- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

They’re bulky, dorky and uncomfortable, so a local boating group is turning to the collective wisdom of the Web in an effort to design a more user-friendly life jacket.

Water skiers and boating enthusiasts don’t like wearing life jackets — that is a given. “Personal flotation devices” (PFDs), as the Coast Guard calls them, have long been seen as uncomfortable and difficult to wear for many boaters.

The complaints have prompted a foundation run by Alexandria-based BoatUS, the trade group of the Boat Owners Association of the United States, to kick off a competition offering a $10,000 prize for the best new life jacket design.

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BoatUS and the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association have invited all manner of tinkerers and inventors to the competition that closes April 15, including designers, engineers and high school students. All are invited to compete.

This year’s competition is BoatUS‘ third since 2009. (The previous competition, held in 2011, attracted 100 applicants.) The sponsors will select the winners based on wearability, reliability, cost and innovation.

But this year’s contest will be the first since the Coast Guard in September dropped its labeling systems that rigidly determined the use for specific life jacket designs. The coding system “was unique to the United States, tended to confuse boaters, limited choice and increased the cost of life jackets,” Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and chairman of the National Safe Boating Council, said at the time.

Industry officials are hoping the junking of the coding system will lead to more innovation in life jacket design and allow foreign manufacturers to target the American market with models previously blocked in the U.S.

The life jacket prototypes in this year’s competition will be reviewed and critiqued by five judges, all of them affiliated in some way with the boating and water sporting industry.

“We want this competition to be about getting people to think about what could be next, but also showing people the new kinds of life preservers that are available out there,” said Alanna Keating, outreach manager for the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water.

But safety and reliability are not the only reasons for the competition. The industry also wants life jackets to be considered cool — acceptable to the hordes of water sports warriors who flock to the water every year, Ms. Keating said.

“Making life jackets more socially acceptable is one of our goals. So anything we can do to make the needle move closer to that goal is great,” she said.

One of the judges at this year’s competition, Lili Colby, co-owner of MTI Adventurewear, a paddle sport life jacket manufacturer, said that the boating industry itself has to market PFDs better.

Ms. Colby, whose marketing expertise is one of the reasons why she was selected to sit on the panel, is an advocate for programs that increase paddling participation among young people, giving her insight into how life jacket design can appeal to — or turn off — younger generations.

Ms. Colby’s off-the-beaten-path marketing techniques include campaigns offering promotional condoms imprinted with the “Wear It” life jacket message affixed to them.

“It’s all about targeting your message — or product — with an appeal to a specific audience,” Ms. Colby said.

“I try to make the marketing of life jackets a little edgy. The condom promotion was the edgiest. It certainly helped start conversation.”

Research suggests life jacket use is ebbing among young adults, showing a year-over-year decrease. According to JSI Research and Training Institute, a public health management consultant and research organization, adult life jacket “wear rates” are low to begin with and have fallen in recent years.

Despite ubiquitous safety recommendations, fewer than one in 10 adult boaters dons a life jacket on the water, according to JSI’s survey. (The wear rates for those under 18 are much higher, averaging around 67 percent in recent years.) The wear rates for adult boaters — excluding those in so-called “personal watercrafts” — fell to 9.1 percent in 2013 after a three-year trend in which wear rates increased from 7.8 percent in 2010 to 9.3 percent in 2012.

BoatUS has staged competitions before seeking the elusive design that will be embraced by the boating masses. In the 2011 competition, the first-place winner was a model called the “Sea-Tee,” a design from Jeff Betz of the Troy, New York-based Float-Tech Inc.

The Sea-Tee is a typical “rash guard” shirt that many water sports warriors are donning, with a built-in inflatable bladder similar to most inflatable life jackets. But the shirt’s safety features are unobtrusive and more comfortable than the typical life jacket.

“The Sea-Tee is a thousand times better than traditional life jackets for many of the activities people engage in on the water,” Mr. Betz said. “Most life jackets are designed to standards that are meant for offshore conditions, but most boaters are on calm inland waters. So with the Sea-Tee you can wear essentially the same shirt you’re used to wearing on the water and have the backup of a buoyancy aid in case of an emergency.”

The winners of this year’s Innovations in Life Jacket Design Competition will be announced in September at the International Boatbuilders Exhibition and Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

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