From hum­ble be­gin­nings at the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar, per­sonal flota­tion de­vices have evolved to be­come some of the most high-tech ap­parel we own.

Boating NZ - - Feature -

Whether it’s cruis­ing, wa­ter­ski­ing, fish­ing, W kayak­ing or just set­ting out on a fam­ily pic­nic, any time we spend time on the wa­ter it’s com­mon­place to see boat­ies wear­ing a wide range of per­sonal flota­tion de­vices, or PFDS. Land­lub­bers may not even re­alise that some­one’s unas­sum­ing belt pack or col­lar is, in fact, a mod­ern life-jacket. Af­ter all, when most non-boat­ies hear the phrase “life-jacket” they au­to­mat­i­cally pic­ture those thick, hot, and in­evitably musty key­hole de­vices of their child­hood. Think Marty Mcfly in Back To The Fu­ture, drop­ping in on 1950s Amer­ica with his poofy red down-filled vest. “Hey kid, what’s with the life-jacket?”

Look­ing at mod­ern PFDS, it’s re­mark­able to see just how far they’ve evolved.


The first recorded in­stance of sailors wear­ing gar­ments de­signed to keep them afloat goes back to 1805, when jer­seys with wooden blocks sewn onto them were is­sued to Bri­tish sea­men at the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar. Imag­ine some­one wear­ing a suit made of wooden shin­gles and you get the ba­sic idea. Although there are no writ­ten records to sup­port the con­tention that Ad­mi­ral Ho­ra­tio Nel­son specif­i­cally in­tended the gar­ments to pro­tect his men against drown­ing, the epic naval en­gage­ment marks the first doc­u­mented use of pur­pose-made gar­ments with flota­tion qual­i­ties.

Nearly 50 years later, one Cap­tain Ward with Britain’s Royal Na­tional Lifeboat In­sti­tu­tion be­gan is­su­ing lifeboat crews with spe­cial vests con­structed with rows of corks lin­ing the ex­te­rior sur­face. De­signed to be worn while con­duct­ing res­cues at sea, these cork vests be­came widely used through the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, par­tic­u­larly by life­sav­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions in Britain, Nor­way and Swe­den. By the 1920s, the neat rows of ex­te­rior corks had been re­placed by pock­ets sewn into the gar­ment, each stuffed with a cot­ton-like plant fi­bre known as kapok.

While kapok life vests of­fered a num­ber of ad­van­tages over cork – sub­stan­tially greater dura­bil­ity above all – the new ma­te­rial was far from per­fect. In use, kapok life vests were heavy, hot, and even bulkier than the old cork vests they re­placed. As a nat­u­ral fi­bre, kapok would de­grade with time, es­pe­cially when kept in damp en­vi­ron­ments. Worse still, the can­vas outer shell could be rough on the skin, and their use nor­mally re­sulted in painful chaf­ing. Nev­er­the­less, the de­sign re­mained pop­u­lar with boat own­ers world­wide right through the 1960s.


With the rise of naval avi­a­tion in the 1930s, navies, marines and army air corps world­wide faced a grow­ing need for a far more

com­pact life pre­server that could be worn by pi­lots within the snug con­fines of air­plane cock­pits.

The an­swer lay in an in­flat­able life vest, patented in 1928 by a bright young Amer­i­can named Peter Markus. His sim­ple de­sign used a large, in­flat­able air blad­der that lay flat across the chest un­til de­ployed, while sim­ple straps un­der the arms and across the back pro­vided nearly un­re­stricted free­dom of move­ment – es­sen­tial for pi­lots and aerial gun­ners alike.

Once ac­ti­vated, the self-in­flat­ing air blad­der would hold the wearer face-up in the wa­ter. Of­fi­cially patented as the In­flat­able Life Pre­server, the de­vice be­came known among flight crews as a ‘Mae West’ be­cause once in­flated, it gave the wearer a sim­i­lar pro­file to the busty 1930s Hol­ly­wood ac­tress of the same name. Downed air­crew who owed their lives to the de­vice be­came au­to­matic mem­bers of the ‘gold­fish club.’


It was per­haps a fa­mil­iar­ity with the Mae West in news­reels that led to

Of­fi­cially patented as the In­flat­able Life Pre­server, the de­vice be­came known among flight crews as a ‘Mae West’.

No one ever plans to fall over­board...

the wide­spread ac­cep­tance of con­sumer life pre­servers once ser­vice­men re­turned home from the war, and the econ­omy shifted back to peace­time pur­suits. But be­cause in­flat­able life vests like the Mae West were still con­sid­ered high-tech mil­i­tary gear, tra­di­tional key­hole-style life­jack­ets made with kapok in a cot­ton or can­vas outer shell re­mained the stan­dard PFD on the con­sumer mar­ket.

It was only in the 1960s that these fi­nally be­gan to give way to ny­lon life vests with syn­thetic foam flota­tion. Lighter in weight, less ex­pen­sive to buy, more buoy­ant in the wa­ter and vastly more com­fort­able to wear than out­dated kapok styles, ny­lon PFDS beat the old stuff in every imag­in­able way.

Closed-cell foam also found its way into per­sonal flota­tion de­vices around the same time. With its abil­ity to be formed into snug-fit­ting vests or even trim waist rings (widely adopted by wa­ter-skiers) closed-cell foam PFDS of­fered a fresh and more con­tem­po­rary styling that made them im­mensely pop­u­lar among 1970s boat­ies. With their glossy ex­te­rior fin­ish, rain­bow of color op­tions and af­ford­able pric­ing, closed-cell foam PFDS rep­re­sented an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive to more tra­di­tional life­jacket prod­ucts.

The 1970s also saw the first wide­spread adop­tion of flota­tion de­vices de­signed not only to keep the wearer afloat, but to also com­bat the ef­fects of im­mer­sion into cold wa­ter. Ini­tially styled like a reg­u­lar jacket with a col­lar and full sleeves, these “floater coats” quickly caught on with those who spent time boat­ing over cold wa­ter.

Be­fore long, the sim­ple coat had evolved into full-body suits. Sold as ‘sur­vival suits,’ these spe­cialised PFDS were orig­i­nally de­signed for in­dus­trial and com­mer­cials clients such as fish­ing crews or oil rig work­ers, but quickly caught the at­ten­tion of se­ri­ous big wa­ter boaters for their abil­ity to ward off hy­pother­mia.


As per­sonal flota­tion de­vices con­tinue to evolve through the adop­tion of even lighter ma­te­ri­als, it is pos­si­ble to find them to­day in a wider range of styles than ever.

That is par­tic­u­larly true for in­flat­able PFDS – the mod­ern de­scen­dent of the orig­i­nal mil­i­tary Mae West. Man­u­fac­tur­ing ef­fi­cien­cies have driven the cost of in­flat­a­bles down to the point they have come to rep­re­sent a steadi­ly­grow­ing seg­ment of the global PFD mar­ket. Self-in­flat­ing mod­els use trig­ger­ing mech­a­nisms such as a hy­dro­static ac­ti­va­tor linked to a built-in CO2 car­tridge to au­to­mat­i­cally in­flate the de­vice upon im­mer­sion in wa­ter.

“Hy­dro­static in­flat­a­bles rep­re­sent to­day’s high­est stan­dard for both com­fort and safety,” says Ja­son Leg­gatt at Mus­tang Sur­vival, one of the type’s orig­i­nal pro­po­nents. “Be­cause they’re much more com­fort­able to wear than tra­di­tional foam-based life­jack­ets, peo­ple do ac­tu­ally wear them, rather than just park them in some stor­age com­part­ment. No one ever plans to fall over­board, so hav­ing that in­flat­able on all the time means that when you re­ally do need it, it’s there.”

While the pric­ing of in­flat­able PFDS has come down to the point they’re now even be­ing sold by mass-mar­ket re­tail­ers, they’re still two to three times the cost of a tra­di­tional foam life­jacket. But what’s the value of your life?

LEFT & RIGHT Mod­ern PFDS are com­pact and com­fort­able, and many are equipped with ac­ces­sories ssories such as whis­tles and lights. .

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