The Evolution of the PFD

The Evolution of the PFD

Ever wondered how the modern day life jacket came to be? We spoke with Charlie Walbridge, founder of Wildwater Designs and whitewater safety guru for over 30 years, who gave us an oral history of the personal flotation device (PFD). Check out its evolution.

870 A.D. – The earliest recorded flotation devices were inflated animal skins used by an Assyrian army to cross a moat.

1800s – Norwegian sailors developed a life vest made out of wood and cork. The British Royal Navy was slow to adopt them because they were in the habit of kidnapping sailors and forcing them onto boats; flotation devices were tempting escape methods and prohibited on ships.

1920s – Cork vests were bulky and very uncomfortable which led to the adoption of kapok, a buoyant, vegetable fiber. Though lighter and more comfy, kapok was also flammable and lost its buoyancy if squished or sat on so quickly went out of use.

The_Fleet_Air_Arm_during_the_Second_World_War_TR1121

1940s – American and British airmen were issued inflatable life vests lovingly named “Mae Wests” because of the shapely silhouette they created.

1960s – The Coast Guard standardizes use and regulations for life jackets, but the ones available were “awful” and designed as emergency flotation for open water. Whitewater paddlers remained bare-chested and drowned often.

1970s – Frustrated with the bulky, unwearable design of ocean life vests, Maurice O’Link (founder of Stearns) starts making ‘unapproved’ jackets and the Coast Guard finally opens up the market to new designs. The Type III jacket is born. In 1973 Walbridge invents the “Hi Float” PFD with almost twice the buoyancy of the Coast Guard standard, designed for big water swims. It came as a kit with foam, fabric, thread and webbing for home assembly.

PFDs in the 80s - Stanislaus River Rafting

1980s – European designs are adapted to make the Type V PFD. This “special purpose” category includes a rescue harness and a new design for commercial passengers, more comfortable than the Type I Mae Wests clients were initially required to wear.

1990s – Phil Curry starts Lotus Designs and dominates big players in the PFD market like Extrasport. The new design includes shoulder adjustments, bright colors, durable fabric and a low profile. It also fit short-waisted people (read: women) better than anything on the market.

2000s – After selling Lotus to Patagonia, it promptly tanked and Curry went on to start Astral Designs. Astral introduced kapok back onto the scene (with a protective bladder) along with PVC-free Gaia foams. Other companies like Kokotat, NRS and Stohlquist also innovate safer, more stylish and sustainable PFD designs.

Merced River rafting

So there you have it.  When you slip on a PFD before your next trip and are just slightly uncomfortable those first few minutes, remember, life jackets have come a long way.  After all, you could still be wearing inflated animal skins.

  • Man of Rubber

    Great article and history! The original Commercial Whitewater Type V was made by the old Maravia company when they were located in California back in the early 80’s. I’ve got a couple of of the original pre-World War II kapok vest in nearly unused condition. These are the same PFD’s that you see Norm Nevels wearing in photos of his Mexican Hat Exp. the 30’s & 40’s in Grand Canyon. I currently have these 2 PDF’s on loan with the John Wesley Powell Museum in Green River, UT. Unfortunately they only have room to display one of them, but at least it can be seen and appreciated by the river running community.

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