Staying Safe at Sea:

A Mariner's Guide to Protective Clothing

By MarEx 2014-09-29 13:10:00

Sailing can be dangerous. There are many varied threats at sea, from tempestuous weather conditions to heavily-armed pirates, and even the most experienced sailors can still find themselves overwhelmed when they least expect it. You need to have the right gear at all times for maximum safety, and be prepared for a vast range of situations – falling overboard, lightning storms, sinking, capsizing, and armed confrontations.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard's most recent recreational boating statistics report, 560 boating fatalities occurred in 2013. Alcohol was listed as “the leading known contributing factor”, with 16 percent of deaths attributed to drinking. Other factors included: operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, machinery failure and excessive speed.

To stay as safe as possible while sailing, you'll need to have all the necessary equipment.

Life Jacket

This is one of the key pieces of gear you'll need. Whether you're sailing alone or as part of a group on another person's ship, you should be sure to check there are enough life jackets as needed before disembarking. At all times, these should be visible and easily accessible – in the event of an emergency, you want to be able to grab it within seconds. You should also try it on beforehand to make sure it fits comfortably, and is clearly in good condition.

The U.S. Coast Guard has legal requirements for life jackets, which stipulate they should be marked with an approval number, and be readily available. Jackets are produced in three different materials:

Gaia:  These are low-density, environmentally-friendly jackets able to resist cold and heat. These use organic nitrile to help encourage flotation.

Kapok: This is made of a fluffy fiber taken from the Kapok tree, and is light, durable, and buoyant. However, this is a highly flammable material, so due care needs to be taken.

PVC:  These jackets are resistant to oil, fire, chemicals, sunlight, and varying temperatures. This is one of the most popular types among experienced sailors.

Life jackets will often feature various beneficial bonuses, including: tabs for attaching whistles and strobes; pockets; neon / bright markings; and reflective tape for improved visibility.


These are essential for protecting your vision if the weather takes a severe turn: water hitting your eyes can leave you disorientated and unable to see potential dangers.

Thermal Gear

If sailing in cold conditions, thermal under-layers may be useful for keeping you warm. Should you fall overboard, or end up soaking wet in strong wind, these could even prove vital.

Maritime Body Armor

Physical injuries can occur from falling on a slippery deck, being struck by a broken mast or the boom, or even falling overboard. Depending on the waters you're sailing in, there may also be a small risk of running into pirates – ruthless, heavily-armed groups looking for profit through theft or kidnapping (estimations made by Interpol, the UN, and the World Bank suggest Somali pirates brought in between $339m and $413m from 2005 to 2012, entirely from ransoms.

Various types of body armor are available to cover a variety of risks, including sailing-specific designs. While you can never know in advance exactly what dangers you'll encounter (if any), you should have a selection of items on hand should you find yourself in an emergency situation.

How do you know which is best for specific threats?

Maritime Armored Life Vests

Maritime armored life vests are designed to offer protection against bullets and blades, as well as minimizing blunt trauma, without being affected by moisture. Some models also feature detachable inflatable collars for buoyancy assistance, ensuring you have some degree of protection for various situations, both on the ship and in the water. With blunt trauma minimized, physical injuries caused by slipping or being struck by on-ship fixtures can be less damaging.

Bullet Proof Vests

If you find yourself boarded by armed pirates looking to hurt you, kidnap you, or steal your possessions, a bullet proof vest (or ballistics vest, as it's otherwise known) could save your life. There are three types of vest as rated by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ): level II, IIIa, and IV.

Level II vests are designed to protect you against common ammunition, such as 9mm rounds, up to a range of .357 Magnum. Level IIIa will protect against 9mm rounds fired from sub-machine guns, and other rounds up to a .44 Magnum range. Vests of these two levels are typically made from Kevlar – one of the most popular and reliable materials used in protective clothing.

Level IV vests will protect you from rounds of a higher velocity, such as armor-piercing and rifle fire. These feature panels on the front and back, into which protective plates are inserted (generally made of steel, titanium, or ceramics). If you encounter pirates armed with heavy-duty weaponry, level IV vests could prove essential.

Stab Vests

Stab vests (or edged blade armor) are widely used by police officers patrolling volatile areas. These feature multiple layers, which cause friction against a blade and stop it tearing through. Two levels of protection are available: levels II and III. This latter type features more layers to protect against ferocious attacks made with a higher amount of joules.

Spiked Weapon Vests

These vests may not be as essential at sea, but may still be needed depending on the confrontations you expect to take place. They are made with a much tighter weave than stab vests, to prevent any pointed tips passing through as they would in normal clothing. Spiked weapon vests will protect against such improvised weapons as needles, long nails, ice-picks, and other pointed tips.

If you know the risk of being boarded or attacked by pirates is real before you set sail, then you should be sure to have protective vests close to hand. However, make sure you feel comfortable and at ease in your armor: try it on and stretch, crouch, crawl, and jump to explore your freedom of movement. Ideally, a protective vest should hang no lower than the navel area – if it's too big or too small, you may find yourself unable to run from danger or defend yourself, which is obviously a major risk.

Protective clothing may not be essential each time you sail, but it should always be available if the worst happens. If in doubt, seek expert advice to make sure you're well-equipped.

This article has been written by Chris Taylor of SafeGuard Clothing