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.
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.
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.
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.