June 7, 2024

8 min

Skills & Seamanship

PFDs on a boat must be readily accessible. Which storage method best meets this requirement?


Importance of Readily Accessible PFDs on Boats That Can Be Grabbed Quickly

Having personal flotation devices (PFDs) readily accessible on boats is crucial for safety and legal compliance. Most boating authorities mandate that all vessels carry properly fitted PFDs for each person on board, and these lifesaving devices must be easily retrievable in case of an emergency. From a safety standpoint, readily accessible PFDs can mean the difference between life and death in situations where a boat capsizes or a passenger falls overboard unexpectedly. Drowning is one of the leading causes of boating fatalities, and having PFDs within immediate reach greatly increases the chances of survival significantly. Legally, failing to have PFDs readily accessible on a boat can result in hefty fines or even criminal charges, depending on the jurisdiction. Maritime authorities take this requirement seriously, as inaccessible PFDs defeat their purpose and put lives at risk. In addition to potential legal consequences, inaccessible PFDs can also lead to liability issues for boat owners or operators in the event of an accident or injury. Negligence in ensuring the proper storage and accessibility of PFDs can be grounds for lawsuits and damages. For instance, storing PFDs in their original plastic bags would probably not meet the requirement of being readily accessible. Overall, the importance of readily accessible PFDs on boats cannot be overstated. It is a matter of safety, legal compliance, and responsible boating practices. Proper storage and accessibility of PFDs should be a top priority for all boat owners and operators.

What Qualifies as ‘Readily Accessible’?

According to boating authorities like the U.S. Coast Guard and state agencies, “readily accessible” means that personal flotation devices (PFDs) must be quickly reachable in an emergency situation. PFDs stored in locked compartments, under heavy gear in the gear locker or requiring tools to access would not meet this requirement. PFDs sealed in their original plastic bags would likely also not be considered readily accessible.

The key is that PFDs must be instantly available without having to move heavy objects, unlock compartments, or use tools. This ensures they can be quickly donned in the event of an emergency like a capsizing or fall overboard.

Dedicated PFD Storage Area

One of the most effective ways to ensure personal flotation devices (PFDs) are readily accessible on a boat is to have dedicated storage area specifically for this purpose. These lockers are typically located in easily accessible areas of the vessel, such as near the helm or in the cockpit area. They need clear labeling or markings, making it easy for passengers to quickly identify and retrieve the PFDs in an emergency situation. Additionally, these lockers need to be well-ventilated to prevent mildew and ensure the PFDs remain in good condition. Just be careful not to store other gear like dock lines in these spaces.


Highly visible and easily identifiable storage solution – Keeps PFDs organized and easily accessible – Prevents PFDs from being misplaced or buried under other gear – Promotes safety awareness and preparedness


May take up valuable space on smaller boats or may simply not be a locker to store them in

Designated Open Storage Areas

Designating an open area on your boat, such as the cockpit or a clear space on the deck, for PFD storage can be an effective solution for keeping life jackets readily accessible. This approach has several advantages and disadvantages to consider.


Highly visible and easy to access in an emergency – No need for additional storage compartments or containers – Allows for quick distribution of PFDs to passengers – Keeps PFDs free from moisture and mildew buildup


Exposed to weather elements like sun, rain, and saltwater; potential tripping hazard or cluttered appearance; limited security, as PFDs are out in the open; may not be suitable for larger boats with limited open space. If opting for open storage, it’s crucial to designate a specific area and ensure all passengers are aware of the PFD location. Consider using mesh bags or covers to protect the PFDs from the elements while still allowing for quick access. Regularly inspect the PFDs for any damage or wear caused by exposure. Having other safety equipment like a VHF radio unit readily accessible is also crucial.

Under Seat or Floor Storage

One storage method that can help keep PFDs readily accessible on boats is utilizing the space under seats or flooring. Many boats have built-in storage compartments or open areas beneath seating or decking that can be repurposed for PFD storage. This approach keeps the PFDs out of the way but still within easy reach. When considering under-seat or floor storage, it’s important to ensure that the PFDs can be quickly and easily accessed in an emergency situation. The storage area should be unobstructed and not used for storing other gear that could impede access to the PFDs. Storing PFDs with other items like waste could impede access and should be avoided. Clear labeling or visual indicators will also be essential to help passengers quickly identify the PFD storage location. It’s also crucial to consider accessibility for all passengers, including children and those with limited mobility. The storage area should be designed or positioned in a way that allows everyone on board to retrieve a PFD without significant difficulty or assistance. Additionally, if storing PFDs under seats or flooring, it’s essential to ensure proper ventilation and drainage to prevent mildew, mold, or water damage to the PFDs over time. Regularly inspecting and maintaining the storage area and the PFDs themselves is recommended to ensure their continued effectiveness and readiness for use.

Flotation Cushion PFDs

A unique option for personal flotation devices (PFDs) on boats are integrated flotation cushions. These dual-purpose cushions serve as both comfortable seating and Coast Guard-approved PFDs. Many modern models come equipped with built-in flotation cushions, often located in the helm or passenger seating areas.

The primary advantage of flotation cushions is their inherent accessibility. Since they are constantly in as seating, there’s no need to retrieve them from storage in an situation. Passengers are already positioned with their PFDs right beneath them. This instantaneous access can be crucial during sudden incidents like falls overboard or capsizing.

Additionally, flotation cushions eliminate the hassle of stowing and retrieving traditional PFDs before and after each outing. Their seamless integration into the boat’s design ensures they are always present and readily available. However, it’s still important to regularly inspect the cushions for any damage or that could compromise their .

For boats without integrated flotation cushions, aftermarket options can be purchased and installed, typically using snaps or straps to secure them to existing seating. While slightly less seamless than built-in cushions, these provide a similar level of accessibility for a reasonable investment.

Considerations for Different Boat Types

When it comes to readily accessible PFD storage, the type of boat you have will influence the best solution. Here are some considerations for different boat types:

Ski Boats and Towboats: These boats often have limited storage space, but PFDs need to be easily accessible for water skiers and tubers. Under-seat storage or designated open areas near the observer’s seat are popular options. Some ski boats also have built-in PFD racks or compartments.

Pontoon Boats: With their spacious decks, pontoon boats offer more flexibility for PFD storage. Dedicated lockers or large storage bags can be placed in convenient locations around the railings or under seats. Flotation cushions that double as PFDs are also a practical choice.

Cabin Cruisers and Larger Boats: These vessels typically have more storage space, allowing for dedicated PFD lockers or compartments near the main deck or cabin entrance. Open racks or shelves in high-traffic areas can also work well, ensuring PFDs are always within reach.

Sailboats: Limited space on sailboats can make PFD storage challenging. However, many sailors opt for compact, portable PFD bags or cases that can be secured to the cabin or cockpit area. Some also use built-in compartments or hanging racks near the companionway.

Fishing Boats: Accessibility is crucial on fishing boats, where anglers may need to quickly grab a PFD in case of a fall overboard. Under-gunwale storage, open racks, or designated compartments near the casting decks are popular solutions.

Regardless of the boat type, the key is to choose a storage method that keeps PFDs visible, easily accessible, and secure during normal boating activities and emergencies. PFDs should be stored in a way that allows them to be grabbed quickly in an emergency.

Educating Passengers on PFD Locations

Ensuring that passengers are aware of the locations of personal flotation devices (PFDs) on board is crucial for maximizing the chances of their use in an emergency situation. Two effective methods for educating passengers are clear signage and thorough crew briefings.

Signage: Install highly visible signage throughout the vessel, indicating the storage locations of PFDs. Use simple, universally recognized symbols or graphics, along with text in multiple languages if necessary. Place these signs near the designated storage areas and in high-traffic areas where passengers are likely to notice them.

Crew Briefings: Before departure, crew members should conduct a comprehensive safety briefing for all passengers. This briefing should include a demonstration of how to properly don a PFD and clear instructions on where the PFDs are stored on the vessel. Encourage passengers to familiarize themselves with the locations and ensure they understand the importance of having PFDs readily accessible in case of an emergency. Passengers should also be educated on the locations of other safety equipment like VHF radio units.

By implementing clear signage and conducting thorough crew briefings, you can increase the likelihood that passengers will be able to quickly locate and access PFDs when needed, potentially saving lives in the event of an emergency on the water. Finally – remember a PFD is only any use if it works when its needed. Your PFD may well have a recommended service date – you need to keep to it.

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