A little more than a decade ago, Philip Curry was paging through a dreary U.S. Coast Guard document when he had a revelation.
Examining Coast Guard documents is not unusual for Curry, who founded Astral Buoyancy. The Asheville-based company manufactures personal floatation devices, which are subject to the agency’s rigid standards. But what inspired Curry on this occasion was the mention of a natural fiber called kapok, once used in PFDs.
Harvested from the tropics, the material was once so universally used that during World War II, Navy seamen referred to their life jackets simply as “kapoks.” It also gave shape to car seats, ballfield bases and pillows. By midcentury, however, it had been benched in favor of synthetic materials.
Oddly enough, Curry had never heard of kapok. “I knew I had to find out more about this stuff,” he recalls thinking. Heading out to his parents’ garage, he dusted off a moldy life jacket and sure enough, it was filled with kapok. Curry was amazed—so much so that he now speaks of kapok as if it were holy, a divine gift from Mother Nature.
Raised in Chattanooga and Charlotte, Curry started paddling as a teen in the mid-1980s. While on a kayaking trip in Idaho following his second year at Warren Wilson College, he saw a boater outfitted in a strikingly well-designed life vest. It was European-made—and prohibitively expensive. At the time, most boaters were settling for PFDs designed for sailors rather than paddlers—a problem in tight-fitting cockpits on testy rivers. “There was a fair bit of frustration among paddlers that PFD technology was lagging behind,” says Joe Pulliam, who founded the South Carolina-based Dagger Kayaks and is now an outdoor-industry consultant.
“At that moment, the light bulb went off,” remembers Curry. The epiphany led him to launch Lotus Designs in 1993, with the aim of designing a life jacket specifically for kayakers. Many people, including Pulliam, credit Curry with setting the industry standard.
“All of a sudden here comes Lotus,” says Pulliam. “Their stuff was so much better than the rest: It fit better, looked better and lasted longer.”
The product was so good, in fact, that it soon caught the attention of outdoor equipment giant Patagonia, which eventually made Curry an offer he couldn’t refuse. The sale gave him the freedom to take a three-year sabbatical. Still, there was unfinished business.
In the early 1970s, polyvinyl chloride became the standard fill for PFDs, because it molds well, floats very well and is economical. In other ways, however, it’s far from ideal. Besides releasing toxins during production, PVC is hard to recycle. Moreover, since the fill is cut from sheets, its use in vests generates considerable waste. Roughly 20 percent of it is sent to the dump as scraps.
“The first shipment of PVC to Lotus freaked me out,” Curry recalls. “Lotus was purely functional-based. We hadn’t figured out the environmental side of things yet. It was always a problem for me.”
In light of Curry’s misgivings, a natural substance such as kapok seemed promising. He was hopeful that the bygone material could once again become the standard material for PFDs.
Not everyone shared Curry’s enthusiasm, though. When he mentioned his find to a Coast Guard regulator, the man squirmed as if Curry had asked to borrow his toothbrush. “He didn’t say no, but he wasn’t very encouraging,” says Curry.
Immersed in the daily operations of keeping Lotus afloat and the reality of bringing an outmoded material to market (getting a new product approved can take anywhere from six months to two years), he tabled his curiosity for a few years. But in April 2002—one day after a three-year, noncompetition clause in his deal with Patagonia expired—Curry launched Astral Buoyancy. “I was fired up,” he says. “I already knew I could design a functional PFD. This time I wanted to do it sustainably. The first challenge was to get away from PVC.”
The view from the lab
In the design lab at Astral Buoyancy’s Riverside Drive headquarters, Curry—heavy-lidded from the previous night’s work session, which stretched until 2 a.m.—is dressed unassumingly in a Penguin golf shirt. Half-finished life vests, samples and prototypes surround him. In his hand is a palm-sized sample of kapok, produced by the ceiba tree in the Indonesian rain forest. In its raw form, it looks like a feathery ball of cotton: elegant, weightless and eminently formable.
Those qualities, along with its naturally buoyancy and resistance to water and decay, are what make kapok a good fill. Better yet, no trees are harvested to produce it. Once the material is removed from the seedpods, the ceiba tree flowers again and a new crop of kapok grows. In addition, kapok produces little waste, is easily recycled, and growing it requires no chemicals.
Curry estimates that 40 percent of Astral’s vests are filled with kapok. And while most in the industry have followed his lead and abandoned PVC, none have embraced kapok (which costs more than alternatives and is flammable during production, though the final product is perfectly safe).
“For someone to start a cutting-edge company is tough. To do it a second time is remarkable,” says Pulliam.
This year Astral is introducing the industry’s first “breathable” life vest, and Curry is challenged with finding substitutes for other, less environmentally friendly materials still used in PFDs. The solution to his challenge may be awaiting development in a chemistry lab somewhere. But who knows? It might be out the garage, just waiting to be rediscovered.
[Jack Igelman lives in Asheville.]