Indus™  //  The Making Of

After over a decade of prototype testing, working with whitewater legends on the banks of the highest volume rivers of the world, the Indus™ is ready to usher in a new era of buoyancy.

The year was 2012…

I had entered the rapid at exactly the same place as previous runs. Just to the right of the first hole, aiming back left, toward shore and the leftmost exit channel. The water level had been dropping throughout the season, but the line was the same, and the power of the Rio Baker was still incredible, even before the additional waters of the Rio Neff joined just below this massive rapid. 

As I paddled to the left behind that first hole, a large boil appeared in front of my bow…lifting it up into the air and beginning a pivot turn, counter clockwise to my left, that I’ll never forget. The color of the blue Patagonian sky above. My left blade, open and drawing into the flow in an attempt to bring my bow back down. The sinking feeling of disbelief as it dropped, just in time to place the largest, yet most futile right boof stroke of my life… into the largest hydraulic I’d ever seen in my life. 

Author and Astral’s Head of Brand + Marketing, Cooper Lambla, paddling the Baker in 2012. Photo: Zak Sears.

I don’t remember pulling my skirt, per say. Nor do I have a distinct memory of being ripped out of my boat. I do remember being underwater for long enough to consciously think that the only chance I had to survive was to preserve every last bit of oxygen I had left. Orientation (up, down or to either side) had dissolved long ago. Starting first with my heartbeat, I focus on slowing down every single part of my mind and body. Everything was pitch black. If I could slow every function of my body, perhaps the little oxygen I had left would last until I could grasp another breath. Time stood still. I had no oxygen left.

When a breath of air finally came, it felt like a dream. I could barely move my arms or legs, yet slowly mustered out a breast stroke to shore. Crawling up the bank on all fours, I watched as my kayak and paddle floated downstream, around the corner and into the first gorge of the Baker.

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The goal of wearing a life jacket is to float your body, and therefore mouth / airway, above the water when submerged. Naturally, the more water, or the more chaotic the water, the greater the chance and length of submersion. The more floatation, or buoyancy a life jacket provides, the better chance it has at achieving that goal. 

Ironically, weeks before that nightmare-inducing swim, I had borrowed a computer to draft an email to my friend Daniel Windham, who had recently begun a job with Astral in R+D…

“I was sitting in the back of a pick-up truck this morning, and you popped into the thoughts… I´d love to put a couple ideas in ya head…  I been paddling a rescue vest that I really like…I think taking parts of it, along with parts of the Green and 300…make it floatier and a few others…and Yeeeee-PA…we´ll talk about it if ya fo real on it.”  (It’s shocking to think that any of my friends were able to decipher my emails at the time…) 

Cooper fighting to stay on the surface through Zeta on the Futaleufú

The idea had been put forth. Entertained and discussed. And as you would expect, I was far from the only one who had come close to a flush drawing and yearned for more buoyancy. Daniel had also been putting a lot of thought into the matter after recently witnessing his main paddling partner nearly go unconscious during an almost fatal swim on high water Rio Embudo. 

Astral’s founder + CEO, Philip Curry, who was living in Idaho near the North Fork of the Payette at the time, had also been hearing similar stories from legends like Gerry Moffatt, Ryan Casey, Mike Mckee and Freddy Coriell about close calls and flush drowning deaths on high water. Having been a part of the first descent of the Indus (which included a raft!), Gerry knew that 22 lbs of buoyancy was the magic number to hit. 22 lbs was the commercial rafting life jacket standard to bring an unconscious or unaware customer up to the surface on rivers like the Zambezi, Futaleufu, Colorado or Salmon. 

Legends Gerry Moffatt and Marcus Schmitt on the first descent of the Indus.

A desire for more buoyancy in life jackets wasn’t a new conundrum. Since the first (known) life jackets were made in Scandinavia during the 19th Century from natural materials like wood and cork, designers had tried to find ways to add more and more buoyancy. In 1973, Charlie Walbridge is credited with establishing modern high float life jackets with twice the buoyancy of the U.S. Coast Guard standard. But as the evolution of whitewater sports continued, mobility and comfort began being prioritized over these ‘hi float’, more buoyant life jackets. By the late 1990’s freestyle kayaking was peaking, and the less buoyancy and more mobility a life jacket had, the more tricks a paddler could do. 

During Philip’s Lotus Design days a few models brought buoyancy back up…El Cinco™, based off of its popular Rio Grande™ model was Lotus Design’s first Type V commercial pfd and had 22 lbs of buoyancy. It worked well in a kayak but the high buoyant “pillow” flopping around behind it meant no whitewater kayakers would wear it. Lotus’ P Vest™ also came close; Its low profile design was a hit with whitewater kayakers and a ‘Chest Implant’  with an additional 3.5 lbs. of buoyancy boosted its flotation from 16.5 to 20 lbs.

Philip Curry, Founder and CEO of Astral, running Sunshine on the Green River in an early Lotus Design.

Astral’s early LDB™ model had a similar 8 lbs. buoyancy booster, but mobility was limited due to the 16 lbs. of buoyancy solely distributed across the front panel of the design. Astral’s Hybrid™ borrowed from the innovations of big wave surfing and added 15 lbs. of inflatable buoyancy to a low profile 8 lbs. USCG-approved design. While a promising concept, the inflatable style never gained popularity among freestyle or expedition crowds, where durability (campfire embers, anyone?) and simplicity (traveling with compressed air can be tricky in places like the Himalaya, Andes, etc.) are a priority.

The breakthrough came with the invention of Foam Tectonics™, Astral’s proprietary two-panel life jacket architecture that allows a life jacket to twist and turn with the movements of the upper body, while securely staying in place around the torso. Astral first released the revolutionary design in the freestyle-inspired, low-profile Bella™ and Willis™. Adding more buoyancy, strength and security to it, the GreenJacket™ was the first rescue vest to use the platform. It enabled anyone from class V chargers to swiftwater rescue professionals to experience the freedom of a freestyle life jacket with all the safety features and buoyancy of a rescue vest. 

The Foam Tectonics™ of the GreenJacket™ changed the architecture of rescue PFDs.

Along with the advent of Foam Tectonics™ came other technological breakthroughs in the sport of whitewater. Better skirts that wouldn’t implode or explode upon submersion or impact. Higher volume, faster and more rockered boats, allowing paddlers to stay on top of the water while punching larger holes and waves. Paddles, helmets, drywear, shoes…everything was evolving. And while many companies followed suit and developed their own version of Foam Tectonics™, no one was making a life jacket that was mobility-forward, yet high float. 

One day while working in Asheville’s River Arts District, situated on the banks of the French Broad River, Daniel and Ty Caldwell noticed that the river was 20,000 cfs and headed up. They wanted to go experience the power. (And of course go surf some waves!) As they geared up to go out, Daniel sewed two additional pieces of foam into the inside of his GreenJacket. As they paddled downstream with the river well out of its banks and in the trees, Daniel could surf and confidently paddle the river’s features, despite the extra foam.

Daniel Windham, Astral’s Product Line Manager, testing a handmade prototype on a high water French Broad lap.

While the French Broad has a lot of water, and Daniel has decades of skill in a kayak, to make something that would work for those at the edge of the sport, more people would need to be involved. Prototypes of a high float GreenJacket began appearing on rivers around the continent. 

Mike McKee tested the design on the North Fork of the Payette. Gerry Moffatt tested it in Idaho and the Himalaya. Spencer Cooke and Andrew Holcombe wore them on rivers and creeks of all sizes across North Carolina and California. I began wearing one on high water Linville and Watauga laps as well as rivers of all sizes throughout the PNW and B.C. Nouria Newman wore one during a trip to the Columbia River Gorge. During the process, Astral’s Product Team received feedback from each tester, as well as swiftwater instructors like Justin Padgett and board members on ACA’s Safety and Rescue Committee.

Of all the contributors, Benny Marr put it to the lengthiest test. First on his home river, the Ottawa. Then during the massive volumes and peak flows of Stakeout, where not only are the flows high, but the need for mobility is unprecedented. Bodies of water where huge airs and freestyle progression are the name of the game. If the high float could work there, it could be paddled downstream. Benny took it to the Stikine, surfed it on Skook, completing the infamous Patagonia Triple Crown with it (Baker, Pascua and Bravo), paddled with it in the Himalaya as well as high water Zambezi (setting a new highest known descent of the Minus Rapids). 

Benny Marr testing an Indus™ prototype during Stakeout, Quebec.

After over a decade of prototype testing and equipped with a U.S. Coast Guard Type V certification, the Indus™ is ready to usher in a new era of buoyancy. One where buoyancy doesn’t need to be sacrificed to maintain maximum mobility. 

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The 2012 version of myself may have run out of money two months prior to that swim, and was squatting in a house with no running water or electricity. But rest easy, because help, in the form of more buoyancy is on the way. 

The development of the Indus™ is dedicated to everyone who has ever wanted to reach the surface of the water just a little faster. 

Thankfully, Cooper made it out of his Baker swim, and continues to charge both on the water and as Head of Brand + Marketing at Astral (and no longer squats… that we know of). Photo by Paul Heffernan.

Indus

With 22 lbs of flotation sculpted into Astral’s industry leading FoamTectonics™️ architecture, the Indus™️ is the world’s first freestyle-inspired high float life jacket.

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