Your life depends on it
  |  First Published: October 2007

Personal Flotation Devices (PFD) and the laws governing their use are in for a change. Australian Standards, the body which enforces product quality and standards, is currently moving to change PFDs in line with international reviews. At the same time, the National Marine Safety Committee (NMSC) is released a report in August 2007 that set down guidelines to help standardise legislation on wearing your PFD. This month will look at types of PFDs, what is required in Queensland, NSW and Victoria and what is in store for boaters in the near future.

current standards

There are three types of PFDs and Standards Australia has applied strict criteria to each and the conditions that they can be used in. These standards are important for the simple reason that they create specification and procedures that ensure the product is safe and built for its correct purpose.

It is law in Australia that your PFD meet certain standards – look for the Australian Standard markings on your lifejacket. A PFD type 1 is a recognised life jacket and is the one most anglers will need to purchase when fishing inshore, offshore and in enclosed and inland bodies of water. It has a high level of buoyancy and keeps the wearer in a safe position. For instance, if you were unconscious, a PFD 1 should turn you up in a safe position until help arrives. It covers general boating in all types of water in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. It is important to know that jackets made before the 1996 standard must be marked with PFD Type 1, as well as meet buoyancy levels and have well maintained fabric, fastening and webbing.

A Type 2 is a buoyancy vest which is ideally worn in smooth waters and is suitable for aquatic sports where the rescue time is likely to be short. They are designed to be used during the day. Both NSW and Queensland agree that they are merely designed to keep a person afloat but “does not have a collar to keep the head above water” (for more information, see www.msq.qld.gov.au and follow the prompts to ‘lifejackets’). In Victoria however, this type of PFD described in the Guide to Marine Regulations “is sufficient to keep the head above water” (available online at www.marinesafety.vic.gov.au).

So is it, or isn’t it sufficient to keep the head above the water? Standards Australia in its abstract of Standard 1499-1996 states that a PFD 2 should “assist flotation during short term immersion in sheltered waters during daylight hours, and intended for participants in aquatic sports”. This is just a minor inconsistency but it is best to make sure your PFD adheres to the national standards: see the fact box with internet links.

A PFD 3 has all the characteristics of a PFD 2 but is available in a wider range of colours and can be purchased as a built-in garment.

Early this year, Standard Australia is conducted a review of the standards for PFDs in Australia in line with an international review that has its roots in Europe with ISO12402. Once ratified, the current Australian standard will be phased out and manufacturers will be required to construct PFDs to the new standards. According to John Nanscawen from Stormy Australia, owners of original Australian standard PFDs will not have to replace them, however they will notice new standards on any PFDs they purchase in the future.

maintaining your pfd

John recommends that beyond ensuring accreditation from Standards Australia, there are four other main factors to take into consideration when buying a PFD, they are: the ease you can put it on; its size for a comfortable fit; that there are clear operating instructions; and that it is clearly marked what type of PFD.

As well as meet standards, your PFD must be well maintained and Maritime Safety in all States recommends regular and professional servicing – after all there isn’t much use in a faulty PFD despite all the good intention of owning one.

Check this out at your place of purchase as Stormy Australia notifies customers when their PFDs need servicing, “When the purchaser returns their completed registration card to Stormy Australia, they will automatically receive annual reminders that it is time to have their PFD serviced at one of our many service agents around the country”, says John.

Maritime Safety Queensland does not recommend that you service a PFD yourself. And documentary evidence of the service is required.

PFD regulations for children are not clear in NSW, however Victoria by far has the most strict laws requiring all children under the age of 10 to wear a PFD on the water. On the other hand, Queensland regulations from April 2006 require children under 12 in an open boat (a tinny or other boat without a cabin) less than 4.8m to wear a PFD. For all other ages legislation in Queensland calls for a well-fitted PFD for each person on board. Australian Standards further outline the need for non-inflatable PFDs for children under 40kg which include those without the carbon dioxide canister. And PFDs are not required for infants under 1 year as Standards do not allow for PFDs catering for people below 10kg.


According to a report released last year by the National Marine Safety Committee 13 deaths occurred during 2001-2005 where a PFD was not worn, while a report from Maritime Safety Queensland recognises marine incidents for 2006 were unusually high. Despite this, Queensland retains some of the weakest regulations among the States examined in this article – and, although welcome, these regulations were only introduced in April last year.

This legislation rules that a PFD must be worn when crossing a designated coastal bar (Currumbin Bar, Tallebudgera Bar, Jumpinpin Bar, South Passage Bar, Caloundra Bar, Maroochy Bar, Noosa Bar, Wide Bay Bar) in open boats that are less than 4.8m. The same applies for children under 12 except they must keep the PFD on all the time on the water.

An open boat generally means tinnies and runabouts. Why 4.8m? The measurement is used in international standards for vessel buoyancy and stability criteria; boats under 4.8m in length are more susceptible to swamping and capsize. This length is simply determined by looking at the overall length excluding appendages such as bowsprits and duckboards. If your boat has positive flotation, then this regulation need not apply; it is, however, obligatory that you have a Positive Flotation Statement in the correct form with you.

The NMSC reports that a discussion paper will be conducted by Maritime Safety Queensland “in the near future” with a desire to develop legislation in conjunction with national guidelines. While other states like Victoria have looked at making it compulsory to wear a PFD rather than just have one, Queensland has seen climatic factors as unfavourable to wearing a PFD all the time. However, it is difficult to think of weather conditions that exist in Victoria but don’t in Queensland – anyone fishing the Murray Darling will be aware that temperatures can reach the highs Queenslanders experience, so the reason that it’s too hot does not seem to cut it. The discussion paper will give the public the opportunity to respond.

Mark Kelly from the Queensland Water Police patrols the busy waters between Coolangatta and Russell Island up to 2 nm offshore. Compliance rates among boaters and anglers he says have been reasonably good with most cases of non-compliance being due to boaters wilfully ignoring laws rather than due to ignorance.

“To test if the maintenance has occurred, police will check that a stamp has been given to the life jacket in accordance to specification of the make,” he says.

The area of most ambiguity is whether or not vessels like kayaks, surfboards and surf skis are classified as a ‘boat’ under the legislation, but the general rule to go by is if it is registrable than it must conform with the law.

New South Wales

New South Wales has adopted wider reaching regulations than Queensland and is currently drafting new regulations for wearing PFDs. The current legislation obliges boaters to wear a PFD when crossing an ocean bar, when on a Personal Water Craft (PWC), for instance a jet ski, and on a sailboard and kayak/canoe when 400m from shore.

Ed Kwanten from NSW Maritime also recommends that boaters wear a PFD during any time of heightened risk where, for instance, you are boating alone, between sunset and sunrise or where there are poor swimmers. Similarly, a PFD should be worn when being towed, on alpine lakes (recommend a type 1 in these situations) and children should wear a PFD when in an open area on board an underway vessel. Clearly these recommendations can be adopted in any State.

These regulations should not be new to boaters, as there as they have been legislated since October 2003, however current regulations are being drafted by the NSW Maritime Authority in discussion with NSW Maritime’s largest stakeholder, the Recreational Vessels Advisory Group. These regulations would cover wearing a PFD in the situations recommended above, but to remain on the ball check out the website regularly to ensure you know what the law is – or play it safe, and wear your PFD anyway (see the fact box for further details).


Wide regulations were introduced from December 2005 in Victoria following a Coroner’s report into boating accident fatalities entitled “Recreational Vessel Fatalities in Victoria: 1999-2002”. This also followed findings that 87% of boaters had a PFD that was more than 20 years old and the report into 54 boating related deaths over a four-year period from 2001 to 2005. Subsequently, it is compulsory to wear a PFD when in an open area of a recreational boat that is underway and under 4.8m in length. A PFD must also be worn by all children under the age of 10 and during all situations of heightened risk. Although some of the simplest legislation, it is by far the most far-reaching among all the States. NMSC reports that an 80% compliance rate among boaters where there is enforcement, which demonstrates a tangible ‘cultural change’ in Victoria.

So what are “situations of heightened risk”?

A situation of heightened risk is thrown about loosely when talking about PFDs, and although usage is only compulsory in Victoria under risk situations it is still useful to know what this means. Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth, the Marine Safety Victoria’s “Recreational Boating Safety Handbook, February 2007”:

• When the vessel is crossing or attempting to cross an ocean bar or designated hazardous area.

• When the vessel is being operated by a person who is alone.

• When being operated at night (commencing one hour after sunset and ending one hour before sunrise) or in periods of restricted visibility.

• When there is significant likelihood that the vessel may capsize or be swamped by waves or the occupants of the vessel may fall overboard or be forced to enter the water.

• When the vessel is operating in an area where: a gale warning, storm warning, severe thunderstorm warning or severe weather warning issued by the Bureau of Meteorology is current.

• When the vessel is a yacht where there are no safety barriers, lifelines, rails, safety harnesses or jack lines in use. (Victorian Recreational Boating Safety Handbook, February 2007 – see the website fact box for the link)

In response to requests from the Industry Advisory Committee (IAC), the federal National Marine Safety Committee looked at conforming laws across the nation.

“The IAC saw value in  a common approach, particularly because two states (Tasmania and Victoria) do require compulsory wearing of PFDs for those in small boats,” says NMSC Spokesperson Ursula Bishop.

“To test the boating community's view on the issue, a general discussion paper was prepared and public comment sought through publicity in boating magazines and general media. The Boating OZ web site was also used as a tool to receive public comment.”

The opportunity for comment has now closed and the results were tabled at an NMSC conference in Melbourne during August this year. Its purpose was to ratify guidelines that States can adopt. The main findings of the paper are three principles identifying “risk-based guidelines”. It is hoped that if all States can use the same principles to assess their legislation some uniformity can be gained, however Mrs Bishop says that there is no proposal to legislate change across all states.

Briefly, the principles look at (1) the kind of boating activity being undertaken, (2) area of operation/distance from aid and (3) the environmental conditions or geography around the boater.

Mrs Bishop did note that there was opposition to a national approach.

“The NMSC recognised that some sections of the industry were strongly opposed to increasing regulation and that we need further data before changing any national requirements for PFD wearing. The NMSC will reconsider the issue in 12 months time in light of further information and data being available.”

If state legislators look at the use of PFD using this framework, we may begin to see a change in regulations that makes sense; after all, the differences that currently exist are both illogical and confusing. Look out for new regulations and new standards for PFDs in the near future – safer and easier to understand laws are hopefully just beyond the wave.


The following are proposed conditions in NSW where a PFD would have to be worn

When being towed by a vessel;

when on a kayak or canoe (distance provision removed);

whilst on board a row boat or dinghy or inflatable boat that is not a tender (defined as a vessel less than 3m) when:

(a) On open water;

(b) Between sunset and sunrise; or

(c) On enclosed waters more than 200m from the nearest shore.

while on board an ‘off the beach’ vessel;

when on board a vessel operating in white water;

when operating in a surf zone;

in conditions of heightened risk;

when windsurfing; and

for children under 12 year.


Relevant PFD types should be worn in certain conditions in Victoria.

Powerboat in VictoriaPFD Type to be worn
Coastal Offshore Type 1

(>2nm from the coast)

Coastal inshoreType 1

(<2nm from coast)

Enclosed Type 1

(Bays and Estuaries)

InlandType 1, 2 or 3

(rivers, lakes and dams)


Refer to these websites for further information and updates:

Queensland Maritime Safety: www.msq.qld.gov,au

NSW Maritime Safety: www.maritime.nsw.gov.au

Marine Safety Victoria: www.marinesafety.vic.gov.au

National Marine Safety Committee: www.nmsc.gov.au

Stormy Australia: www.stormyaustralia.com

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