Life jackets or Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) are critical safety equipment for aquatic activities. This is especially the case in Australia, where swimming and aquatic sports are ingrained into our culture. Here is a guide to the current PFD Performance Level standards so that you can choose the appropriate level for your on-water pursuits.


Australia is a lucky country. Around 85% of us reside within 50 kilometres of the stunning beaches and rugged coastline that extends a distance of 35,876 km around the island nation. This expansive coastline encompasses a variety of climatic conditions but is primarily characterised by warm seas that are highly conductive to a lifestyle jam-packed with outdoor water activities.

Naturally, we Aussies spend much of our time interacting with aquatic environments. We have one of the highest rates of boat ownership per capita in the world and we place huge emphasis on the importance of swimming throughout childhood and beyond. Undoubtedly, this affinity for the water has been one of the underlying reasons why Australian swimmers and surfers have consistently excelled on the global stage.


Most Australians are taught to swim during school years and have a good awareness of water safety. Nevertheless, our heightened engagement in water sports and the volatility of sea conditions demands a sensible and practical approach to water safety.

Each state has a set of rules and regulations that govern maritime safety and one of the key pieces of equipment for outdoor water sports is a life jacket. Whether you’re fishing, boating, waterskiing, jet skiing, kayaking, canoeing or undertaking any other water activities, you’ll need to get your hands on a suitable Personal Floatation Device. PFDs are life-saving devices that statistically double your chances of survival if you end up in the drink.


Like most marine equipment and technology, life jackets have evolved immensely over the years. The early life jackets were bulky block designs that were effective at saving lives but cumbersome and uncomfortable to use for recreational activities.

As people increasingly engaged in aquatic activities, the rudimentary designs were refined into lightweight and comfortable PFDs that enhanced user experience. Modern streamlined formats are also more compact and take up less space during storage. The three broad forms or styles of PFD encompass a traditional block design, vests, and inflatable jackets.

Traditional styles: Traditional lifejackets incorporate a block design that slips over the head and tightens with straps around the waist. These PFDs are simple and cheap, but effective. If you require excellent safety at an accessible price and have plenty of space for storage, then this is the option for you.

Vest styles: Vest style lifejackets offer a more comfortable and streamlined lifejacket. They zip and buckle at the front and can be worn comfortably for long periods. These are the perfect option for frequent water users or kids. Ensure that you choose the correct size for the user. The toddler versions have a crotch strap for extra security and safety.

Inflatable styles: Inflatable PFDs are gas-inflated lifejackets that are suitable for adults and trigger automatically or with a manual pull-tab. The advantage of inflatable jackets is that they are lightweight and less restrictive. These characteristics make them particularly popular among sport and tournament anglers. The only downside is that they must be serviced annually.

It’s important to recognise that there is a distinct difference between the style of a PFD and its performance level. For example, vest-style jackets are available in all performance level categories. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that a vest equates to a high performance level.



With the vast array of makes, models, and styles on the market, PFD’s are assessed on their buoyancy characteristics and placed into Performance Level categories. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, these Performance Levels cater for a variety activities and conditions. It makes sense that an angler heading offshore into rough oceanic conditions require mores buoyancy performance than someone paddling a canoe in a sheltered lagoon.

The categories can be a little daunting and confusing to the uninitiated and they have recently transitioned from an American system to a European system. Below is a list of the current PFD Performance Level standards and activities suitable to each level.


Suitability: Offshore boating in extreme conditions, special protective clothing, and heavy equipment.

Features: Head and neck support, designed for face up floating position, high visibility colours.

This category maximises buoyancy in extreme environments and is for use in commercial applications. It is most suited to commercial fishers, offshore workers, and explorers. If you need to touch this category, you probably know what you’re doing.


Suitability: Offshore and general boating, foul weather or heavy clothing.

Features: Head and neck support, designed for face up floating position, high visibility colours.

Any anglers who fish offshore or wear thick clothing during winter should choose this category by default. It will have you covered offshore, inshore, and within the estuaries all year round. These PFDs feature neck support that is designed to keep the user in a face-up floating position.


Suitability: Light offshore and sheltered water boating, light clothing.

Features: Head and neck support, designed for face up floating position, high visibility colours.

Vests in this level possess a reasonable level of buoyancy and some roll over characteristics. They are suited to general boating in warm conditions and light clothing. If you are a summer estuary or inshore angler, these vests are likely to be adequate.


Suitability: Water sports, sheltered waters, help at hand, limited protection against drowning.

Features: Not fitted with head and neck support, not designed for face up floating position, high visibility colours.

These vests lack neck support to keep heads above water. They offer limited buoyancy and are most suited as a swimming aid or for those undertaking water activities with support from others. They are less bulky and permit users to swim. These high visibility PFDs are ideal for sailing, kayaking, canoeing, wind surfing, waterskiing, or personal watercraft (PWC).


Suitability: Water sports, sheltered waters, help at hand, limited protection against drowning.

Features: Not fitted with head and neck support, not designed for face up floating position, designed for comfort and style.

These vests maximise movement and comfort and permit users to swim. They are not required to be made in high-visibility colours. Level 50S PFDs are ideally suited to situations where the user is likely to be in the water for a short period and rescue is imminent. They are ideal for waterskiers, wakeboarders, swimmers, kayakers, and canoeists.


Australia is a big country that is characterised by a vast variety of weather conditions and climates. Due to this huge variation in conditions, the specific rules and regulations governing PFD use varies by region. Each state has its own set of regulations so always refer to your state maritime authority for the latest information on rules and requirements.

• NSW Maritime Management Centre

• WA Department of Transport

• Maritime Safety Queensland

• SA Government

• Maritime Safety Victoria

• Marine and Safety Tasmania

• Northern Territory Government

Rather than opting for the bare minimum, try to purchase the highest performance level that is suitable for your chosen activity. Safety is definitely not an area to take short cuts or unnecessary risks and a higher performance level will provide more scope for other on-water pursuits.

PFDs provide peace of mind for aquatic activities. The best PFD is the one that a user wears, so get your hands on the right PFD for your chosen water sports and enjoy your holidays and leisure time.


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Martin White

Martin is huge on everything outdoors and is even bigger on driving and technology. He loves boats, new stuff and writing about it.