Ask Eddy: The History of PFDs

Eddy's got answers on lifejackets, alligators and gift ideas

Eddy, the beloved boating guru in Canoe & Kayak’s print magazine, has come to life on the website. This story featured in the May 2008 issue and was written by Frederick Reimers and Sam Moulton.

pfds

Illustration by Aaron McKinney

Ask Eddy: The History of PFDs

When did lifejackets arrive on the scene?

Lifejackets were preceded, at least on Eddy’s scene, by vinyl waterski belts, though only for canoeing rapids. Thankfully, those days are past, and everyone survived. As far as the human scene on the whole, as early as 870 BC people were using inflated animal skins to float themselves across water. As anyone who saw Titanic knows, the earliest PFDs were made from cork blocks attached to canvas or leather vests. Eddy’s research turned up one early adopter from 1785, when the first person to fly a balloon across the English Channel, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, brought along a pair of cork life jackets. When, halfway to France, the balloon began leaking and losing altitude, the pilots jettisoned everything, including their sand ballast, anchors, flags, a bottle of brandy, and finally the pilot’s pants. But they kept the cork life jackets. PFDs became far more common at the beginning of the 20th century when people discovered that the seed-pod fibers from the kapok tree were very buoyant and largely water resistant, and so the perfect stuffing for canvas lifejackets. Kapok was the dominant material for lifejackets until petroleum-based foam came along. Of course, the most famous PFD of all is the Mae West, the rubber lifevest that Allied pilots inflated if their planes went down over water. The elder President Bush actually made use of the Mae West, named for the wearer’s supposed resemblance to the buxom 1930s starlet, during WWII when his torpedo bomber was shot down over the Pacific. As for early adopters of the inflatable lifejacket, one of Eddy’s personal heroes, the one-armed Civil War vet and western explorer John Wesley Powell used an inflatable leather PFD on his voyages down the Grand Canyon. The device is housed in the Smithsonian, and resembles a croissant, or if you look at it just right, a waterski belt.

Are alligators dangerous to paddlers?

Well, yes, but then, so are grizzly bears, lightning, traffic, poison ivy and meteors. But what are you going to do, stay home? Eddy says buck up, because unless you strap pork chops to your body and swim in South Florida swamps, there’s almost no chance a gator will get you.

Gators were delisted as an endangered species in 1987, and while it’s true that there have been nearly 400 injuries to people from alligators since 1948, 23 of them fatal, almost every one involved someone swimming, wading, or retrieving a golf ball from a pond. And all but one of those fatalities occurred in Florida. According to Dr. Ricky Langley, author of a study on alligator attacks in a copy of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine that Eddy was thumbing through at the tanning salon while he was waiting, er, on a friend, only one of those attacks occurred during a canoeing trip, and though details are sketchy, the victims had apparently flipped their canoe and were trying to swim to shore. But alligators generally aren’t interested in humans, or kayaks for that matter, says Charles Wright, owner of South Florida’s Everglades Area Tours. Wright has been leading Everglades tours since 1972, and while gator sightings are a staple of his business, he doesn’t consider them a hazard. “Kayaks are just larger than any of their prey,” says Wright. Their prey, apparently, is mostly fish and wading birds like egrets and herons. “They don’t think kayaks are food, but they aren’t afraid of them either. They’ll hiss at you if you get within a few feet.” Kind of like the ladies down at the tanning salon.

I need a cool present for a paddler, cheap. Got any ideas?

If you’ve already given the full compliment of pine-cone bird feeders, then try the campfire blow tube. Basically, it’s a long tube you can use to stoke the campfire without having to leave your comfy camp chair—no more ash in the eyes as you kneel down to puff up those coals. You can buy telescoping brass models for $20, or you can make your own for about five bucks. Buy three or four feet of 3/8- to ½-inch clear vinyl tubing, and slide a foot of quarter-inch copper pipe inside it. To make the mouthpiece, flatten the copper pipe slightly. Eddy’s experiments on whether it doubles as a moose call are still inconclusive.

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