Our mission was simple: build the world’s best water safety device, hands-down, bar-none. To achieve that we knew that it would need to be comfortable, non-intrusive, versatile, stylish and functional or more simply put, a life jacket that you actually want to wear. We set out to create a vest that enhances your performance rather than limiting it, a vest sleek enough and tough enough for the world of big wave surfing but affordable enough for the everyman. We’re proud to say that we’ve achieved these goals and more, the Wingman is here, water safety will never be the same...but we’re just getting started.
The idea for the Wingman began in 2012; I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and signed up for my first triathlon, a Half-Ironman. I was nervous as the race approached as I had never been a great swimmer and hadn’t had much experience swimming distance in the open water. Race day came, the wind was blowing and the water was choppy, I struggled but managed to complete the race. Tragically, another participant drowned during the race while countless others were pulled out of the water by lifeguards. I found out about the tragedy at the finish line and was incredibly saddened by how preventable it seemed, there were dozens of lifeguards watching and hundreds of other swimmers in the water and yet racers could still fall through the cracks. I did more research and came to find out that this was not an isolated incident, in fact swim deaths are one of the biggest issues facing the sport of triathlon. After thinking about my own race experience I believed that the most direct solution to the issue would be to turn every swimmer into his or her own life guard by giving them the power to rescue themselves. The solution I pictured was a sleek inflation vest that wouldn’t slow you down or assist you unless you needed it, wherein if you found yourself in an emergency, you could pull a ripcord and instantly float to safety.
I assumed this already existed and went looking for one to wear during my next race. To my surprise, there were no products on the market that met my needs. Foam life jackets were inherently buoyant and bulky while existing inflatables all shared the same design flaws. They were loose-fitting, awkward, had all of the components in the wrong places, and weren’t designed to be used for in-water activities. It was obvious that there was massive need for innovation in the life jacket market, if designed correctly, this vest’s utility would extend far beyond the world of triathlon, it would revolutionize surfing, protect free divers, and if US Coast Guard Approved, would surpass the existing life jacket options for all traditional water sports. With these lofty goals as my North Star, I began designing the ideal water safety device.
I began by sewing the first prototypes on our home sewing machine, many of the key design features currently used in the Wingman (ie. CO2 cylinder on the back, over the shoulder ripcord, Triple Bursting Zipper, etc.) were created during this stage. As the design began to take shape, it became obvious that my rudimentary sewing skills wouldn’t take us any further and we enlisted the help of professionals, Laacke and Joys Design & Manufacturing in Downtown Milwaukee began to sew our prototypes from there. After years of designing and testing, dozens of prototypes and countless iterations we finally had our completed design.
Though the product was nearly done, our biggest challenge was still ahead of us, US Coast Guard Approval. All along we knew that USCG Approval was necessary in order for the vest to have the revolutionary impact that we intended, water safety products that lack USCG approval are unproven and relegated to fringe use cases that never make the main stream; in order to change behavior and create maximum impact our vest would need the USCG approval. Having believed this all along, we were balancing the most radical design innovations we could create with the USCG standards to ensure that the Wingman would pass the USCG testing process.
As we began the USCG testing process it immediately became apparent that we would need to find a new factory. Though our goal had been to manufacture these vests in the US (and even more specifically, in Milwaukee) the USCG made it clear that we would need to find a facility that was already making USCG approved product. We began our search and came to the surprising realization that there were no USCG approved facilities in the US that could make this product, the few manufacturing facilities in the world that were capable of making the Wingman were all international. We began discussions with a few of these factories and quickly selected the factory with the strongest reputation, track record, and quality control standards. We gained added confidence when we learned that our factory also makes most of the water sports products for the biggest outdoor brands in the world, we were in good hands and good company.
Our new factory began producing prototypes and it was obvious that their decades of experience in the water sports market would be an invaluable asset as we put the finishing touches on the vest. Their production capabilities even allowed us to expand our imagination and vision for what the Wingman could be. We had set out to create the world’s thinnest and most comfortable life jacket, we had achieved that, but then we began to think, what if your life jacket could do more than simply stay out of the way? What if it could carry your hydration bladder for you so you don’t also have to wear a hydration pack? What if it had chest packs for fishing and snacks, had connection points for camera mounts and accessories, had pockets for keys or phones? We began to add all of this functionality without compromising the thin profile or comfort of the vest. These all became added optional accessories that allow you to use the vest for one activity one day, ie. fishing with hydration bladders and chest packs one day, and another activity, ie. big wave surfing the next. Suddenly, the product could do more, we realized this added functionality would help us to fulfill our original mission of increasing water safety; if your life jacket was both comfortable and served multiple purposes you were much more likely to wear it. The Wingman was no longer simply the thinnest life jacket in the world but now also the most versatile.
With these design enhancements complete we underwent the USCG approval process. This hurdle is the primary inhibitor of design innovation in the water safety space, it is notorious for being a sometimes bottomless sinkhole of time and money for companies trying to get new products approved. Luckily our years of preparation allowed us to breeze through it in a relatively swift 8 months with no meaningful design modifications. The Wingman was now US Coast Guard approved.
We immediately began our initial production run and have been producing and selling the Wingman since 2016. We continue to develop new technologies and have a roadmap of future Wingman accessories that will push the boundaries of water safety beyond what was ever thought possible in the future!
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