life jacket designs for boaters

Aside from the rising popularity of inflatable life jackets, the basic design of life “vest” has been around for quite some time.

So, in an effort to test the limits of creativity & innovation, some boating industry associations joined forces in 2015 to challenge entrepreneurs and inventors to come up with some new ideas that just might be the next great thing when it comes to life vests.

The Boat US Foundation partnered with the Personal Flotation Manufacturers Association (PFDMA) and the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) to bring you the Innovations in Life Jacket Design Competition which sought alternatives to the traditional life jacket.

The goal of the competition was to rethink a 100-year-old design, seek out the newest technologies and design innovations and develop interest in newer, more versatile life jackets. Design entries were judged on the following criteria: innovation, wearability, value/affordability, reliability, versatility and practicality. Three top winners were awarded $15,000 in prize money.

As a boater, I see many existing design issues that I would love to see addressed in a new design:

Comfort – They should be less bulky and shouldn’t chafe your underarms.

Style – Most are focused on function and not style – with very limited designs.

Fit – The basic sizes for weight tend to not fit most very well, adding to the bulkiness of the design.

When it comes to kids, all these factors are escalated – it gets particularly challenging to reinforce use of life jackets on a boat when its uncomfortable, ill-fitting and just not cool looking. This is one of the big reasons why I am so interested in some of the new ideas the life jacket design competition produced.

Important: it should be noted that some of these may never hit the market, while others may come to market but are yet to be U.S. Coast Guard Approved.

So here is a breakdown of the winners that were recently announced at the 2015 International Boatbuilders Exposition (IBEX), selected from over 250 entries:



life jacket design winnerFirst Place: Michael Garman – Foam Filled Jacket

Michael Garman of Moseley, Virginia submitted his prototype design that uses two-part expanding foam encased in a comfortable thermal fabric that’s designed to keep the wearer cool. The design uses a smartphone app to submit exact body measurements to the factory where the lifejacket is custom molded, offering a perfect fit right out of the box. A heat reflecting fabric can be used on cold days to help keep the wearer warm – or reversed for hot days that combine with an inner fabric mesh to keep the wearer cool. Accessories such as a rear mounted hydration pack – great for paddlers – and custom pocket choices add versatility. A built-in signal mirror and whistle improve safety.

Boater Comments: Personally I think this design does not solve the problem of looking more stylish. It appears pretty bulky to me and the exact body measurements at the factory do not seem reasonable for the average boater looking to purchase a jacket… this concept also doesn’t seem to address growing children.

lifeshirt floatation deviceSecond Place: Jimi Beach of Aegis Safety Products – Life Shirt

Jimi Beach of the two-year-young Aegis Safety Products in Orlando, Florida took second place with his brand new, soon-to-market, inflatable floatation “Lifeshirt” that blends affordability with comfort and performance. The “actionwear” design looks similar to a sport shirt and is intended for a range of uses from boating to surfing. Offering automatic or manual inflation, a patented design resists inadvertent inflation from rain or splashes but activates instantly when the user’s head or shoulders submerge. Retail pricing is expected to remain consistent with or lower than other PFDs on the market. Lifeshirt is currently undergoing certification for adults and children in a lightweight performance class of personal floatation devices. LifeShirt is expected to be available Spring 2016.

Boater Comments: This product hits the mark when it comes to style – it has a high-end sporty look that I think most boaters would enjoy wearing. I like that they are addressing kid safety with a version for kids but I wonder how realistic it is when most children will need to swim in a life jacket all the time – will the inflation & deflation be practical & cost-effective?

comfort flex life vestThird Place: Jessie Kate Brown – Comfort Flex Life Vest

Jessie Kate Brown of Lafayette, Louisiana submitted a theoretical design for the “Comfort Flex Life Vest,” a comfortable form-fitting design that increases visibility and inspires user confidence. “Relief cuts” on the side add buoyant material while a new hinge point and a lobster tail-like relief cut on the middle of the back of the jacket allow the wearer to easily bend their body, unlike some current vest-style designs which have one-piece backs. A reflective collar, and an athletic spandex shell and liner increase comfort and wearability.

Boater Comments: I like that this design focuses on comfort – the wide collar and “relief cuts” do make it seem like the jacket will be more comfortable than the typical boxy styles.

More Design Finalists

All 11 finalists of the Life Jacket Design Competition can be found on the Boat US. 

Although these products did not win in the competition, there are some good ideas in some of these entries that are worth a look.

Pat Hughes – Hyde Innovations Entry

I like the minimal look and style of this life jacket design.

Shannon Macdowell – SUPLOGIX v3

I love the focus on combining hydration with flotation… with a design that allows for a full range of motion. It is also a smart approach to address the SUP market with a product that is specifically designed for this growing water activity.

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Life Jacket Designs for Boaters

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Diane Seltzer

Founder & Editor at My Boat Life
Diane is the founder of MyBoatLife.com as well as the boating lifestyle site for kids BoaterKids.com. She is also active in the boating industry, serving as the marketing director for a marine sunshade product, SureShade, and founder of Marine Marketing Tools, a collaborative site for sharing marine marketing best practices. Diane is also the author of the children's book The Amazing Adventures of Boat Girl.

2 Comments

    1. I agree that younger boaters might be drawn to the Life Shirt – particularly for watersports – and I do like the fact that it doubles as sun protection. Again, my question is how practical (and cost-effective) will the inflation & deflation be for users? For younger kids that need the constant buoyancy in water the inflating/deflating may not be practical for their use.

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