Ali Wood discusses the sailing safety gear she chose for their first family cruise on board their Maxi 84, and how it performed

Choosing the best sailing safety gear for your family can present a bewildering array of choice.

If money was no object, we would all fit our loved ones out with the best kit we could buy, but if your pockets don’t stretch that far, what are the options?

I focussed on finding the most suitable lifejacket and distress signalling gear for my children, as well as child-friendly alternatives to flares.

Sailing safety gear: Which PFD?

My children were aged six, eight and 11 at the time of our cruise onboard our Maxi 84, Maximus and I wasn’t sure what kind of personal flotation device they should wear.

Until now we’d only sailed in the harbour.

There’s an important distinction between buoyancy aids – which can be worn in sheltered water, but don’t have sufficient buoyancy to protect a person unable to help themselves – and inherent buoyancy jackets, which have greater flotation and neck support to keep the head out of the water.

Children wearing buoyancy jackets while sitting in a kayak

The kids (pictured here on the river in Christchurch) are wearing inherent buoyancy jackets while the adults wear buoyancy aids

Traditionally, inherent buoyancy jackets have been recommended for children as they provide instant buoyancy on entry to the water.

My kids had inherent buoyancy jackets (by Helly Hansen, Marinepool and Decathlon) which they wear when kayaking or dinghy sailing.

Having seen them capsize many times in them, I was happy the jackets keep them upright and afloat.

However, I wanted the kids to be tethered on, and the problem with their inherent buoyancy jackets is that they had no loops to attach a tether.

Sailing safety gear: Ocean Safety kids’ lifejacket

In recent years, automatic inflation lifejackets have been introduced for children, so I contacted Ocean Safety to find out what age these could be worn.

MD Alistair Hackett explained that the transition between inherent buoyancy/foam lifejackets to inflatable lifejackets is very much dependent on the weight and build of the child and also the passages they’ll be undertaking.

Ocean Safety only make lifejackets for children weighing 15kg or more, but stress that a child under 15kg with an all-foam jacket can also be kitted with a safety harness, which allows for them to be tethered when on deck.

All my children were over 15kg so I decided to try them with Ocean Safety’s Kru XF automatic inflation lifejackets.

These have a stainless steel D-ring for a safety harness (which I also ordered).

Alistair also pointed out the importance of fitting the lifejacket securely and ensuring the crotch strap is always fastened.

Though the kids complained they were a bit heavy at first, they soon got used to them and understood the importance of clipping on when they left the cockpit.

Continues below…

Lifejacket test - jumping into the RNLI College training pool

PBO Tested: 17 lifejackets

Five dedicated testers took to the RNLI College's training pool to put 17 lifejackets through their paces.

At times, though, they would forget, and unclip to walk along the deck (ignoring the jackstay) and only clip back on once comfortably sitting at the bow!

I was pleased by how easy they found it to clip on and off, even for my six-year-old, but I wouldn’t leave them unsupervised.

The downside to auto-inflation lifejackets is you need to get them serviced, ideally annually.

If, for any reason, it fails to inflate you can manually trigger inflation by pulling a toggle, and you can, of course, blow it up yourself.

However, having seen my husband flailing around in cold water when his lifejacket failed (my fault – I hadn’t replaced the gas bottle!) I doubt a panicked child would have the wherewithal to do this.

You have to maintain and trust an auto-inflation lifejacket, whereas there’s something comforting about one with inherent buoyancy, which you know will float your child regardless.

Price: Ocean Safety Kru XF £55.

Buy the Ocean Safety Kru XF from Ocean Safety

Sailing safety gear: rescueMe distress flare

Having got rid of my out-of-date flares, I didn’t want to put pyrotechnics back on the boat, and have one of the kids accidentally fire them.

We have a DSC-equipped radio, and would press the red button in an emergency, but I still felt I needed a visual means of alerting nearby watercraft to our presence.

The rescueMe electronic distress flare

The rescueMe electronic distress flare

I ordered the rescueME EDF1 electronic distress flare from Ocean Signal and was delighted to find out how easy it was to operate.

This has a beam of 30° to the 360° azimuth, with light distributed throughout the hemisphere to ensure visibility from the air.

It’s waterproof to 10m, has a range of six miles and four different modes plus SOS.

With pictures indicating what the buttons do, the kids could easily use it, and because it’s compact, we can also take it on kayaking and hiking adventures.

Price: rescueME EDF1, £110.

Buy the rescueME EDF1 from Gael Force Marine (UK)

Buy the rescueME EDF1 from Amazon (UK)

Buy the rescueME EDF1 from West Marine (US)

Buy the rescueME EFF1 from Amazon (US)

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn’t affect our editorial independence.

Distress signalling

Starting from around £400, an EPRIB is an expensive bit of kit to have clipped to a bulkhead in the hope it never gets used.

Another option is to have the device on your person, rather than the boat.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) send a distress signal via satellite using the same channels as EPIRBs (so are picked up by a rescue co-ordination centre) while personal AIS beacons show an MOB’s position on your own chartplotter or AIS set, or those of other nearby vessels.

Ocean Signal’s existing MOB1 personal AIS and PLB1 are two of the most popular products of their respective types in the market, and as PBO’s Rupert Holmes revealed earlier this year, they’ve now been combined into the one device, the rescueME PLB3 AIS (£476).

If money was no object I’d kit out Maximus with comms equipment fit for a round-the-world sailor, and make the entire family wear rescueME PLB3s.

However, this was a potter in the Solent. Was there another means I could use to keep track of an MOB?

OLAS tags

I knew of a couple who sailed with a cat (PBO May 23) and they fitted an OLAS tag to his collar. Could this work for us too?

OLAS tags are worn around the wrist or can be fitted to a lifejacket.

Using bluetooth technology they create a virtual tether with your phone (or other mobile device) and an optional battery-powered hub known as the OLAS Core (£120).

When you move either 30m away from the phone or the tag is submerged, the OLAS mobile app detects a break in the tether and sounds an alarm alerting the crew.

The OLAS tags, Core and phone cover

The OLAS tags, Core and phone cover

The GPS position at the time of the MOB appears on your phone (it won’t track the moving position of the MOB) and bearing data helps you return to the site of the incident.

OLAS stores all location data required for rescue services. I contacted Tom Harrop, product development manager at Exposure to find out if OLAS tags would be suitable for cruising boats.

He explained that the original system was developed for use on vessels up to 50ft which are continually moving away from the MOB. “The OLAS tag is a good, portable, cost-effective solution, based on raising the alarm when the connection is broken for longer than a set period of time,” he said.

“However, if the tag wearer was to fall in next to the vessel and then put the tag back in the air there is a chance it would reconnect to the phone. It is not water activated. If this did occur it would mean that the MOB is still next to the vessel and an alert might not sound.”

So while it might work for a moving vessel, if you’re becalmed, or moving slowly on a kayak or SUP, for example, the tag won’t work immediately.

One tag can connect to multiple mobile phones, while one phone can connect to up to six tags.

It’s worth pointing out that bluetooth technology is not dependent on having mobile reception.

Bluetooth works by using radio waves to connect two devices, so theoretically the OLAS tags should still be able to talk to your phone offshore.

Price: OLAS single £59, four-pack £195.

Buy the OLAS tag at Amazon (UK)

Buy the OLAS tag at West Marine (US)

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn’t affect our editorial independence.


The OLAS Core is the more robust system. This continually tracks the tags and alerts after four seconds if one is missing, rather than waiting for an MOB incident to trigger it.

This too can be connected to the OLAS app on your phone, so you essentially get two alert locations, one on the Core and one on your phone.

 We tested the OLAS tags with the OLAS Core hub at home first

We tested the OLAS tags with the OLAS Core hub at home first

Designed for vessels up to 50ft (100ft with OLAS Extenders), the Core can connect with up to 25 OLAS transmitters, sounding an alarm if someone falls overboard.

If you prefer only to use the mobile tether, and not the Core hub, that’s possible via a drop-down menu on the app, but a word of caution from Tom: “You will not get as good coverage around the vessel and the time to alert can be between eight and 12 seconds depending on your mobile device.”

Price: OLAS Core £129.

Buy the OLAS Core from Exposure

Buy the OLAS Core from West Marine (US)

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn’t affect our editorial independence.

OLAS in use

For our voyage, I ordered a Core hub and pack of four OLAS tags.

These look like watches but without the clock-face, and can also be attached to a lifejacket.

Using an app on my phone, I registered the tags to the individual family members. When the tags were placed near the Core hub it beeped five times to show they were working.

Once at sea, we took my son Dylan’s tag and put it to the test by submerging it over the stern.

Although still next to the vessel, this was enough to break the connection and the alarm sounded loudly on both my phone and the Core hub.

Satisfied it was working, we cancelled the MOB, and resumed the voyage.

Five OLAS tags - part sailing safety gear

Our five OLAS tags

Interestingly, we weren’t going fast – just a couple of knots – so it was reassuring to know it still worked at this slow speed.

Exposure stresses that the tags aren’t intended to replace the normal MOB procedure: you still need to hit the DSC button, stop the boat and call the coastguard.

However, by providing clear instructions on your phone of what to say to an emergency operator, it takes away some of the stress.

And by giving you a GPS position, SOG and COG, bearing to waypoint, course to steer and a compass, this increases your chances of finding the MOB.

Battery life for the tags is four months (using replaceable CR2477 batteries), but Exposure have since launched their T2 tags (£85) which can be USB charged.

Testing the OLAS tags and Core

A boy wearing an OLAS safety tag on a boat

Dylan is wearing his OLAS tag. This is connected to one of our mobile phones and the Core hub.


A mobile phone in a waterproof case

Battery life indicator on the phone app. Of the tags we had working, Brenin’s indicated a low battery level. 

A phone in a waterproof case

Oh no! Dylan is overboard (or his tag is, anyway). The phone and Core hub beep loudly.


A mobile phone displaying an alert

We select which method of distress alert we want to use (phone or radio). NOTE you still have to do this manually – it doesn’t make the call.


We choose ‘radio’ and are given a comprehensive script to read out to the emergency services.

We choose ‘radio’ and are given a comprehensive script to read out to the emergency services.


A phone screen showing a cancelled MOB

Fortunately, this is just a test, so we cancel the MOB.

Enjoyed reading Family sailing safety gear: TESTED?

A subscription to Practical Boat Owner magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

PBO is packed with information to help you get the most from boat ownership – whether sail or power.

        • Take your DIY skills to the next level with trusted advice on boat maintenance and repairs
        • Impartial in-depth gear reviews
        • Practical cruising tips for making the most of your time afloat

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter