Sunday, May 17, 2009

I, II, III, IV, or V? IV? Watch out “IV” it! Fore! And IV safety's sake, don’t play without your IV!


We want boaters to be safe, and carry not only the safety equipment that is required, but also appropriate, useful equipment beyond the minimum requirements. But, we certainly don’t want to give boaters inaccurate information about the law, see citations given or voyages terminated based on incorrect information, or create ill-will on the water needlessly.

One murky area seems to be the question as to whether a throwable flotation device is required for paddlecraft and other small craft (under sixteen feet in length overall).

Life preservers or life vests are called “personal flotation devices” (PFDs) by lawyers and boating safety people, and are categorized into “types”. Types I, II, and III are wearable vests that vary in their flotation and (purported) ability to turn an unconscious wearer right-side-up. Type V are special-purpose wearable items such as inflatable vests and float coats. Type IV PFDs are throwable items such as buoyant cushions and life rings.

The New Mexico boating safety guide teaches that a US-Coast-Guard approved Type IV throwable PFD (buoyant cushion or life ring) in good condition is required on almost every boat, regardless of size, in addition to a wearable PFD for each passenger. But, something I saw on the Boat US website seemed to tell me that only boats 16 feet and longer have to have a Type IV throwable PFD. And, as I did a bit of research, some of the answers that came remained confusing and contradictory…


Boat Ed’s New Mexico Required Equipment Table shows that a Type IV is required on almost all motorboats – both under 16 feet and sixteen feet and over, and on all sailboats, and all manually propelled craft (canoes, rowboats, kayaks), and whitewater craft., regardless of length. Only personal watercraft (jet skis) get a pass. (Perhaps this is slightly ironic, since these craft have a high rate of accident concerns.) In addition, persons on paddlecraft in New Mexico are required to wear their PFDs, as well as persons on all sailboats under sixteen feet except for windsurfers.

(See and the most recent version of the Boating Act within the New Mexico Administrative Statutes. Additional requirements apply for children under 13 years of age and for regattas or races. New Mexico also has boating safety education requirements that apply to anyone born after 1 January, 1989.)

New Mexico’s on-line Park Regulations and Boating Guide (using a slightly older boating guide, published by Outdoor Empire) quotes the New Mexico Boat Act as requiring,

“66-12-7 NMSA 1978: EQUIPMENT (Note: see also Boating Reference Table on page 62)
A. Every vessel shall have aboard:
(1) one life preserver, buoyant vest, ring buoy or buoyant cushion bearing the mark of approval of the United States Coast Guard and in serviceable condition for each person on board; “

And, from,

“"66-12-7. EQUIPMENT.--
A. Every vessel shall have aboard:
(1) one life preserver, buoyant vest, ring buoy or buoyant cushion bearing the mark of approval of the United States coast guard and in serviceable condition for each person on board;”


Do you see a potential problem here?
Hint: “life preserver, buoyant vest, ring buoy **_OR_** buoyant cushion” is not the same as “one ring buoy or buoyant cushion bearing the mark … and one wearable life preserver or buoyant vest…for each person.”

Bonus points for quibblers:
The New Mexico law DOESN’T mention that the life vests or preservers need to be able to fit the persons on board (children, for example) and need to be immediately available in case of emergency. In theory, I could comply with that law by having kids on my boat with nothing but Type I extra-large PFDs on board -- or nothing but a stack of buoyant cushions hidden away somewhere.

The actual language of the New Mexico Boating Act (Section 66-12-3 NMSA 1978) [NMSA = NMAC] implies that a Type IV could **_SUBSTITUTE_ FOR_OR_REPLACE ** (ouch!) a wearable PFD, even though the Boat Ed table on page 64 (which is used to teach boating safety classes) shows that the Type IV is required for all craft (except personal watercraft) in addition to the wearable PFDs. This is a section of the boating guide, by the way, that was left unchanged by state senator Carlos R. Cisneros’ 2009 Boating Act revision bill (SB 436). The law, as written, deviates significantly from US Coast Guard guidance and general practice and apparent intent.


Aside from the horribly ambiguous NMAS 66-12-7 language about wearables vs. throwables, the New Mexico requirements exceed the requirements of the US Coast Guard that apply on Federal waters, and differ from the requirements of many other states. Others may debate whether this is good or bad, but my concern here is confusion and non-compliance brought about by laws that vary significantly between jurisdictions. People who read national-level guidance may think they’re obeying the law when they’re not.

In evidence, one can quote a web thread on, :

“My state's boating regs call for vessels 16 ft long or more to carry a Type IV in addition to "regular" (Type III) PFDs. There is no exemption for kayaks or canoes! . . .”

The conclusion of the thread is that many states exempt canoes and kayaks, even if 16 feet and over

Here’s an example of a state boating safety guide that requires a Type IV for all boats 16 feet and over:

“ • All recreational vessels sixteen (16) feet in length and over must have one Type I, II, or III PFD of suitable size for each person aboard and each skier being towed, and in addition, one throwable Type IV PFD.”
Vessel Operator’s Guide, North Carolina,

And here’s am apparently more lenient neighbor state, from the thread:

Arizona does not
Posted by: rikjohnson on Apr-20-09 1:53 PM (EST)
And we allow a Type-IV instead of the Type-III.
So you often see someone in a canoe or kayak with nothing but a floating seat cushion.

I always carry a Type-IV strapped to my rear deck for two reasons:
1) i have a soft place to sit when I beach for lunch. We ARE in the desert!
2) I can easily clip my Painter to the handle and have a ready throw line for rescue.

But, on second thought . . . .

What a mess of regulations
Posted by: pikabike on Apr-21-09 3:40 PM (EST)

“In addition to the question of exemption, some states add pedalboats and sculls to canoes, kayaks, and even jetskis.

But the worst thing is that most of the "not exempt" states are the ones that use Boater Ed's "Handbook" to publicize their state's boating laws. (Colorado is one of these.) Yet the state of Vermont explicitly posts that their actual laws are the ones to follow, which may differ from what's in the handbook!

Some states only publish a summary online.

Some didn't even discuss PFDs other than a vague mention that PFDs should be on board.

Some websites contained info contradictory to what people posted in this thread. For example, the websites for AZ and NC did NOT exempt canoes and kayaks.”


Posted by: arledge on Apr-22-09 1:09 PM (EST)
The “.... Code of Federal Regulations ... §175.15(b) requires all recreational vessels over 16 feet to carry a type IV throwable PFD. §175.17(b) exempts canoes and kayaks from the type IV carriage requirement. However, in §175.5 The federal regulations give the states the power to enact their own laws covering wearing and carriage of PFDs.”

So, people who read the Coast Guard rules may think they don’t need a Type IV on small paddlecraft … which is true in Federal waters and some state waters, but not in others.


The patchwork of rules has left paddlers up the creek, but at least they’re not without a paddle. A paddler who travels between jurisdictions will have to do some legal research to comply with laws that change at state and Federal water boundaries.

Conventional ring buoys certainly don’t fit in a kayak, and even buoyant cushions may not be a good fit. If legislators and boating safety officers want kayakers to carry a Type IV (and remember that many or most kayaks are single-person boats with even less room on board than a jet ski), then perhaps consideration could be given to making a life guard’s “torpedo buoy” an approved Type IV device for kayaks. It would fit better in a kayak than other Type IV throwable PFDs

The language in the New Mexico Boating Act could be used to advantage by someone who wants an excuse for not having either any wearable PFDs or any throwables. It might be wise for the State Parks Department to suggest that the Legislature clarify the relevant clause (66-12-7).

It would also be helpful if organizations such as NASBLA (National Association of State Boating Law Administrators), the NSBC (National Safe Boating Council), and US Coast Guard could take input from stakeholders such as kayakers and other boaters, and then encourage the states to harmonize their laws so that boaters won’t face so much inconsistency between jurisdictions.

Yours truly,
Pat Byrnes

UPDATE: I'm told that "The statute is wrong, but the regulation corrects it." It seems that the NEw Mexico legislature made a very murky attempt at writing the basic law, and didn't follow US Coast Guard standards and confused things badly, but the parks department corrected the errors in its own regulations.

That leaves a couple of questions...
Should the statute be corrected to be more in harmony with Coast Guard guidance and the regulations and training doctrine followed by the state parks?

What happens if someone is cited for a violation of the regulations and tries to quote a contradictory part the statute in his or her defense?

And, we still have the issue of it being onerous for small paddlecraft (such as one-person kayaks without storage space) to comply with the requirement to carry a Type IV throwable PFD, which is not required in Federal waters or in many other states.



At 8:20 PM, May 17, 2009, Blogger bonnie said...

Thanks for all the research! From here on out, any time I'm planning to paddle outside the states where I know the regs (NY & CT), I'll definitely remember to do my research on the regulations there. I'd like to think that I would have anyways, but this was a good eye-opener as to just how important that would be.


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