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Wraparound PFD tops life jacket contest

College student’s lightweight, slender design took the $5,000 BoatU.S. prize

College student’s lightweight, slender design took the $5,000 BoatU.S. prize

Adam Malcolm, a graduate engineering student who grew up boating on Lake Erie, beat out 181 other contest entries to win $5,000 with his design for a life jacket that wraps around the waist like a belt.

Malcolm, a 25-year-old mechanical and aerospace engineering student at the University of Virginia, says he considered all the reasons he never wears a PFD in designing the belt. Lightweight and slender, it is fitted with inflatable rubber bladders that deploy vertically around the torso when a CO2 gas cartridge activates, either manually with a lanyard or automatically upon contact with the water.

“I tried to relate to my experiences as a boater and why I don’t wear a life jacket,” Malcolm says. His biggest complaints: Traditional jackets are hot and uncomfortable, and they restrict maneuverability.

“They don’t look cool,” he says.

Malcolm, who is from Sylvania, Ohio, grew up fishing and boating on Lake Erie on the family ski boat. He now owns a 24-foot Chaparral for walleye fishing and another 14-foot aluminum fishing boat, and he used to have a 19-foot Mirage sailboat for sailing on lakes around Charlottesville.

“A belt offers you the most maneuverability, and is the least eyesore,” he says. Each of the 18- to 24-inch-long bladders is fitted with a one-way valve, so that if one deflates the others are unaffected.

The Innovations in Life Jacket Design Competition was sponsored by the BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association to solicit “out-of-the-box” thinking about life jacket design, and promote life jacket awareness. The competition drew 182 submissions from “design schools and universities, tinkerers and inventors,” says BoatU.S. Foundation president Ruth Wood. Submissions came from as far away as China and Australia.

“It was really, really exciting to have all these interesting designs, products and ideas coming to the door of my office day after day,” she says. “We’re trying to find an alternative, affordable life jacket. I think we have made progress.”

Malcolm says he’ll use the $5,000 prize money to jump-start his career as an independent inventor. He says he’d like to find a manufacturer to make a prototype of his design and maybe take it to market. But Ralph Steeger, director of engineering and product director for flotation life jackets for PFD maker Stearns Manufacturing, says bringing the design to market would be a long shot.

For starters, the design would have to be changed to meet Coast Guard requirements for buoyancy, and keeping the wearer’s head upright in the water.

“It would cost $25,000 just to get it certified,” says Steeger. “The biggest deterrent to innovation is the cost of bringing a life jacket to market.”

For a look at the PFD designs that won honorable mentions, visit .