a life vest that gets SOLD

The flood of press clippings about those two guys reminded me of the PITA of “life vest” which are handed out
at beach locations around the clobe. Those are still the same after nearly 40 years. They were uncomfortable
and unsecure back then and still are now:

I am not sure, if this is more of a design challenge or a business challenge. Despite our resonable advancements in
technology these two (male: IT entrepreneur), (female: architect) barely made it back to the shores.

Could surely have happened to most of us. We cary billions in of invested money in our daily equipment, but drown
us in sub 20°C water and we will be gone without a trace.

First thing we can learn here: “Don’t listen to your sister, even if she is 9 years your senior.” Listen to what the
captain says. Would have been much easier to get the two of them out, if they had stayed in the place where the
boat sunk, which possibly was the only rough GPS data the coast guard could have gotten.

What more can we learn?

Design Case:

  • How come “Life” vests still hinder you from swimming.
  • Is it really impossible to design something that keeps you from drowning without keeping you from swimming?
  • Why do these things still not have GPS modules in them?

I am sure there is professional grade equipment which resolves those two issues.

The business case is:

  • Why doesn’t it get used for tourists?
  • Could you lease it out as an upgrade, or would it be cynical?
  • Isn’t it cynical how bad the equipment is, that gets dished out for free?

Design Challenge?


Fun topic, and a good one for the coming-warm-weather. Just as an FYI, there are a bunch of different kinds of personal flotation devices (PFD). We were approached by a local inventor a few years ago, Mario DiForte (retired place kicker for the Baltimore Colts - played with Johnny Unitas) whose efforts since 1972 created a new category in the USCG called ‘Hybrid’ PFD (personal flotation device).

Mario’s problem was one we see often but I’d never seen someone try for so long without moving on. He was a lifeguard and avid boater after his football career ended early and he observed people try to swim to no avail, try to sunbathe on boats to no avail, etc because of their life vests. He developed a much better, less obtrusive, more comfortable Personal Flotation Device, spent millions testing, refining, getting US Coast Guard approval, etc and then couldn’t get anyone in the industry to list the product. It’s a cool belt, closed cell foam in construction with an inflatable section (via CO2 cartridge) with an onboard flare and a built in Naval positioning system (would just be a simple GPS if it were made today).


Note the date on that Baltimore Sun article- it’s 20 years old and it was 22 years after he started the project. I felt bad for him but wasn’t able to help - he had no money left for development, promotion, marketing or manufacturing efforts and his patents had run out. The last I heard from him, he’d just gotten an invitation to Shark Tank - they probably ate him alive.

Thanks Scot, for an answer as knowledgeable and well balanced as ever, but nearly
sending this topic to grave…, perhaps only nearly.

I didn’t know that the coast guard was that much of an obstacle in life vest
developement in the USA. But it remembered me of the problem of “type approval”.
My father already mocked about it 20 years ago. He said: " You see son,I had to buy
these really costly, but bulky and obstrusive things because they are ??? aproved, we
will stow them here. I don’t expect your brother and you or the ladies to wear them,
because I know you won’t. But I expect you to become a better swimmer by end of
June or you will wear them…"

Had some logic and our boat only ever cruised under the sight of the coast, but wearing no
protection at all still is a bad idea when you get hit by something… which thank goodness
never happened to us.

Your inventor is still playing the ball 20 years later, but I can’t find a picture of his survivor?

His whole experience makes it appear to be more business case than a design case. Perhaps we
need to get Richard Branson or James Dyson as Steve Jobs is unavailable for the task…at least for now.

Branson is an avid yachts man and likes to fight the system. He should listen. “VIRGIN VEST”
You’d sell hundreds for his clippers, alone.


F.Y.I: Our plans for a cross ozean trip didn’t pan out as the uncle decided to celebrate his 75th on a cruise liner…

I am curious about this rant.

Are you saying PFDs should not be regulated? So a manufacturer can claim the PFD can keep a 250 lb person afloat, but it doesn’t really have too? I’m supposed to trust a corporation with my life?

If you are upset the design of PFDs suck, well then, have at it. There is nothing stopping you. Sounds like a fun and interesting project.

But if you are upset that the coast guard holds you responsible so the thing actually works, well, that’s just sad. Personally, I prefer alive over cool and dead. But then again, I’m no James Dean.

Somehow you didn’t read that right or I wasn’t clear on the matter.

If I understand the posting of Scot and the links in it right than the coast guard approval procedures
prevent any necessary and useful iteration of the subject “life vest”.
(And I have seen “standards” of that kind in other matters, in fact I am part of the DIN VDE team,
that sets a tiny few of those regulations and we try to make sense!)

That standard procedure blockage would be not much of a problem if the status quo was working.
And it is clearly not.

People object to wearing them.

That is also the case in every summer resort over here in europe. Life vests get dished out for free if you rent a boat, water ski, whatever.But they are of the bulky sweaty styrofoam covered in nylon type, that I already had to wear at the lake when I was a teen… I say it again: People do not wear them.

The logic is: “We will use them when disaster strikes.”
Often enough it is time over then.

But even if you have time to get into one they are a PITA. The two protagonists of the beginníng story suffered severe injuries because they insisted on swimming to the shore (in the vests).
The crew fared much better, because they stayed in the rough see waiting for rescue.

Guess what most tourist will do. They will not wait for the heli. They will try to reach land.
I hope this rant was clearer now.


I think its a very interesting topic. On my previous job we discussed a lot of pfd’s and life vests for sailing, in the context of the latest iteration of the americas cup, when we were involved with a team. It has evolved to a high level of athletism but also an exponentially increased risk with the multihulls. They capsize in 30knots of speed, catapulting the crew from ledt to right. (Im sure you SF guys seen em drifting around)

So a lot of similar traits to waterskiing/wakeboarding vest, which require both moveability and impact protection, but are hardly/never classified as certified lifevests, only personal flotation devices.

So movability, wind resistance(yeah, crazy right.) and heat management were some of the comfort topics, whilst impact resistance and buoancy was the safety issues.

Since i dont work there anymore ive let that go. There is however a project similar but for big wave surfing that is capturing my interest. Inflatable bladders in wetsuit, basically.

Two different takes on it:

I think it could also be connected to the increasing interest in traithlon and the safety issues that are involved when more amatures participate.

Sorry if this wasnt really in the free/inexpensive spectrum of the vest discussion. :slight_smile:

Right there.

That is the disconnect.

The product Scot posted is approved by the coast guard. And it is not the coast guard approval procedures that prevent any necessary and useful iteration of the subject “life vest”.

But even with Coast Guard, UL and OSHA approval and tooling and manufacturing systems set up, the four major American manufacturers that control more than 80 percent of the PFD market have shown little interest in putting The Survivor on the market.

I see nothing in these regs that will prevent any necessary and useful iteration.


If I am mistaken, please show me the specific regs.

“In this country we have the most stringent and strict testing procedures in the world,” DiForte said, “but once you get Coast Guard approval, that is God’s stamp, believe me.”

During more than two decades and two regimes of the Coast Guard, some 260 alternative PFD designs have been submitted for testing. Only The Survivor was approved.

“It has not been easy,” DiForte said. “I have spent everything I own – my house and property – two or three times over. I have taken on investors and bootstrapped them together and spent their money two or three times over.”

In the last five years DiForte has worked full-time without salary on The Survivor project. Total development, testing and legal costs have exceeded $900,000.

To understand a little of what DiForte and co-workers went through to get The Survivor approved is to know that before the project began the Coast Guard rules dealt only with traditional life vest designs, and those vests could be constructed only of previously approved materials.

Each time any part of the apparatus fails any step in the Underwriter Laboratories tests, the process must begin again from Step 1 with another sample. In the case of The Survivor, the process had to be completed for each of four sizes.

“We found that the standard materials weren’t good enough for what we wanted to do,” DiForte said. “For example, we had to make a new buckle.”

Out of the baltimore sun article, that Scott linked.
But I am not mostly interested in nitpicking.

Let the creative process flow!

Both what Bngi and what Scott posted are parts of a possible solution.
The “Survivor” that DiForte might be very close. But I haven’t seen it
and if he wasn’t able to bring it to a (resisting) audience it might have many

If I understand it right Bngi was working towards the same goal for a potential
customer, which is the important game changer here. Not many people see
the value in a Live vest, that would get SOLD to the user not just handed out.

Getting the ones who see the value and ask for a solution together with the guy
who might have one would now be the next logical step.


Hi all,

I missed a lot in a few days! I didn’t mean to squash the brainstorming mantra of ‘any idea is a good idea’ - just wanted to note that someone (and now, more than just one guy) had gone to great lengths to improve that particular product to solve known problems, whether only perceptual or actual (probably a little of both).

I agree that it’s good that we have the USCG in place to make sure these things work. I also agree that their process (like almost all processes) could surely be more efficient and flexible - but it’s important to note that Mario did succeed in one way; he created a brand new category for others to follow.

Stearns was one of three companies who expressed great interest and kept Mario on the edge of his seat for over a decade - this is an almost exact copy of his most recent Survivor design; Amazon.com

Because his efforts were almost all pre-internet, I had a hard time finding it as well (we had his promo flyers and three prototypes but gave them back to him). Here’s his patent (which he’d extended with improvement but to no avail); Inflatable life belt - DIFORTE; MARIO P.

And the product is pretty much as shown in sheet 4 of 5 in this PDF, except wider at the center, like the Stearns version; Inflatable life belt

Please don’t let my info keep you from having fun - and don’t worry about Mario, if I have time I’ll swing by his place one day and ask him if the Sharks made him cry. :frowning:

My understanding is a life-jacket is designed to keep your head out of the water, even if you’ve been knocked unconscious (or so fatigued you can’t keep your head up), so the ‘floating position’ is vertical, not conducive to swimming.

EPIRBS are around $300. Apart from battery management issues, they are pretty big to incorporate into a life vest, eg:

Dimensions: 250mm x 80mm diameter.
Antenna: 265mm flexible blade, marine grade stainless steel.
Gross Weight: 860 grams approx.

Great student project.


Because the fact remains the life preserver in question was indeed approved by the coast guard.

The fact remains that if you make a claim in a life or death situation, your claim needs validation.

The fact remains you have ample opportunity to create something instead complaining about the coast guard.

I look forward to critiquing your ideas.

With regard to Stearns floatation systems. We’ve used them on our 20’ sailboat since 2000; I renew mine every four or five years. Auto-inflate, minimal bulk and light weight. It’s only USCG Type III certified, but that’s “good enough” for near shore, protected waters, especially in a small craft where working room is limited.

When we got the 40’ DuFour we bought Type I off-shore gear; more buoyancy and better ability to keep your head and face out of the water . The waters off the Central California coast (north of Pt. Conception to the Oregon border) generally see 20-35 knot winds offshore, average wave heights from 2 - 6 feet, on top of an average 4-6 foot swell, with 54-58°F water temperatures. On any given day these conditions can change dramatically. We opted for “intrinsically buoyant” equipment vs. inflatables; so when you die of hypothermia they’ll still be able to recover your body…

The lighter Type I gears is not too difficult to swim in. And generally you have somewhere to swim to; i.e. shore. But once you get miles out, in blue water there isn’t much point is swimming to begin with. In any kind of chop or swell, it’s all you can to to keep your head above water and not ingest a ton of seawater. And out of sight of land, disoriented by the situation, at water level, it’s almost impossible to even know which direction you’re heading. The plan is to stay calm and conserve energy aka body heat; burning calories trying to swim somewhere doesn’t do this.

EPIRBs tend to be too big for “personal” use, more likely to be on the boat in the grab-n-go bag. Our 40 footer had the EPIRB mounted on the railing at the stern in a breakaway bracket. Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) that combine GPS with EPIRB capability and are perfectly suited for individual use. But at $500+ you’ll probably not find one on a tourist boat on each of the “loaner” PFDs.

“The captain was telling us to stay together, and that help was on its way and that we needed to wait,” Kate Suski said.

The group waited for about an hour, but no one came.

“I was saying, `Let’s swim, let’s swim. If they’re coming, they will find us. We can’t just stay here,'” she recalled.

As they began to swim, the Suskis lost sight of the captain and first mate amid the burgeoning swells. Soon after, they also lost sight of land amid the rain.

“We would just see swells and gray,” Dan Suski said.

Hmmm. Maybe shoulda listened to the Captain and remained near the last reported position of the boat (even if it did sink), and staying together make “you” a bigger target to spot as well. The Coasties can calculate any drift at a given location and alter their search pattern accordingly.