Wakeboard and waterski vests are probably the most used but often the most overlooked piece of equipment on the boat. We get it…it’s hard to justify dropping another $100-$200 on basically a neoprene/foam bro-tank after you’ve been saving your pennies all spring for a new pair of boots or a deck.
Why are some vests so cheap and some so expensive? What are you getting for those extra greenbacks? What does that CGA rating actually mean? Hopefully, we clear up some of these questions and more on this week’s “Buyer’s Guide Blog”.
You may have noticed that I am not referring to wakeboard/waterski vests as “life jackets”…that’s because they are pieces of equipment that are NEVER designed to save your life, but they can help you save your own. That would also mean that we are only talking about Coast Guard Approved (CGA) vests, but we will also discuss “impact” or “comp” vests in this article. Anyway, semantics aside, we’ll just agree to call them “vests” for this blog.
When vest shopping, there are a few key features that one should consider before purchasing:
Shell Fabric Quality
CGA Rating: The Minimum Floatation requirement for a Type III “Buoyant Foam” recreational watersports vest is 15.5 lbs. The average adult only needs 10-12 lbs of float to keep his or her head above water, but with choppy water conditions, variations in body fat and weight, and foam deterioration over time, 15.5 lbs of float is a good safe overestimate to go with. It’s important to note that “impact or “comp” vests generally do not publish their flotation data and sometimes use foams that actually absorb water which decrease their buoyancy as they saturate. This means that if you are looking for comp vest, that’s totally cool, but you should remember than no impact vest is guaranteed to keep your head above water; they are strictly designed to protect the body from impact and keep you near the surface until help arrives. We only recommend these in closed-course conditions like supervised competitions or for surfing because of the proximity to the boat and lower speeds associated with it.
Panels/Segments: Each panel on a vest, or any piece of clothing for that matter, gives the garment a better 3-dimensional or articulated fit. In other words, it wraps around the natural shape of the body for more movement and comfort. Each seam acts like a hinge, especially when each panel has a piece of foam inside it, and that foam cannot necessarily flex like the outer fabric can. Therefore, this category is simple…the more panels, the more hinges, the better! Comp vests do have the advantage in this category; because they are not limited to providing the proper amount of buoyancy, they are free to use as many panels as they want.
Foam Type: This category is a little more difficult to identify because most companies simply won’t tell you what type of foam they use. Traditionally, all basic nylon vests used PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), which is the cheapest and stiffest type of foam, but it’s rarely used today because it produces toxic fumes during heated manufacturing processes which are known to be pollutants and carcinogens. This is the primary reason to stay away from bargain vests, as their materials are simply inferior and outdated. Currently, most mid-level vests are using PVE (polyurethane), and most high-end vests are using XPS (extruded polystyrene) due to it’s superior hardness and low water-absorption properties.
Shell Fabric Quality: In my opinion, the biggest difference between high quality vests and bargain box store versions is the quality of the fabric used in vest construction. New polyesters and neoprenes are stretchier and softer than ever before, and seam constructions are smoother and stronger than previously thought possible. Manufacturers are now about to incorporate flex into the weave of the polyester without having to use Lycra, Spandex, or Elastine, which is naturally stretchy but also wears out and loses its stretch and durability.
US Coast Guard: https://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg5214/pfdselection.asp#recreational