Inflating survival chances

Jeff Johnson

Given the size and power of surf that people are paddling into these days, devices like Patagonia's new PSI vest could be a lifesaver.

As winter sets in throughout the Northern Hemisphere, roughly four dozen of the world's best big-wave surfers -- from underground madmen to high-profile pros -- are equipped with the latest version of an inflatable vest that could push surfing into new realms and save lives along the way.

The Portable Self-Inflation vest, or PSI, has been developed and reworked over past 18 months by Patagonia outdoor equipment company, and is anticipated to hit the retail market in October 2013, the company's surf director, Jason McCaffrey, told ESPN.com.

"Inflation vests are pretty much mandatory if guys are going to go out and push it in big-wave conditions the way they want to," McCaffrey said in a statement earlier this week. "Our main concern right now is to have a product that will help improve safety when surfing giant waves."

Last winter, early prototypes of the vest were put to the test by Patagonia Surf Ambassador Kohl Christensen, whose feedback helped the company's R&D crew come up with a comfortable vest that fits beneath a variety of wetsuits, can support multiple inflations, and be deflated easily with a handy dump valve.

Fred Pompermayer/Patagonia

When it comes to field testing a piece of equipment like the PSI vest, you couldn't ask for a better test pilot than the North Shore's Kohl Christensen.

With two-wave hold-downs not uncommon, big-wave surfers wearing the latest PSI can activate four separate inflations, plus deflate the vest if they need to swim back underwater to avoid incoming waves in the impact zone.

"With R&D, you are always trying to improve the tools you use, without reinventing the wheel," Patagonia engineer Casey Shaw said in the statement. "This project has been a tremendous opportunity to build something that may substantially impact a surfer's experience and improve safety in giant waves."

Patagonia presented the prototype at the Big Wave Risk Assessment Summit on November 30 on Hawaii's North Shore.

Among the big-wave specialists who received a PSI was Shane Dorian, who broke ground last year with the the Billabong V1, an inflatable wetsuit he helped design after nearly drowning at Northern California's notorious Maverick's break in 2010.

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