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Design a life jacket, win $5,000

Organizers of the PFD competition are looking for “out-of-the-box” ideas

Organizers of the PFD competition are looking for “out-of-the-box” ideas

Imagine if all life jackets were comfortable to wear, cheap to buy, and really worked. Maybe more boaters would buy and wear them. Then maybe fewer people would drown in boating mishaps.

Ruth Wood thinks this is realistic, but she doesn’t think the ideal PFD will come off the drawing boards of the folks who gave us our current generation of life jackets. She thinks that PFD manufacturers’ creativity has been hamstrung by their preconceived notions of what the Coast Guard will allow based on its PFD performance standards.

“We’re looking for out-of-the-box thinking,” says Wood, president of the BoatU.S. Foundation.

The foundation and the PFD Manufacturers Association are offering a $5,000 prize to the winner of a PFD design contest. They are hoping to draw ideas from college students, tinkerers and innovators, Wood says. In other words, people who have no idea what the Coast Guard performance standards are. There are no rules requiring that materials or designs meet any current Coast Guard or Underwriters Laboratories’ standards. The watchwords of this contest are “creative” and “unconventional.”

An entry can be submitted as a detailed drawing, instead of a working model or prototype, and will be judged on the basis of:

• wearability — Is it comfortable?

• reliability — How likely is it to fail?

• cost — Is it affordable?

• innovation — Is the design original, and does it employ new technologies?

Wood says most boaters who don’t wear life jackets say they’re hot and uncomfortable. She says the industry has delivered on a “high-end” solution to this problem: lightweight inflatable PFDs that are neither hot nor uncomfortable to wear but cost from $80 to $200. That’s more than most boaters want to spend. Instead many buy the foam-filled Type II vests that cost less than $10. The Type IIs can be hot and uncomfortable, but they meet the carriage requirement. They remain the most popular PFD but are seldom worn.

The PFD design competition is aiming for a low-end answer to the problem of boaters not wearing life jackets. Wood says the Coast Guard is open to considering new approaches to designing cheap, wearable PFDs, even if designs don’t quite meet current standards. It would consider looking at something that almost makes it, then putting up some money for testing and helping it win approval, she says.

Deadline for entries is Dec. 15, and the winner will be announced at the Miami International Boat Show in February 2006. For entry form and rules, visit or contact Ruth Wood at (703) 823-9550, Ext. 3204, e-mail: ; or PFDMA’s Bernice McArdle at (312) 946-6280,

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