A life jackets just a life jacket, it not expected to be comfortable, practical or attractive. However the reason we wear buoyancy aids is precisely because life jackets are like this. That's not a good reason to just grab the first or cheapest buoyancy aid that comes along.
Why a Buoyancy aid
Well a life jacket usually has a huge foam block in front of you, this is supposed it make you float face up if your unconscious. However it makes it almost impossible to do anything when your wearing it. Also in a life jacket its very difficult to swim and completely impossible to get out from under a turtled dinghy or similar. On balance they're a hazard to dinghy sailors in most situations.
Its absolutely critical that your buoyancy aid fits. If it doesn't its dangerous. Its also very irritating. When I say fit I mean when you jump in the water it should stay in the same place as when you put it on. It should not be hooked under your arm pits. If it is you can't see properly or swim. So if you've got the above problem then you should sort it out or buy an new buoyancy aid (swap it with someone if better fit can be achieved). Don't have it too tight to achieve the above effect. Ideally the buoyancy aid should catch under your rib cage. Note the picture, the grinning blokes buoyancy aid is held on by his chin, I've seen far worse than this, sometimes up to your nose.
Their are 2 basic styles of buoyancy aid. The older waistcoat style and the over the head style. Both have variants but can be identified easily the waistcoat opens at the front, the over the head either doesn't open at all or at the side.
Choosing between the designs I'll deal with below, however I would caution you against the halfway house buoyancy/life jacket. a variation of the waistcoat design they have a large foam collar. Presumably to help keep your head above water, don't reckon they work just get in the way.
Choosing your buoyancy Aid
Well things to think about. Are you going to trapeze? are you sailing a nice simple boat or a high performance string infested nightmare? Are you going to end up in the drink a lot or little?
Points to remember.
- Trapezing is made Much easier by having a short buoyancy aid (not down to you waist)
- Lots of straps catch on things, rigging trapeze elastic etc. While on wayfarers or Hobie 16's this doesn't matter as you have a week to tack and extricate yourself, if you turn up covered in buckles on my 14 you'll be in the drink before you can say ARRRRGHHHH.
- Waistcoats are easier to put on, over the head job are better when actually on.
- under thirties and high performance sailors nearly always have over the head jobs. Over 40's the Waistcoat.
Personally I prefer the over the head job, most younger people do. They can be a bit of a git to put on, especially the ones without the side zip. Mines hard to get on over my rear zip dry suit. However this is worth it for the convenience on the water. The solid bits are front and back the flexy bits are on the side were the edge of the ribcage gives 'em something to catch on. The adjustments and buckles are on the sides under the arms wear they don't catch on things.
The waistcoats are frequently too long getting in the way of the trapeze harness, the buckles on the front catch on the gunwale and dagger boards when your climbing in or on stuff.
If your pottering about in a force 1 with your kids in a wayfarer, the a waistcoats OK, your never likely to need it anyway. Otherwise the inconvenient of putting the over the head on is easily worth it.