Maritime law requires boats to have one USCG (United States Coast Guard) approved vest for every person aboard, and it is highly advised the vest be worn at all times. Furthermore, all participants involved in the act of aquaplaning or similar activities (i.e. - waterskiing, wakeboarding, wakesurfing, tubing, etc.) are required to wear a CGA (Coast Guard Approved) vest or comparable wetsuit equipped with additional floatation. The laws can vary state to state so it is highly advised to check your local regulations.
A lot of people don’t wear a vest while on the boat and when it comes to wakesurfing, participants actually wearing vests are typically wearing wakesurfing competition vests otherwise known as comp vests or outlaw comp vests. Comp vests lack the CGA rating because they are designed for flexibility and movement based on an unobtrusive fit (i.e. - comp vests have a lot less foam for floating). Comp vests also typically lack additional buckles designed to secure the rider more firmly in the life jacket in case of zipper failure. Most importantly, comp vests are not designed to float an individual face up; the ability to continue basic respiration in the event of a knockout is facilitated much better when the face is upright and out of the water. While the likeliness of saving a life is significantly reduced when contrasting competition vests to USCG approved life jackets, many wakesurfers (who actually wear a vest) only wear a vest for two primary reasons: 1) to keep from being haggled by boating law enforcement patrols and 2) for a tad bit of floatation to aid either getting out of the water or while swimming to retrieve a board. Since you have settled on fashionable aesthetics over functional safety, let’s talk about how your new comp vest should feel and fit.
When shopping for a competition vest, the two primary objectives are fit (how the vest contours to the body) and comfort (how the vest feels when the body is dynamic). Several articles online quickly skip through the fit of a vest, which directly pertains to comfort, so let us slow things down before making a rash decision or a decision that can cause a rash. We are all different shapes and sizes. Despite looking quite similar, outlaw comp vests are all uniquely cut between manufacturers and even models. To complicate matters worse, comp vest material construction can dramatically affect how much the vest stretches, which means a proper fit in the store might not fit as well after getting wet a few times. In our experience, fully polyester vests are guilty for the most amount of stretching so check the label before making your purchase. It is highly recommended the vest be worn in the same manner it will be utilized in the water, so ladies, bring your bikini top for this shopping excursion.
There are three key areas vital for a proper fitting competition vest: the armpit/shoulder region, the chest, and the torso. The size of your shoulder directly coincides with the size arm slot required for proper fit of the comp vest. If you have a large shoulder, a small arm slot will most likely sit high in the armpit leading to interference with mobility as well as rather painful chaffing. The best fitting vests will allow complete shoulder rotation with limited impedance of movement. As well, the base of the arm slot should not dig into the armpit by cutting into the pectoralis major (chest muscle) or the latissimus dorsi (otherwise known as the lat). The fit of the vest in the armpit region is also affected by the diameter of the chest. A comp vest with a larger chest diameter may provide relief from armpit, pectoral, or lat irritation but may in turn be too large allowing the vest to float up to the ears. A snug fit to the chest will ensure you aren’t falling out the bottom of the comp vest while waiting for the boat to pick you up. The final area of fit is the lower torso, which inevitably helps keep the vest in place. A comp vest with a torso diameter too large will allow it to constantly shift on the body. Competition vests with at least one buckle on the torso typically maintain a better fit without detriment to movement.
For women with larger chests, the fit of the chest diameter is more technical because of the need for additional space, which is typically limited with outlaw comp vests. Breasts are either stuffed in a confining chest area (which can lead to discomfort) or they pop out the arm slots causing what one of my female students referred to as, “side boob”. In this particular case, we actually elected to search for comp vests with smaller arm slots preventing the lateral shift of breasts out the side of the vest. This brings up the second primary objective when competition vest shopping...
The comfort of a comp vest is how it feels when the body is dynamic a.k.a. moving. The two major factors to consider when evaluating the comfort of a comp vest are construction and mobility limitations of design. We have already discussed some applications of movement regarding fit but let us get more in depth. A lengthy series of stretches while wearing a vest in the store is a good start for evaluating comfort. There is no need to bring a yoga mat shopping but really attempt to move around while focusing on vest constraints during twisting, bending over/sideways, and flailing your arms in a maniacal manner as we all do after landing a new trick.
Outlaw comp vest construction is based on minimalistic utilization of the closed-cell foam used for floatation. The cut, pattern, and stitching method used to secure the closed-cell foam blocks will directly influence the comfort and mobility limitations of the vest. Some comp vests use several large blocks of foam placed into stitched regions of the lining giving the vest a similar feel to USCG approved life jackets but with less floatation material; these will be the bulkier models of outlaw comp vests but provide the most floatation for safety. Other comp vests will utilize several small, cubical pieces of foam decoratively block-patterned on the vest but this too can be restricting to abdominal and lumbar movement. Manufacturers of this style of vest frequently remove foam from the side of the torso region covering the ribcage, which will enhance mobility characteristics of the vest but also leave that area exposed to harsher impacts than vests with foam coverage over the ribs. The ideal competition vests are the small percentage designed to anatomically match body actions with nearly no movement restraint.
The other factors to consider when evaluating the comfort of a comp vest are the stitching and inner liner materials. Run your fingers across all the stitching lines internally located on the vest while noting any large knots or excessive threading. Check the edges of the arm slots to see if the vest material has been rolled over and stitched (especially in the armpit region). These two particular issues are responsible for potential chaffing zones and when combined with water can cause massive irritation to the skin. Wear the vest around the shop for five to ten minutes to reveal any potential skin agitation areas.
A few features of outlaw competition vests should be mentioned before finalizing your purchase. As stated earlier, we do recommend comp vests with a torso buckle to aid in fit. This also helps secure the rider in the vest in the event of a hard crash or zipper failure. Comp vests also have several zipper lengths for ease of jacket removal. A full length zipper provides the best option for effortless removal while other vests employ shorter zippers or no zipper at all. The comp vests with no zipper will inherently be more difficult to remove but will not be coming off in the event of a hard crash. Have a friend handy to help remove these slip-on vests when coming out of the water though - it can be a daunting task after a long set. While choosing a life vest is not rocket science, taking your time to evaluate a vest from the perspectives above will guarantee a better fit with less frustrations or irritations while on the water. For those curious, the feature image is a 2016 Billabong Garage Wake Vest, which was our personal comp vest selection for the year. Special thanks to Cathy at Performance Ski & Surf for allowing us to use the store for research purposes. Enjoy your time on the boat and be safe!