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Chuck Husick: Techno-Talk, July 2004 from BoatUS Magazine - (PFD info current as of July 2009)

Personal Flotation Devices

The recent challenge by BoatUS to the U.S. Coast Guard and boating safety experts to begin thinking “outside the box” about how to get more boaters to actually wear life jackets was intriguing to an old engineer like me (Behind the Buoy, May 2004).

Yes, life jackets can save lives, if they are worn. However with the possible exception of expensive automatic inflating U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type V PFDs today’s life jackets don’t provide a workable solution because enough people just won’t wear them. We need something different, something small, light, totally wearable, “cool” and inexpensive.

We need to think about the “accidental” swimmer problem in a way totally different from the traditional shipboard lifeboat drill, in which a mass of people lined up at the rail wearing great hulking SOLAS Type I life vests. As Apple Computer’s famous and eminently successful advertisements advised: Think Different.

Almost without exception, recreational boaters who drown are accidental swimmers. Most of these drownings take place in relatively calm conditions, often within sight of potential rescuers. Many could be saved if they had a handy log to hang onto until help arrives. They need a few pounds of buoyancy, provided by something that is comfortable enough to be worn at all times, that is, stylish and reliable. It must be small so it won’t interfere with the wearer’s boating activities.

I believe that industry, unfettered by traditional thinking and rigid government regulations can provide what is needed if we dispose of the idea that a life jacket must be an inexpensive yet long-lasting device that is stowed away only to be put on when needed.

I suggest that what we really need to dramatically increase the chances of survival is a disposable, one-time only life jacket that will actually be worn by boaters or attached to them before they go over the side.

For the sake of argument, I propose a device that will provide about 24 pounds of buoyancy, enough to support the average adult and accidental swimmer with something to hang onto until help arrives. Here are the essential characteristics of my proposed new buoyancy aid:

1. It should be small, only slightly larger than a large wristwatch. About the size of Apple’s Mini iPod (3.6” x 2.0” x 0.5”). It’s float will be inflated from a chemical gas generator not unlike the one that inflates the airbags in our cars. The CO2 cartridges used in conventional inflatable life jackets are too heavy and too difficult to trigger when needed.

2. Inflation would be triggered by a pressure sensor that operates when immersed in water to a depth of about one foot. Unlike the typical water sensitive “pill” used in auto inflating life jackets, it can’t be triggered by rain or spray and won’t need to be replaced every year or two.

3. This “boater floater” could be powered by a built-in, 10-year lithium cell similar to the one in your watch.

4. The flotation envelope could be made of Mylar, just like those indestructible helium-filled birthday balloons I’ve found floating hundreds of miles offshore. When inflated it might look like an artificial log two feet long and only six inches in diameter with straps attached to make it easy to hang onto. It could also be shaped like a conventional horseshoe buoy.

5. Best of all, I am convinced this lifeline or “boater floater” could be mass produced and made affordable for a street price of $10 or less.

While this concept is far from perfect or complete, it at least suggests a point of departure. It won’t protect everyone. The swimmer must be conscious in order to use it. The individual in the water must be capable of holding on while keeping his mouth and nose above water, at least some of the time. But the point is that at least the accidental swimmer will have something in hand when going over the side.

Intrigued by this idea? The alternative is more government regulation. In fact, as I write this, the National Transportation Safety Board has just announced that it will hold a public forum to discuss mandatory wear of “personal flotation devices” on August 25, 2004. I am sure there are many engineers and entrepreneurs out there who would rather have technology solve this problem than the government impose a solution. Let me hear from you at

By Chuck Husick

Chuck Husick is a pilot, engineer, sailor and former president of Chris Craft Boats.

© Copyright BoatUS Magazine 2004

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