Performance Starts With Fit

June 27, 2002

Racing a sailboat requires fluid movement and, at times, body contortions of which even Houdini would be proud. Fortunately for us, lifejacket manufacturers are building PFDs that offer freedom of movement like never before.

The evolution of the vest-type PFD, or Type III as the Coast Guard labels it, has come a long way since the bulky Mae West model of the 1970s. Naturally, the development has been aimed at creating highly adjustable, low-profile designs that are actually comfortable to wear all the time.

Stohlquist WaterWare, of Alamosa, Colo., is one of a half dozen lifejacket manufacturers that have started to deliver clever sailing designs. Take, for example,the bRik–the most advanced model in their sailing line–it’s clearly not your average lifejacket. In designing the bRik, Stohlquist, which also makes PFDs for the paddlesports industry, concentrated foam into two panels. The design places the foam around the abdomen, not at the chest and shoulders where it can restrict movement. As far as upper-body mobility is concerned, the bRik offers unmatched freedom of movement. But there’s a tradeoff: the 2-inch thick panels are bulky and can inhibit quick movement under a low-slung boom. Perry Grossman, a veteran Laser sailor from the Newport, R.I., frostbite fleet, tested the bRik for us and said: “It had space up high but it seemed thick and I was getting caught under the boom during the tacks. Granted I had a lot of vang on, but otherwise, the freedom in the arms felt good.”


The bRik also has all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a $134 lifejacket–it’s one of the most expensive models on the market today–but we found value in the details. There are six adjustment points to keep it locked in place, and there’s even a grippy lining to prevent the jacket from riding up. It’s a bit challenging to get on and off with its short zipper on the side, but once it’s on, you have great upper-body mobility.

If the bRik’s price is out of your budget range, Stohlquist offers a less expensive model, the Wedge-E, which rides a little higher and, because the foam is more spread out, isn’t as thick. Again, the emphasis is on a fit that provides maximum freedom while still meeting the Coast Guard’s minimum 15.5 pounds of buoyancy requirement for a Type III vest. Priced at $110, the Wedge-E has stretchy neoprene shoulder straps with buckle adjustments. Adjustable shoulder straps are useful so you can position the waist strap of the vest below your ribs, which keeps the vest from riding up.

Stohlquist, a 26-year-old family business, also has two other models priced at $100–the Drifter and the Betsea. Both follow the company’s design focus: a high cut that allows you to sit comfortably without binding at the waist, a low (non-bulky) profile, and a vest that doesn’t ride up. The Drifter (not shown) has a short front zipper, which makes it easier to get on and off, and uses two crossed side straps to prevent the vest from riding up.


The Betsea is similar to the Drifter, but it’s designed for women. Foam has been removed from the inside of the chest panels and distributed elsewhere in the jacket. Sandy Hayes, another Laser sailor from Newport, gave the Stohlquist Betsea high marks for freedom of movement, adding, “It’s very comfortable.”

On high-end vests, shoulder straps made of stretchy neoprene, adjustable web straps with buckles, or a combination of the two provide proper fit, but it’s the job of the side and waist straps to keep the lifejacket from riding up. At ExtraSport they have patented a system called Retroglide, which combines shoulder and side adjustment into a single strap. ExtraSport uses this technology in several of their advanced PFD models, including the $130 Retroglide Avenger, to provide adjustment with a single pull. This system also places the adjustment buckle in a covered position so it won’t snag on rigging. The Avenger’s other features–front zip, neoprene side panels and front panels connected by neoprene seams–make this a very comfortable fit.

The ExtraSport Jybe doesn’t have the Retroglide system, but at $90 it still has many of the features found in other advanced designs: A side-zip entry allows the three front panels to conform to the body, and neoprene shoulder straps stretch to allow the neoprene-covered waist adjuster to cinch below the ribs and prevent ride-up. We found that waist adjusters that adjust with side pulls, like the one on the Jybe, work best. Laser sailor Dave Moffett, who tested the ExtraSport Jybe, broke out a measuring tape to compare the back panel thickness (2″) with his own older ExtraSport (1.5″), after having trouble getting under the boom on his Laser. Nonetheless, he gave the Jybe high marks for freedom of movement and liked having the zipper on the side.


All vests use roughly the same amount of PVC foam, but the foam’s location and softness make all the difference in comfort and fit. Generally, the lower the foam is placed, the more easily you can move and the better the bouyancy. Fully submerged foam will float you higher in the water than foam in the shoulders that is above water. One way of distinguishing a top PFD is that it has fewer panels–the foam is soft enough to conform to the body. You can also judge the quality of foam by bending a PFD–more flexible panels means a better quality foam and more comfortable fit.

Another way to judge a PFD is by its cover. The cover material, known as the shell, is usually nylon. Cordura is used in more expensive models because it’s five times more resistant to UV degradation and doesn’t tear as easily. Like all the models mentioned above, ExtraSport’s best-selling Mystique model, which sells for $88, has a Cordura cover. Our tester, Scott Milnes, didn’t comment on the neoprene shoulder straps, front zip style, or mesh sides, but said what every PFD manufacturer wants to hear: “I didn’t notice I was wearing it.” The nylon-covered ExtraSport Atlantis shares the same front- zip, four-front-panel “GlideFit Cartilage” construction as the Mystique but with a more modest $73 price tag.

Aquata USA is a new name in lifejackets. Some may recognize Aquata as the distributor for Magic Marine, but several years ago they embarked on a two-year study of lifejackets that resulted in four new models. At the top of their line is the $89 Aquata Tsunami. Like other top jackets, it has a Cordura shell and adjustable shoulder straps; we particularly like how they covered the buckles so they wouldn’t snag. They even topped the cover off with 3M reflective tape. Aquata duplicated the style in their $65 Hilo Youth vest, one of the few better-than-basic vests for 50- to 90-pound kids, but added two easy-open front pockets secured with Velcro.


Another vest that’s popular with young Opti sailors is ExtraSport’s Stiletto. The Coast Guard rates this pullover model a Type V, which means it must be worn to be approved. ExtraSport has added a whistle pocket to the Stiletto’s single panel front to go along with the neoprene shoulder straps and Nylon cover that makes this $70 vest comfortable to wear and a hot seller.

Entry-level vests start around $50 and typically have more foam ribs spread equally around the torso, and fewer fit adjustments. If your budget is tight, we recommend you look at the ExtraSport Challenger, Aquata Hurricane, and Aquata Kryptonix. The Challenger has been around for almost 25 years and is the classic entry-level vest with a zip front, 12 foam ribs, elastic waist band, single side adjustment strap, and a price tag that many budget-minded sailors like. What we like about the Challenger is that it has big armholes and there’s no foam over the shoulders. This gives good mobility around the neck and arms. The new Aquata Hurricane and Kryptonix, priced at $46 and $58 respectively, have fewer ribs, both have double side adjuster straps and a whistle pocket, but the Kryptonix has elasticized side panels and adjustable waist strap. “We make the lining in a softer 200 denier nylon,” says Aquata’s product development manager, Randall Ames, “so it’s comfortable even if you’re not wearing a shirt.” All three of these entry-level vests have nylon covers.

PVC foam loses buoyancy as it ages; for this reason an average vest will last 4 to 6 years, which is why PFDs are typically built with almost 17 pounds of buoyancy instead of the Coast Guard minimum. So even if you’re happy with your old vest, it may be time to trade it for a new one. Or you should at least jump in the water and see if it still floats you.

Selecting a vest for style and fit is a very personal choice and you are going to have to try them on to find the one you like best. For the most comfortable fit, look for USCG-approved vests with PVC foam that’s soft and pliable, arranged in panels versus stiff ribs. Make sure you buy the right size or get an adjustable vest that allows you to position it to prevent ride-up. Depending on your budget a Cordura cover in a bright, but not neon, color will last longest. And remember performance starts with fit, so pick a vest that’s comfortable.

Vest-type PFD Manufacturers:

Aquata USA
Douglas Gill
Omega 800-96-omega
Patagonia (Lotus)


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