Up until recently, there were three types of personal flotation devices (PFDs) specified by Australian Standards Regulations. PFD Type 1 encompassed those commonly known as “life jackets”. They were safety orange or safety yellow in colour and had a buoyant collar behind the neck and flotation material in front of the chest. This is so that when the wearer is in the water, they would float on their back with their nose and mouth clear. PFD Type 2 & PFD Type 3 could be described as vests. The only difference between them was PFD Type 2 must be predominantly safety orange or safety yellow, and PFD Type 3 could be any colour. To make identification easy, the type was printed on the jacket. If no type was shown , then the PFD could be assumed not to meet Australian Standards.
The three types of PFD described above still exist, but they have been renamed using levels. PFD Type 1 is now Level 100, PFD Type 2 is Level 50, and PFD Type 3 is Level 50 S. There is also a fourth classification: Level 150. Level 150 is similar in appearance to Level 100 but it has increased buoyancy for offshore usage. As before, the classification must be printed on the jacket for it to be deemed as meeting Australian standards.
The majority of paddlers go for Level 50. This is because Level 100 and Level 150 jackets are too bulky and get in the way, and the colours of Level 50 S jackets mean that you may not be spotted easily in an emergency.
While it is not always compulsory to wear a PFD, there’s no good reason not to do so whenever you are on the water, particularly if it is comfortable. Look for low profile designs that provide maximum buoyancy over a small area. Flexible shoulder and waist adjustments are important for a good fit. Soft flexible foam helps with contouring the jacket to the shape of your body. A couple of pockets can prove valuable as well.
A Level 50 or Level 50 S jacket will not automatically be comfortable. Some are manufactured for a completely different purpose, like waterskiing, and may not leave enough room under your arms. Others have long bodies that can get caught on your spraydeck or backrest.