"Do the Mr. Whipple test -- squeeze it," says Barb Wolf, a Department of Natural Resources law enforcement safety specialist. "You won't be able to tell whether a kapok-filled jacket is okay just by looking, so squeeze it while you hold it near your ear."
If you hear the sound of air escape, there's likely a hole in the sealed vinyl sacs that contain the Kapok stuffing, and the life jacket needs to be thrown out. The vinyl sacs must remain intact and free from any holes or open seams to continue to float. Repeated exposure to extreme cold during off-season storage, or the summer heat, may cause those thin bags to crack even though the colorful jacket cover may look fine and the buckles and ties are in good shape.
Wearable life jackets are required for everybody on board a boat, and in accidents, the jackets are often the difference between life and death: state statistics suggest that 80 percent of boating fatalities likely could have been prevented had the victim been wearing a life jacket.
But life jackets, whether they are the earlier models filled with kapok or the later models filled with dense foam, can lose their buoyancy and their effectiveness, giving wearers a false sense of security. Holes in seams allow water, air and bacteria to get into the flotation material; mildew, and gasoline or solvents that are spilled on the jacket, can also all decrease the jacket's buoyancy.
So boat operators need to visually inspect life jackets before every season, and do the squeeze test for Kapok-filled models. The life jacket should say on its tag what flotation material it contains.
Wolf offers these other tips for ensuring your life jacket is float-worthy
Visually inspect your jacket to make sure it's free from rips and tears and that seams, and fabric straps are okay. Patch any small rips or tears, and replace jackets with holes large enough to allow flotation to escape and water to enter. Buckle the buckles, zip up the zippers to make sure those work properly.
Visually inspect the jacket for mildew, which can cause deterioration
Smell the jacket for mildew, and for signs that gas or solvent has gotten on the life jacket. Those substances can break down cover and flotation material.
Pinch and twist any stains to see whether the stain is just a stain or signals a weakness in the cover material.
If it's a kapok-filled jacket, squeeze the jacket next to your ear and listen for the sound of air escaping.
Wolf advises that people replace jackets that fail those tests, selecting new ones that fit the kind of water conditions boaters expect to encounter. There are three types of wearable life jackets, with the difference based on the amount of flotation in the jacket and the position it can maintain the wearer in in the water.
Type I life jackets are bulkier, have the most flotation and are best for open, rough or remote water where rescue may be slow in coming. They have the ability to turn most unconscious wearers face-up in water.
Type II jackets have less flotation, will not turn some unconscious wearers face-up in the water, and are good for calm, inland water or where there's a chance of a fast rescue.
Type III life jackets, which are generally the most comfortable but may require the wearer to tilt his head back to avoid having his face in the water. Type III are good for calm inland water or where there is a good chance of a fast rescue.
Once boaters have determined that their life jackets are sound, they need to make sure they put them within easy reach, not within a locked cabinet or underneath heavy equipment that will need to be moved, Wolf says.