Iconic Flotation Devices on Film

Top Ten: PFDs

Baywatch may have made the red lifeguard torpedo float a familiar sight to TV watchers, but it’s not the only object that bobs up to the top of the pop culture imagination when it comes to PFDs

By The Ex-Press

(May 30, 2017) Baywatch’s red torpedo may be the most famous, but as summer approaches and boating season begins in earnest, The Ex-Press felt it was time to celebrate the personal flotation device and its other star turns, from Titanic’s grand finale to Benjamin Braddock’s extended backyard float.

Goat Skin Life Preserver

The Earliest Life Preservers: Inflated Goat Skins

The formal history of what we now call the “PFD” dates back to 1854, when a British naval inspector by the name of Ward created a cork vest to be worn by lifeboat crews. Yet, there are images of Assyrian sailors using inflated animal skins as early as 860, as well as the creation of a formal anti-drowning society that dates back to 1767. Humans and water have a love-hate relationship: We’re drawn to the water’s edge, but according to the scant data available to the World Health Organization, about 360,000 people die of submersion every year, with children representing at least 50 per cent of the victims, and children under the age of five having the highest drowning mortality rates worldwide.

The best way to save yourself, your family, and your pet is putting on a PFD, because as the crew of Baywatch knows, whether you’re going deep or staying shallow, it’s always safety first. That said, some of these iconic floaters aren’t certified life-saving aids, but they still bob up to the top of the pop culture PFD pantheon.



Thanks to Baywatch, the red torpedo float gained as much fame as Pamela Anderson’s cleavage over the course of its decade-long run. To many, it seemed like a new tool, but the torpedo float was invented in 1919 by Henry Walters of the American Red Cross Life Saving Corps. It’s considered the go-to lifeguard float because of its streamlined design, as well as its multiple handholds, allowing several victims to be rescued at once.

Baywatch Johnson Efron

It’s Red and Shaped like a torpedo: Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron in Baywatch, with mandatory red torpedo rescue float.

Red Torpedo Float

It Floats, Baby: David Hasselhoff poses with the iconic float from the original Baywatch TV show.


The White Star Line never thought any of its passengers would need a life vest on Titanic’s maiden voyage, yet more than 1500 souls perished in the icy waters off Newfoundland. The vests are seen throughout the grand finale of James Cameron’s disaster romance, and you can even buy one of the replica canvas vests used in the film for about $1500 US.

Titanic Life Vest: One of the remaining life vests from Titanic.

Titanic Finale

The sad farewell: Rose with her life vest, Jack in the water.



If you watched one or all of the 99 episodes of Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), you know the S.S. Minnow ran aground on an uncharted isle after the weather started getting rough, forcing its crew and eclectic group of passengers to scavenge the ship for decorative supplies. The helm of the vessel hung in the hut shared by Gilligan and the Skipper. The life ring adorned one of the hut doors. Life rings not only have the distinction of being the only type of ‘donut’ that can save you from drowning, they’re considered the first mass-produced life-saving device ever created. British naval officer Thomas Kisbee (1792-1877) is credited with creating the ring, which is then attached to a rope and thrown to a swimmer in distress. Because there is risk of injury to others, as well as the victim, the life ring is no longer considered suitable for swimming pool use. The Royal Lifesaving Society now insists on torpedo floats instead. As for the S.S. Minnow, it too is is afloat again. A man from Nanaimo, British Columbia refurbished the last remaining vessel used in the show and now runs three-hour tours around Nanaimo Harbour.

SS Minnow Life Ring

SS Minnow Life Ring: Improvised decor for shipwreck chic.



“…When she could no longer hide him, she took a papyrus basket for him, and coated it with tar and with pitch. She put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. His sister stood far off, to see what would be done to him…” These are the third and fourth verses is in Exodus 2, and they describe how Moses’s mother, fearing the death of her baby boy, placed him in a floating cradle later discovered by the pharaoh’s daughter. Moses was literally, “the boy plucked from water.” Later, he became the man who parted the Red Sea. Early Egyptians were some of the earliest mariners, creating rafts from bundles of reeds carefully assembled for maximum seaworthiness and navigational control. Images of these craft appear in petroglyphs dating to 3100 BCE. The idea of placing a baby in a miniature version of a raft makes sense, as it would force the infant to remain in a cradled position with its head up. Modern PFDs for infants are designed to accomplish the same thing, and some even bear a slight resemblance the ancient variety.

Moses Baby

Infant Moses as described in the Book of Exodus, found by the Pharaoh’s Daughter while Miriam watched from nearby.

Reed Craft Papyrus

Ancient Egyptian Reed Craft: Bundles of papyrus were carefully lashed together for maximum load bearing and seaworthiness. Moses’s reed cradle probably looked more like a miniature version of this.


Baby Flotation Device Infant

Where Did Body Go?: You can legally subject your infant to a collar that ensures that big baby noggin won’t sink.


It’s got a central role in one of the most iconic montage sequences in cinema history. Benjamin Braddock is floating through the phoney environment, the contained Eden of the swimming pool, before he rolls into the water and loses his innocence with Mrs. Robinson. The Sound of Silence is the only audio, time and place become abstracts through the edits, and we’re fully immersed in the watery world of Ben’s alienation. The air mattress is the floating barrier between him and the water, and becomes a passive symbol of non-committal. According to CNN, the air mattress was first patented by the Pneumatic Mattress & Cushion Company of Reading, Massachusetts in 1889. Created from vulcanized rubber and materials such as canvas, earliest air mattresses were used for sleeping aboard ships. Their use as pool toys came with the popularity of personal pools in the United States, beginning in the backyards of post-war suburbs, and rising to a peak in the years following desegregation. In an interview with NPR, Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, talks about middle America’s fear of sharing the water with black people. “…They built private club pools, which were able to continue to legally discriminate against black Americans. Or they built at-home residential pools, so they could really enclose themselves off from the larger public and truly exercise control over who they were swimming with.”

Graduate Ben Air Mattress

Not plastics: Vulcanized rubber made air mattresses possible.



She’s an icon in her own right. And there’s no doubt the woman born August 17, 1893 as Mary Jane West in Woodhaven, Queens, N.Y. to “Battling Jack” West was naturally buoyant. But the Mae West is also the common name for an inflatable life preserver patented by Peter Markus in 1928. The item is worn by the likes of John Wayne, and just about any war movie airman or armed forces personnel in need of emergency flotation, as well as full mobility. The device has been perfected over time to include a layer of thermal protection, with the University of Victoria — just down the straight of Georgia from Nanaimo — taking on a leading role. It’s where professor John Hayward modernized the science surrounding hypothermia and created the UVic Thermofloat.

Look Upstairs, Honey: Mae West knew what you wanted to see, and she let you know where to find it.

John Wayne Jet Pilot

Cooling his jets: John Wayne wears a Mae West for his Jet Pilot costume.

Fully Inflated: A Mae West as it appears in the video game Second Life



They were supposed to keep the shark from diving and serve as floats. Instead, they served as bright yellow fins… duhduhdundundun…..

Jaws Yellow Barrels

Floating version of the fin: The yellow barrels became as terrifying as the shark’s fin once they were attached to the great white with harpoons in an attempt to track and kill it. Things didn’t work out as planned.


Let’s face it he floats. And at times, he was the only thing Hanks’ Castaway could hold on to.

A star is born: Wilson becomes Tom Hanks’s only castmate in Castaway.

Goodbye Wilson: The Volleyball and best friend floats away in the final scenes of Castaway, forcing Tom Hanks’s character to make a decision to save himself, or save Wilson.


He’s the Christmas Poo! Matt Stone and Trey Parker created the character for South Park’s 1997 Christmas episode, satirizing every familiar Yule special’s message of hope, faith and goodness by turning it into a turd that talks like Mickey Mouse.

Mr Hankey Poo

Hidee-Ho! It’s Mr. Hankey the Christmas poo, the non-religious symbol for celebrating hope, faith and love for your fellow man.

10. HOPE

Hope Floats was a 1998 romantic drama with Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. that splashed down like Mr. Hankey and soon disappeared down the box-office toilet.

Hope Floats

Hope on a Rope: Hope Floats tanked at the box-office, but it spawned a saying that speaks to the buoyancy of the human spirit. Right?

Know any more floaters? Tweet your buoyant choices to @theexdashpress and we’ll add them to the list.

THE EX-PRESS May 30, 2017


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