3-Brand Inflatable PFD Evaluation

In our test of nine Coast Guard-approved life jackets and belt packs, volunteer MOBs rate the Sospenders tops, though Mustang and Stearns also do the job.


After years of debate over their reliability, the Coast Guard this year finally approved the first automatically inflating PFDs. That’s good news because the new vests, if worn and used properly, provide a greater level of protection than most previously available life jackets.

3-Brand Inflatable PFD Evaluation

Inflatable PFDs come in two types: Manually activated (which have been approved for a couple of years) and automatically activated. The approved automatic models have been classified as Type V by the Coast Guard, which means they must be worn to be legal. The manual ones, for reasons best known to the Coast Guard, are listed as Type III, which require only that you have them on board.

Technically, according to Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), which sets the standards that manufacturers must meet, the automatic inflatables are actually manually inflatable jackets with automatic backup. But that’s not how they’re being marketed in some cases and not how the public is likely to perceive them.

Inflatables Defined
According to Coast Guard/UL standards, an automatic inflatable must provide a minimum of 35 pounds of buoyancy. That sounds like a lot, since the average adult requires 11 pounds or less of buoyancy to stay afloat in calm waters. But waters often aren’t calm, and the extra buoyancy mandated for this class keeps your head farther out of the water (more freeboard) and away from waves, and also keeps your face up to prevent drowning, even if unconscious. Vests of this type must activate within 5 seconds of immersion and inflate to the designed buoyancy level within 10 seconds. In practice, as we found during our field tests, all this happens very rapidly, almost before the man-overboard (MOB) is aware of what’s occurring.

Manually deployed inflatable devices must provide 22-24 pounds of buoyancy but may offer more, especially in the larger split-vest models (we specify inflatable here because non-inflatable Type IIIs are only required to provide 15 pounds of flotation). Manual inflatables are held to a stricter standard. They must reach designed buoyancy within five seconds of immersion. This should be obtainable because time does not have to elapse for the firing mechanism on automatics to be activated by water.

There are other standards as well, some of which we will discuss while reviewing the various models. All Type V and III inflatables must also carry an oral-inflation tube for backup. As a protection against premature or inadvertent inflation, Type Vs must withstand 120°F temperature at 80% humidity for seven days without self-inflating.

These, for practical purposes, are the standards. The Coast Guard has muddied the waters somewhat by refusing to permit manufacturers to say that Type V inflatables provide the same performance in terms of buoyancy as non-inflatable Type Is, which in fact they do. Instead, the Coast Guard has mandated that Type Vs be labeled as providing Type II performance, which they actually exceed. The same goes for manual Type Vs, which must be advertised as providing Type II or III performance when, once again, they exceed it. Don’t worry about the Coast Guard’s bureaucratic reasons for doing this; just remember what you read here.

How They Work
The automatic vests, like the manual ones, consist of inflatable bladders within a nylon shell. The firing mechanisms (made by one of two different companies) differ in detail but operate on the same principle: A spring-loaded firing pin is held in check by a barrier (basically, powdered cellulose). Halkey-Roberts, the Florida firm that makes the inflators for Sospenders and Mustang, uses a cellulose-based disk inside a bobbin; Secumar-Stearns, a European-US venture, makes use of an aspirin-like cellulose-based pill. In either case, when the cellulose is softened by the water, the spring is released and penetrates a CO2 cylinder that inflates the bladder.

3-Brand Inflatable PFD Evaluation

These systems are superior to some older mechanisms that used a paper disk to release the spring, which took longer to activate and are more vulnerable to humidity. With the manual types or the manual system on the automatics, the device is tripped by pulling a rip cord, which snaps a plastic retaining pin and permits the spring-loaded firing pin to penetrate the cylinder.

Among other issues that took several years to resolve between the Coast Guard, UL and the manufacturers was the delicate balance between the thrust of the firing pin (the Coast Guard wanted certain penetration of the gas cylinder) and the strength of the retaining system (easy to trip under the right conditions, but almost certain not to go off under normal conditions, i.e., until water- or rip-cord-activated). In reality, the PFDs have been reliable for years, and little has changed between the older and the newest approved models. In our testing over the years, we’ve never seen one of these vests fail to activate, either automatically or manually. It’s possible but unlikely for an automatic vest to actuate inadvertently under spray conditions; in any case that doesn’t present a life-threatening condition.

How To Use Them
The beauty of all the inflatable PFDs is that they are more comfortable than other PFDs out of the water and offer excellent buoyancy in the water. Sailors don’t tend to wear uncomfortable PFDs, and PFDs that aren’t being worn won’t save your life. The Type V automatic/manual jackets are ideal for those who aren’t the greatest swimmers and/or are venturing into coastal or offshore waters. All the inflatables will roll you to a face-up position, even in a seaway. Those with automatic inflation offer the highest level of protection by inflating whether you’re conscious or not.

Even with an automatic, if you’re conscious you should have your rip cord ready. “Anyone with an automatic should be reaching for the manual cord on the way down,” says Eric Shephard, safety advocate and vice president of inflator systems for Halkey-Roberts. That’s why it’s critical to be prepared.

The belt packs don’t offer the same level of protection but are more comfortable and allow you to swim or dive. They do require a two-step procedure: activating the rip cord, which releases the jacket from the pouch, and donning the by-now inflated PFD, which is shaped much like a Type II. You lose the greater protection of an automatic but gain great protection while swimming if something goes wrong—a cramp, for example, or a dizzy spell.

The new PFDs aren’t for everyone. Users must be 16 years old and, depending on the model, weigh at least 80 to 90 pounds, with a chest size of 30” to 52”.

What We Looked For
Practical Sailor looked at nine Coast Guard-approved models from three manufacturers—Sospenders, Stearns and Mustang. Kent, another major PFD maker, had yet to introduce an approved automatic when the testing was done. (Sospenders also makes Types V and III sold under the West Marine label, but were not tested.) In this group were five Type V automatic/manuals, one manual and two waist belt packs (from Sospenders and Mustang; we did not have access to the Stearns belt). Also tested were some of the combination models in manual mode.

We talked to the manufacturers, read the manuals, wore the devices around the house and office, and tried them in our local YMCA pool. We had two main testers, then added two more as a pair of lifeguards wanted to join in. None of the testers had tried an inflatable before and none was especially aware of which brand they were wearing—we wanted spontaneous reactions. Except for the lifeguards, the testers wore some ordinary clothing in addition to bathing suits to simulate conditions on a boat.

3-Brand Inflatable PFD Evaluation

The testers jumped, dived and fell into the water in a variety of ways. Once in the water, with the jacket inflated, they tried rolling over onto their faces (very difficult, it turned out, because of the considerable buoyancy), tried re-immersing themselves vertically (again very difficult), floated naturally on their backs, and swam.

We evaluated the jackets on a variety of points: general wearability and fit, ease of use, comfort and performance in the water, ease of checking the inflator mechanism and re-arming it after use. We found some things to like or dislike with each of the PFDs, but all worked in both manual or auto/manual mode, depending on the type.

What We Found
It should be noted that a wearer’s reaction to a given PFD is subjective, dependent to a degree on a person’s size, weight and body shape. The tests were not totally definitive or scientific—we did not have any wave action in the pool, and we didn’t specifically measure freeboard (height of a person’s head above the water) or the exact body attitude provided by a given PFD. Nor did we conduct repeated tests of the same PFD, so some of the reports, as we will note, may be inconsistent.

All four testers said they preferred the Sospenders models to other models. They were the most comfortable after inflation. In the case of the Type V vests, one tester said she felt that the Mustang was very tight around her neck. The smallest of our testers, at 105 pounds, she may have experienced some ride-up with the vest—one reason why Mustang’s one-size-fits-all policy might not always work. The same tester, who also tried the “short” version of the Sospenders, said it was more comfortable and felt that it gave her more balanced lift. Her brother, who tried the manual Mustang vest, agreed that it felt more restrictive but was comfortable enough. He too preferred the feel of the Sospenders.

Click here to view the Value Guide for CG-Approved Inflatable PFDs.

In our experience, Mustangs tend to have a tighter fit than other PFDs, which may seem uncomfortable but isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, you want a jacket that doesn’t move.

One tester reported that with the Stearns Type V vest his feet hit the bottom of the pool before it brought him to the surface. He also complained that his back was uncomfortable but discovered this was because of a twisted strap.

Another tester, a lifeguard, liked the Sospenders belt pack more than the Mustang belt pack. Part of this may have been a learning curve. On her first jump, the Mustang jacket inflated fairly near her face and was twisted; she read the caution message “This side forward” and quickly turned it around. Even though the Mustang features a split collar for easier donning, she said she had some trouble getting her head through (again, this was the first time she tried this). Once the jacket was properly secured, she experienced plenty of buoyancy but complained that her head “lolled around” because of the split collar. She had much better luck with the Sospenders. It deployed a bit farther away from her face, was not twisted and went over her head easily. She felt it gave her head more secure and comfortable support as she floated.

We did notice one design feature that might make a difference outside of the calm waters of a pool. The Mustang has a solid front, the Sospenders something of a groove between the two halves. The design of the Mustang seems less likely to channel water into a person’s face.

In-water performance seemed fine for most of the models, which is to be expected after years of repeated testing to UL standards and the CG’s satisfaction. The tester felt that the Mustang V was unbalanced (although it seemed fully inflated), and while it rolled her over from a face-down position, it did so more slowly than the others. The manual Mustang, however, performed as the others, immediately rolling a person over.

All the vests made it extremely difficult to roll face down in the first place, and none permitted vertical dives. We’d say these vests do what they’re designed to. In our tests of children’s PFDs (see PS, June 99), only one jacket, the Safeguard Type I, consistently rolled the wearer over onto his or her back.

Lastly, we doused all PFDs with a garden hose to determine whether they would be set off by spray or rain. None did.

Models Compared
These PFDs are easy to don once you understand they go on as vests. All have easy fasten-and-release three-prong buckles from the same manufacturer, although Stearns and Sospenders go with a larger 2-1/4″ wide version, while the Mustang has a 1-3/4″ buckle. That probably does not make much practical difference because the buckles are not under any particular stress.

Similarly, both Stearns and Sospenders use 2″ nylon webbing for the belt strap, while Mustang’s is 1-1/2″ but thicker. The wider straps may be more comfortable over time. The Stearns’ 1″ back strap twisting probably can be chalked up to its passing through a larger loop (3″). Stearns should make it smaller since the twisting can interfere with donning the vest quickly and properly. The waist straps must be adjusted for fit. We preferred Mustang’s metal side buckle for ease of use over the plastic buckles on the SOS and Stearns.

You get a more complete package with Mustang or Sospenders, both of which come armed with a spare cartridge and manual cap in a pouch in the left fold of the vest. Both supply an ACR whistle on a lanyard, while the Sospenders also provides a built-in light strap for an emergency light (not included). The Sospenders also has a short strap with a D-ring for clipping on a knife or flashlight. Mustang models have twin toggle attachments high on the leading edges of the vests that permit them to be worn over foul weather gear—a nice touch. All three manufacturers supply reflective tape.

Mustang has a 400-denier nylon outer shell (in red but with black or navy-blue available as special orders); seams are welded, taped and stitched. Sospenders has a 420-denier shell (210 on the West Marine models)of navy; seams are welded and stitched. The Stearns has a 210-denier nylon shell that comes in royal blue. Stearns also makes a less expensive manual inflatable that provides 25 pounds of buoyancy. Sospenders and Stearns offer substantial foam padding between the inflator mechanism and the inner urethane bladder, Mustang somewhat less so.

Though all of these inflatables have satisfied rigorous standards, our testers expressed a clear preference for the Sospenders models, and you do get a few extras. We especially like the two sizes in the Type V auto/manual vest because there are significant differences between a 5′ 3″ 80-pound woman and a 6′ 2″ 190-pound man. Fit is critical both for comfort and operation. Sospenders jackets also have a bit more buoyancy—38 pounds compared to 35 for similar makes. And Sospenders carries the same buoyancy in all models (with the exception of the sport model), so cartridges are interchangeable.

If we had to rank the three brands, we’d go with Sospenders first, Mustang a close second, followed by the more stripped-down Stearns. The important thing is fit, however, so we suggest trying them on. In the end, any of these will go a long way toward saving your life.


Contacts- Mustang Survival, 3870 Mustang Way, Bellingham, WA 98226; 360/676-1782, www.mustangsurvival.com. Sospenders, Sporting Lives, 1510 NW 17th St., Fruitland, ID 83619; 800/858-5876, www.sospenders.com. Stearns, Box 1498, St. Cloud, MN 56302; 800/783-2767, www.stearnsinc.com.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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