when I'm soloing, and my children always wear one. But the only clear definition of "safety" is "acceptibility of risk," which is different for each individual. Nothing can eliminate risk, only mitigate it.

    Mr. Keene strikes me as another grumpy Yankee who thinks he just knows better than everyone else. He's a prime example of why I left Massachusetts for virginia.

    I fear that the next step after a mandatory lifejacket law would be mandatory helmet wear to protect against accidental jibes, or banging your head on the companionway. Sailing carries inherent risks. You should accept them as you see fit, or stay on shore.

  19. Catalina4266

    About 14 years ago I wrote an editorial piece in another sailing magazine on exactly the same debate.  It is no surprise that the arguments that were raised 14 years ago are identical to those being stated in this thread.  These are issues such as personal choice, competency, judgment, freedom, safety, government intrusion, restriction of movement, the protection of children and so on and so forth. There is no question that these are critical issues which in the end may or may not reduce the mortality rate in an activity which has a statistically low death rate.  But the bigger issue which gets lost in this discussion is the clear concern for the fourth amendment article of the constitution which protects individuals from unlawful search and seizure by government officials. By now we have learned that the seatbelt law which was ushered and touted as a way of saving lives came with unintended consequences, including the abuse of the regulation to conduct secondary searches of vehicles amongst other things. However, boats are like homes, they a sacred areas where the public has a reasonable expectation of privacy as well as the right not to have their premises searched because someone did not wear a PFD. The unintended consequences are substantial and propose significant risk to freedom. Any loss of life is a tragedy, but I can assure you that this is a slippery slope which if not thought through carefully will simply add to the erosion of our precious Constitutional Rights.  Many die in the name of preserving the democracy, because the life of the democracy is paramount and above all. There is a Benjamin Franklin quote which is frequently paraphrased but essentially means the same.  “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

  20. David Coller

        There is risk to every human activity.  As an adult in a free society one should have the right to choose one's acceptable level of risk. 

        The societal 'burden', if you will, is not significantly greater whether you fall in the water with a life jacket on or not, Nicholas.  Somebody still has to look for you.  Perhaps we should also mandate personal rescue beacons.  And tethers.  And boat shoes.

        If we're talking about minimizing risk, we should also consider outlawing hang-gliding, mountain climbing, and anything else that is inherently risky….and certainly far more risky than sailing without a life-jacket on a calm and sunny day.  Just how much does it cost to pull someone off the side of Denali in the winter, after all?

        Do we really want this kind of  intrusion into our personal lives?  I don't.

  21. Slangevar

    Boating safety needs to begin to be cultivated before anyone climbs aboard any type of floating device! Novice boaters need to gain an awarness of all the possible dangers of boating by way of a trained, experienced instructor. (this may be the person that is renting out a water craft or the pilot advising riders on the boat. ANyone who is given or takes charge or operating, using, navigating a water craft needs some acceptable level of training- this is where Laws need to be- so at anyone involved in work or play on a boat has an effective awareness of dangerous issues and is provided sensible means of conducting themselves with prudent judgement. Of course there will be plenty of individuals that will fall between the cracks of such a proposition and and mandatory  helmets and life jackets must be worn if they don't know the secret handshake and passwords….


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