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Life Jackets (PFDs) on Boats

Everyone onboard your boat needs a life jacket or Personal Flotation Device (PFD), and some boats (based on size) need to have a throwable PFD onboard.

Each life jacket shall be:

  • U.S. Coast Guard approved;
  • in good and serviceable condition;
  • an appropriate size for the wearer;
  • readily accessible to each person aboard the watercraft at all times.

Recreational boats 16 feet or longer must carry a throwable flotation device (ring or cushion types). This is referred to as a "Type IV throwable PFD."  These devices must also have a U.S. Coast Guard approval label.

U.S. Coast Guard Label

Be sure to check the label for "U.S. Coast Guard approved" before purchasing a life jacket. Not all life jackets are suitable for all uses or all people. The label will tell you the weight and chest size limits, plus any age restrictions for that particular life jacket. It will also tell you what water activities the life jacket is designed for, such as water skiing or riding on a personal watercraft. Some life jackets are not designed for weak swimmers. Others must be worn in order to meet the requirements  so read the label to ensure you are complying with the requirements.

Inflatable PFDs: The inflatable PFD's intended use is for many of the same activities as the inherently buoyant types of life jackets. Users must be aware of the differences and read the owner's manual.

  • Highly visible when inflated
  • More comfortable than foam type
  • Not recommended for weak or non-swimmers
  • No throwable devices
  • Oral, manual, and/or automatic cartridge inflation
  • Not for water sports like skiing or whitewater boating
  • Not for use with personal watercraft (PWC)
  • Not for children younger than 16 years of age

Readily Accessible

The law says your life jacket must be readily accessible. That means having it where you can reach out and grab it in an emergency. Don't store life jackets in the plastic bag they came in; don't put them in a closed compartment; and don't pile other gear on top of them when boating. Keep your life jacket handy at all times.

It is best to wear a life jacket whenever you are on the water. In an accident, you might not have the time to put on your life jacket. If you end up in the water, putting on a life jacket can be a real struggle.

The Laws

Ohio follows federal rules for life jackets and flotation devices for boating.

Other than commercial vessels, no person shall operate or permit to be operated any watercraft:

  • 16 feet or greater in length without one Type I, II or III wearable PFD per person plus one Type IV throwable PFD.
  • less than 16 feet in length and canoes or kayaks of any length without one Type I, II or III wearable PFD per person;
  • a Type V PFD may be carried in place of a Type I, II, or III wearable PFD provided the approval label indicates that the device is approved for the activity or that it can be a substitute for the other types of PFDs. The Type V PFD must also be used in accordance with the requirements on the approval label and the requirements in its owner's manual.

No person shall operate or permit to be operated any commercial vessel:

  • less than 40 feet in length and not carrying persons for hire without one Type I, II or III PFD per person;
  • that is carrying persons for hire or is 40 feet in length or longer and is not carrying persons for hire without one Type I PFD per person;
  • 26 feet in length or longer without at least one Type IV ring life buoy in addition.

Child PFD Requirements [ORC 1547.24]

No person shall operate or permit to be operated any vessel under 18 feet long with a child less than 10 years of age on board unless the child is wearing a PFD. The PFD must be:

  • U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III, or V;
  • in good and serviceable condition;
  • of appropriate size;
  • securely attached.

PFDs Required for Skiers (and persons towed upon other devices) [ORC 1547.18]

No person shall ride or attempt to ride upon water skis, surfboards, inflatable devices or similar devices being towed by a vessel without wearing a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, or III PFD or a Type V PFD specifically designed for water-skiing, in good and serviceable condition, and of appropriate size. No operator of a vessel shall tow any person who fails to comply with this law.

Barefoot Skiing [ORC 1547.18]

No person shall engage in barefoot skiing without wearing an adequate and effective United States Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III PFD or a Type V PFD specifically designed for water-skiing, in good and serviceable condition and of appropriate size, or a wetsuit specifically designed for barefoot skiing. No boat operator shall tow any person who fails to comply with this law.

PFDs Required for Personal Watercraft (PWC)

No person shall operate or permit the operation of a personal watercraft (PWC -- that is, a jet-driven vessel like a Jetski, SeaDoo, Waverunner, etc.) unless each person on the watercraft is wearing a Type I, II, III or V personal flotation device.

A person operating a PWC that is equipped by the manufacturer with a lanyard-type engine cutoff switch shall attach the lanyard to the person, the person's clothing, or personal flotation device as appropriate for the specific watercraft.

Exempt from the PFD Carriage Requirement [OAC 1501:47-1-22]

Racing shells, rowing sculls, sailboards, and those individual vessels that have been issued a written exemption by the chief of the division of watercraft and would otherwise be exempt by the federal personal flotation device carriage requirements are exempted from the personal flotation device carriage requirement.