Patagonia will sell its big-wave inflation vest, but buyers must be qualified

Half a decade in the making, Patagonia is bringing their patented Personal Surf Inflation (PSI) Vest to market this spring, making it available for purchase. But the process for getting one is not as simple as walking into a store and throwing down your credit card.

In the last six years, no other aspect of surfing has witnessed such leaps in technique, technology, participation and popularity as the big-wave realm. The global big-wave movement has shifted from tow-surfing to paddling into XXL-sized waves, and lineups at breaks like Maverick’s and Jaws have grown to outsized numbers.

Kohl Christensen
One of Patagonia’s most valued product testers, Kohl Christensen. Photo: Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer/Patagonia

But each year, experienced (and inexperienced) big-wave surfers have had frightening near-drowning experiences, and in the past, the community has lost some of its most-respected members.

Wearing safety equipment has become not only generally accepted, but virtually expected. Many big-wave surfers have begun wearing padded floatation/impact vests. Patagonia sells a version of this vest for $149.

But the ultimate wearable safety comes in the form of a personal inflation vest. Shane Dorian and Billabong developed the first of these with their V1 vest in 2011. When the wearer pulls the vest’s tabs, air bladders fill via C02 cartridges to swiftly bring the surfer to the surface.

After Dorian’s innovation, Patagonia and Quiksilver followed suit with their own models. But none of the vests were available to the public, instead they were distributed by the companies to vetted surfers of their choosing. Patagonia’s planned release of the PSI Vest will finally make this technology for sale.

Patagonia Inflation Vest
The PSI vest is a product of years of prototyping and testing. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia

But you can't just click “buy” on Patagonia's website, nor can you just walk into a Patagonia brick and mortar and ring up a PSI Vest. There are qualifications required; a mini vetting process so-to-speak.

“To be eligible to purchase a vest we would require that there's some sort of formal big-wave safety training,” Jason McCaffrey, Patagonia's director of surf, told GrindTV.

“Upon showing proof that the customer has been through an approved certified course, you'd get $250 off of the retail price of the vest. We don't want to make people pay an extra fee to go through a course. So that just offsets the total cost of the course from the vest.”

By “formal big-wave safety training,” McCaffrey means the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG) Safety Summit, held each winter on the North Shore of Oahu. BWRAG, an organization founded by big-wave surfers and lifeguards, leads a three-day safety course that combines on-water jet ski training and in-classroom safety clinics, taught by legends of the sport and of water safety like Kohl Christensen and Brian Keaulana.

“This is all just to ensure that people are serious about going out into big waves,” said McCaffrey. “It'd be pretty easy to buy this thing and take off and go wherever you want to go, knowing you have this 'bulletproof parachute.' But that's definitely not the case. This vest can't replace any type of experience, both physical and mental, of being out there. So we want people to go through the ropes so that they don't put themselves or others in danger. Sure it's a hoop to jump through, but it's a good one.”

Andrea Moller by Doug Falter
Big Wave Awards 2016 Women’s Best Performance Winner Andrea Moller brushes up on her CPR at the BWRAG summit. Photo: Courtesy of Doug Falter

While one might say this stipulation makes it harder for surfers to get safer equipment, leading members of the big-wave world back the brand's policy.

“I think that it's great that Patagonia does some sort of process of selection where people have to go through certain training to get the vest," Danilo Couto, big-wave surfer and co-founder of BWRAG, told GrindTV. “This is spreading a certain consciousness instead of just relying on a vest, which isn't always 100 percent reliable, especially when you really need it. That could be a really dangerous situation for someone only relying on one thing without any other knowledge or training.”

“There are other sports that have certain qualifications,” continued Couto. “You have to take a course in order to be SCUBA certified, right?”

The other notable part about Patagonia's PSI Vest release is in its patent, which the company wants to license to other brands that are interested in the technology.

But there’s no profit motive here – Patagonia pledges to donate all licensing fees to the Punta de Lobos Por Siempre enviro-project, an initiative led by Save the Waves and Chilean surfer Ramón Navarro to protect Punta de Lobos, an iconic wave in Chile now threatened by development.

As far as whether another brand licensing Patagonia’s technology will require its buyers to present the same certifications … that’s up to them. But McCaffrey hopes licensees would want the same and would encourage their buyers to be responsible.

“I think the way we're doing it is the highest road we can take without being exclusionary,” McCaffrey told GrindTV. “Because what if someone wants to really surf big waves and something happens? I wouldn't want to have that on my shoulders either.

“But if someone goes out with the vest, who’s been through the course and they're serious … then it keeps some sort of order within the chaos that exists out there.”