Straight from the source. Learn more about Astral’s GreenJacket with Astral’s Founder and CEO, Philip Curry, and Product Line Manager, Daniel Windham.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with just the definition of a rescue PFD (personal flotation device). What makes a PFD a rescue PFD?
A rescue PFD is one that you’re able to perform swiftwater rescue techniques with by entering the water. It is highly reinforced in the shoulders and sides and has a quick release belt. It also needs to have a standard of buoyancy, which is 15 and a half pounds.
Durability is an important part of a rescue PFD to a consumer. The other thing that I consider important for really any PFDs is great range of motion and movement. You know, great range of motion, high performance and really well fitting.
Technical, advanced, durable and highly safety oriented. It’s like a tool rather than a piece of equipment.
Your first rescue PFD.
The first one I tried was in the summer of ‘93. I was visiting Idaho to paddle on the Payette and it was the first time I saw a rescue vest, period.
A friend of mine, Zack, was wearing one made by a German brand, HF, and he gave me a tour of it. I was so inspired by that product, the simplicity and ruggedness and utility of it I went home and within six months I was constructing my own!
Were you making PFDs already at that time? When you saw that first one?
No, seeing that vest is what prompted me to start making life jackets. I was paddling a lot then, and wore vests designed for freestyle kayaking which were fine but not durable. Zack’s vest was basically a freestyle model that they attached a quick release harness to, and I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing! Freestyle and rescue at the same time.” Super versatile, plus it was made with Cordura [which] gave it that extra protein.
What about you, Daniel? What was your first rescue PFD?
An Astral Aquavest 300. Dark blue. Purchased from the NOC.
What was great about that PFD at the time was exactly what Philip was describing, you know, we don’t do this anymore with the green jacket, but the quick release belt was removable. You could take it off. So I started cutting my teeth on the Watauga, Wilson Creek and other places. And going with people that had the knowledge to teach me how to use my rescue PFD. So then when I gained that skillset I was able to attach my quick release to my rescue PFD. Which was really cool!
I bought a rescue PFD sooner than most people do now, since I think all brands stitch them into their jackets now.
It was a great, durable product. I did the majority of my best kayaking with that PFD. It allowed great range of motion. It was extremely comfortable. And if you were going to go kayaking then, this was 2005, you were going to buy an Astral life jacket. There was no question of who you’d buy.
Was there like a specific instance that made you start using a rescue jacket?
For me there were two. First was a film made in the mid-80’s. National Geographic got hold of it and played it for awhile, but it was some guys kayaking in Corsica. At that time it was pretty extreme. 15 foot drops and big, beautiful granite boulders. A guy came through in his T Canyon or something. He came through and landed and couldn’t roll it. And all of a sudden you see a dude jumping in after him from the rock above! I was like whaaaaat is happening here??
In Europe they had this rescue mentality where you actively participated in your mate’s rescue and you were attached to a quick release. That was cool and that stuck with me.
The second day was a tough, life altering experience. I was with Slim when he broke his back at Sunshine on the Green Narrows in NC. There were two of us down there, Tom and I, and I threw a rope and it hit Slim in the head, but he didn’t grab the rope. I really needed to jump in and get him. That’s when the concept of a live bait rescue really became clear to me. A real life experience in which, if I’d have had the ability to safely clip in and jump in for him, it would have been nice. Luckily he came to his senses and grabbed the next rope that was thrown to him.
What about you, Daniel?
I don’t really have a specific incident that occurred, because there had been enough stories, from pioneers like Phillip and all the original Green boaters. It was clear that if you’re going to the Green, then you had to have a rescue jacket.
So for me, when I had reached the skill set for Chris Roberts to take me down the Green for my first time. Graduating up into that skill set of a boater and knowing that shit’s going to go down. You gotta be able to be a team member and help people. You don’t want to be that person on the bank that’s forgotten their throw rope in the car or something.
What made the GreenJacket necessary and unique from the 300?
With the The Aquavest series, we really wanted to free up the arms and provide as much freedom of movement for the arms to go every which way.So we positioned the bulk of the foam over the belly and really shortened the height of front foam. The result was a perception of bulk, which was further enhanced if you tended to have an extra bit in the belly.
So we wanted an option that felt more streamlined. We did that by thinning the lower panel of foam and adding a vertical panel that went up towards the neck.
We had been pushed that direction from the freestyle side of the market, because at that time freestyle was a big thing. And I guess it still is, but there was a whole contingency of paddlers that really wanted something that just felt more slim.
We worked on what we called Foam Tectonics and introduced that with a model called the Willis. And Willis had a sister named Bella.
Those two were the original jackets that introduced foam tectonics. And the GreenJacket was designed and developed simultaneously. It may have come out a year later.
What was available in the market at that time?
So prior to Astral, if you look at the main competitors at the time, all the jackets were still just flat with a layer of foam in the back and a flat layer in the front. We wanted to create a three dimensional form that was meant to fit nicely on your body off the shelf.
We’ve always offered a unique, better, dynamic and active fit for an advanced level of kayaking.
Why continue the GreenJacket’s evolution rather than come up with something new?
This may be cliche, but it’s about respecting evolution and innovation, and recognizing when something is done really, really well. Everything can always be improved, but you reach a point in design where you’re like, okay, that’s innovation that may never occur again. I hate saying it, but as far as using current materials like foam and fabric and webbing, Foam Tectonics is the best three-dimensional way to fit several different body types.
So the GreenJacket’s legacy is really based on Foam Tectonics?
Philip touched on it well. It’s reducing the perceived amount of bulk by having the panel up top that is on a track which provides this nice range of motion. You can fully cinch it down and get a secure fit, or you can wear it loose and it floats over your chest. It provides really good articulation. There’s the way that it’s sculpted and it wraps around the torso, or subtle details that people really love like the fact that there’s no hardware up on your shoulders. That’s extremely different from everybody else. Our adjustment for the shoulders is down low which creates a lot of comfort around your face. Nothing ever gets in the way. You don’t have webbing or hardware slapping you in the face.
The other part is the Flotection. We’re providing a better fitting, more even distribution of foam and plastic that’s getting you more protection from impacts on rocks, from your boat, or hitting your ribs and things like that.
One point of the architecture that I think works well is the anchoring element in the lower torso. There’s the belly foam that’s connected to the lower back, and it’s modeled after the lumbar support system. We really analyzed the shape and dynamics of that and designed a system that really locked in that part of the torso while allowing the upper torso to completely move independently. Because as you know, as kayakers, you’ve got so much twisting going on above the navel, from the sternum up. I mean, there’s just wild degrees of twisting and contortion. So it was really important to free the anchoring and allow the upper section to twist and flow in whichever way it needs to.
Any other unique technologies that are featured in GreenJacket?
I think one of the most significant evolutions of the GreenJacket is the clamshell pocket.
We did that when I first started in 2000 and now we look around and everybody does it. But back then it was a big innovation. It is so important to have quick, organized access that doesn’t get in the way, for carrying your pin kit, internal pocket knife and other tools that you need. In a rescue situation, you have to think and act very quickly.
Another thing people wanted was a place to hold a rope. The practical ability of having a rope on your body.
Something else people were really stoked to find on the GreenJacket is the shape of the back. It is such a beautiful shape. It purely respects the need to protect the spine. Jackets prior to the GreenJacket typically had a short back and left the upper spine exposed, which seemed like a terrible problem to us. So the GreenJacket was designed to be as long as possible, but narrow through the scapula. And then there’s the cool wings adjacent to the center of the foam panel for extra scapular protection. That was also appreciated.
So what’s next for the GreenJacket?
We’re going to keep moving the industry forward. We’ve got some ideas in the pipeline that are going to start to materialize. I think as far as Daniel and I can tell, it seems like the GreenJacket is like Astral’s Chuck Taylor, Nike Pegasus or something that will be with us forever.
Really appreciate you taking the time here, fellas. Thank you!
Our most innovative and comfortable rescue vest gets a pocket update with a new EVA Molded Central Pocket. Tested in the most extreme environments and situations, this jacket continues to be the only choice for the world’s best river guides and expedition paddlers alike.