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 has a built-in rescue harness and quick release belt. It also needs to have a standard of buoyancy, which is 16 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 emotion, high performance and really well fitting.
I’ve actually never been asked that question before, but that’s my opinion of what a rescue PFD is. Technical, advanced, durable and highly safety oriented. It’s like a tool rather than a piece of equipment.
Your first rescue PFD.
I’ll start because mine was probably a little older than Daniel’s. I think for me the first one I tried was in the summer of ‘93. I was visiting Idaho and it was the first time I saw a rescue vest, period.
A friend of mine, Zack Crist, was wearing one and he kind of gave me a tour of it. That actually sparked a great interest in that product. I went home and within six months I was constructing my own.
So were you making PFDs already at that time? When you saw that first one?
No, I was not actually. That’s what actually prompted me to start making life jackets was seeing a rescue PFD for the first time. I had seen prior designs, for like freestyle kayaking and stuff. And then when I was out and saw Zack’s, it was basically a freestyle model that they attached a quick release harness to.
It was like, wow, that’s amazing! Freestyle and rescue at the same time. Super versatile, you know, plus it was made with Cordura. So that was cool, and to Daniel’s point about durability, you know, gave it that extra protein.
Nice! One of the key ingredients to a rescue vest…protein!?
What about you, Daniel? What was your first rescue PFD?
A 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.
Awesome!! You used it just as we hoped!
Yeah. And it was a great, durable product. I mean I did the majority of my best kayaking with that PFD. It had great range of motion. It was extremely comfortable. And like, if you were going to go kayaking then, this was 2005, you know, you were going to buy an Astral life jacket. Like there was no question of who you’d buy.
Was there a specific instance that made you start using a rescue jacket? Like was there a specific instance or experience where you said, ‘Oh, I really need to be wearing a rescue PFD’ or ‘I personally really need one of those’.
Yeah, absolutely. For me there were two. I mean, there was where it really crystallized for me as far as how cool rescue jackets are. And it was in an old film. You might’ve seen it. It was probably 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. And you know, at that time, of course it was pretty extreme. You know, like 15 foot drops and big, beautiful granite boulders. And I’ll never forget… I saw one of the dudes come through there in his T Canyon or something. He came through there and just couldn’t roll it. And so all of a sudden you see a dude jumping in from like out of the frame!
And so in Europe they had this rescue mentality where you can actively participate in your mate’s rescue and you were attached to a quick release. And I was like, wow, that is f’ing cool! And then when I saw that in person, it really cemented.
But back to your question specifically. On a tragic day, I was with Slim Ray when he broke his back on the Green. There were two of us down there, Tom and I, and I threw a rope and it hit Slim in the head, but he was, you know, kind of discombobulated or worried about other things and didn’t grab the rope. That’s when it really occurred to me. Like, wow, I really need to get to him. I need to jump in. And that’s when the concept of a live bait rescue really became super duper clear to me. So yeah, that was a real life experience in which, if I’d have had the ability to clip in and jump in for him, it would have been a nice thing to do. Luckily he came to his senses and grabbed the next rope that was thrown to him.
So, yeah. What about you, Daniel?
I don’t really have a specific incident that occurred, because there had been enough stories, you know, 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, you know?
And so for me, it was 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 some shit.
That’s awesome. So let’s fast forward a little bit because Astral has this product philosophy that all products must be unique and necessary. What was necessary and unique about the GreenJacket that it evolved from the 300? Because they’re obviously two very different PFDs.
So this is interesting. There is a body type and preference dynamic at play. The Aquavest series was interesting because 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 platform. The result was that there was a perception of bulk, which was enhanced if you tended to have an extra belly.
So we wanted an option that felt more streamlined. We did that by keeping the lower panel of foam, but reducing the thickness of it and adding a vertical panel that went up towards the neck.
That was the request coming from consumers…and so it was necessary to redistribute the foam to reduce bulk. 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.
And so we worked on what we called Foam Tectonics and introduced that with a model called the Willis. And the 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.
Maybe you can give a little bit of some context in terms of what was available in the market at that time?
One of the main things that we were trying to do was to create a clearly three-dimensional form that respects the ergonomic shape of the torso. 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.
So that’s always been one of the biggest differentiators for Astral. We’ve always offered a unique, better, dynamic and active fit for an advanced level of kayaking.
Nice, so it was really that three dimensional kind of difference.
So the GreenJacket’s been around since 2009. Why continue its evolution rather than come up with something new?
You know, 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?
Yeah. I mean, 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.
Yeah. 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.
There’s also the last resort anchor spot, the GTB, where you can attach a biner and get dragged out of somewhere.
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.