Improve Visibility of Water Skiers, Wake Boarders, & Tubes: Senior Design Project

Increasing the daytime visibility of water skiers, tubers, banana boat riders, wake boarders wakeboarders, kneeboarders, donuts, tubes, and inflatable tow toy riders being towed by a boat or Personal Watercraft (PWC), especially after they fall can help prevent them from being struck by a boat or boat propeller.

These riders and their implements need to be easily seen and detected both when they are up water skiing, boarding, wake boarding, tubing around the lake AND when they fall from their ride and are awaiting being picked up or to ride again.

Maximizing their visibility can prevent them from being ran over in many instances.

John Mansour and family

John Mansour and family

The popularity of towed tubes and other tow toys has placed many more of these on our waters. Children often ride them. The last few years many young children have been severely struck by boats and/or propellers while tubing. The recent Sunday 14 July 2013 Mansour accident on Sylvan Lake in Michigan (two children dead, one in critical condition) motivated us to action.

John Mansour was on a PWC pulling his three children on a tube when the tube was struck by a ski boat. Alex (11) was declared dead at the hospital, Gabrielle (6) died a few days later, Adriana (10) was in critical condition for several days. Their mother was nearby on shore when the accident happened. The funeral for Gabrielle and Alex is today, July 19, 2013.

We suggest a College Senior Design Project or Capstone Project or Design Team Project would be an excellent means to develop some possible High Visibility towed sports solutions. Engineering students, safety students, recreation students, textile design, clothing design, and industrial design students are among those with useful skills for this project.

If you are a college / university student or graduate student interesting in working on increasing the visibility of water skiers, wake boarders, those on tubes & inflatable donuts, and others in the water, please contact us (see Contact Us tab on top menu). We may be able to find you some resources and connections plus we may be able to assist some ourselves.

Existing Approaches

Existing approaches include:

  • Wearing a bright colored life vest or jacket / PFD
  • Pointing their skis or wake board / wakeboard, kneeboard up to attract attention
  • Water Skier Flag, often swings up to be displayed and back down to be hidden. Is to be displayed when a skier is down, a skier is preparing to ski, the ski line is extended from the vessel, or the ski line is near the vessel. It is not to be displayed when the skier is up and skiing.
  • Waving, yelling, screaming
  • Norcross Marine Skier Alert SP (and XP) – wireless tag / fob clipped on skier is detected by system on boat. If tag goes underwater, alarm sounds. Immediately alerts operator to fallen skier, tuber, etc. to help minimize the time they are in the water.
  • Swimming Buddy – vertical tube behind life jacket rises when you enter the water for increased visibility. U.S. Patent 8,251,763.

Review of Previously Proposed Methods

There are many more patents in this field than those shown below, but the ones listed are representative of the basic approaches suggested by inventors. The most popular theme among inventors is a flag mounted on your life jacket that is either automatically or manually erected when you are in the water.

  • Extendable flags attached to life jackets: U.S. Patent 4,035,856, U.S. Patent 4,598,661, U.S. Patent 5,651,711, U.S. Patent 5,671,480, U.S. Patent 5,893,786, U.S. Patent 6,289,840
  • Personal Visibility Marker – inflatable extension to life jacket for increased visibility – U.S. Patent 8,298,028 partially resembles Swimming Buddy
  • Skier hat flat that can be manually flipped up: U.S. Patent 3,213,823
  • Upper arm mounted extendable flag U.S. Patent 5,114,369
  • Self erecting visibility device (kin to Swimming Buddy) U.S. Patent 5,800,227

Our Suggestions to Those Trying to Increase Visibility of Towed Sport Participants

  • The best approach might be several approaches. Different people, ages, and activities may cluster to certain alternatives and avoid the use of others.
  • The best approach for many may be the least invasive. Something that changes very little about the current way of doing things, requires no additional equipment, etc. For example, clothes or life jackets that flash when you are in the water.
  • The best approach would not require special equipment on other boats (if they do not have it, your system does not work)
  • We suspect the acceptance of any approach will be strongly tied to how “cool” it looks. Appearance is a dominant marketing factor in towed sports.

Other Applications With Need for High Visibility

Something might be learned from other applications requiring high visibility for safety. Plus novel solutions for the towed on the water application might have usefulness in some of these applications.

  • Road workers
  • Crossing guards
  • Motorcycle, bicycle, moped riders
  • Pedestrians
  • Open water swimming
  • Life Jackets
  • Emergency Responders
  • Airport ramp workers

High Visibility Colors on the Water

Those investigating high visibility colors for use on the water will find the 2011 Mustang Survival study invaluable. We have multiple links to different versions of in in the References section near the bottom of this page. This video on Vimeo is a great introduction to the study.

Useful Visibility Search Terms

  • Conspicuity – characteristics of an object influencing the probability that it will be detected by coming to the attention of the observer. Color and luminance contrast affect conspicuity.
  • Search and Rescue (SAR) researchers study how easy it is to see something
  • Situational Awareness

Some Technologies With Potential Application to Increasing Visibility of Tubers and Other Towed Sports

It looks like there are six opportunities to increase visibility of those being towed, (1) do something to the boat, (2) do something to the tow rope, (3) do something to the towed implement, (4) do something to the person, (5) do something to the air or water around the person, (6) do something to more that one of these opportunities (such as point a light at the person and water around them from the boat).

We note there are ways other that visibility of drawing our attention to an object on the water (sound, vibration, smell, taste in the air, etc.)

Some technologies and thoughts that might be applicable, beyond those currently employed, include:

  • Towed tube & inflatable tow toys scoup up some water and shoots up a rooster tail (some already do this)
  • LEDs, blinking LEDs
  • Vibration powered or wave motion powered or Piezo (force powered) LEDs
  • Auto detect people or objects in front of the boat
  • Optimum colored towed tubes and implements for extreme visibility
  • Clothing and/or life jackets that flash off and on when partially submerged
  • Use of fluorescent colors
  • Blink colors (garment or life jacket / PFD changes between colors)
  • Automatic life jacket detection systems
  • Color the water around you with a capsule
  • Brightly colored rubber wigs – look funny for fun and visibility, might appeal to youth
  • Swift Water Rescue uses high visibility lines (possible application to tow ropes)
  • Stretch on high visibility forearm pads. They might blink when wet.
  • Color kids arms or hair for a day with waterproof coloring that is easy to remove
  • Beacon mounted on boat wake board tower automatically locks onto riders when they fall. It paints a high visibility light on the water around them. It could use computer image tracking, gps technology, laser tracking, or some other means to stay locked on them till the boat returns to them. There are currently several systems that can visually detect people in the water.
  • Manually operated pump shoots water up in the air, might be integrated with life jacket
  • Release smoke into the air
  • Minimize the time those towed spend in the water – somehow get them back up faster or in the boat faster.
  • We recall reading of a firm reviewing high visibility studies to find clues to improving camouflage designs. It might work the other way around too. Studying camouflage technologies might give you some high visibility ideas.
  • Popular slogans to increase the use of your application, such as Mustang Survival’s “Wear Green and be Seen”

Some Related Ideas to Towed Sport Participants Being Ran Over

Busy lakes require even greater visibility. Boat operators may be focusing on one hazard after the next (watching the boat over there approaching us, then watching the boat about to cross our path, then whoops there is somebody in the water. If the boat operator had not been sequentially focused on the many potential problems around them, they may have seen the individual in the water much earlier.

We have previously suggested that when the water gets too busy, its a good idea to take a break for a while, go to shore, go to town, take a nap, work on your equipment, gas up, etc. Especially if some of the boaters around you are getting too wild on the crowded conditions, or alcohol is being used in excess.

The size and layout of the lake is important to visibility. Large open lakes afford much better vision. Smaller lakes or lakes with nooks and crannies and entrances here and there can place someone in front of you in a hurry. Hills, trees, and vegetation can also block vision around the bends in the lake.

Getting out on the water early on busy holiday weekends may gain you access to a less crowded lake.

Design Considerations for High Visibility Towed Sports

Basic engineering issues of being very durable, waterproof, sunlight resistant, vibration resistance, and salt water resistance for ocean applications will apply to several approaches.

If the device is battery powered or has an on-of switch, people need to be alerted when to use it and when it is no longer functioning (needs new battery, or is broken).

The Coolness factor will be very important. How slick you look wearing or using the device / approach will be important to market penetration and the number of people that actually use the device or approach.

Visibility / detection is well known for being different for objects directly in the middle of our view and for those on the peripheral of our vision. Any new approach will need to be tested both ways.

When boats being to accelerate (take off) their bow often rises reducing forward visibility of the operator. Making people in the water more visible during acceleration is important.

Reference Materials for High Visibility on Water

  • The Mustang Survival Color Study
    • On-Water Visibility Study. Review of Final Report.
      includes link to pdf report: On-Water Visibility Study: Determining the Most Visible Colour That Can Be Worn by Floating Subjects. Research Funded by WorkSafeBC. Principle Investigator/Applicant Wendell Uglene (Mustang Survival). RS2009-IG30. August 2011.
    • Mustang Survival On-Water Visibility Study. 12 minute video on VIMEO.
  • Report No. 265. Field Study of Detectability of Colored Targets at Sea. Human Engineering Branch. Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Navy Department. Project NM 0002 002 014.09.03. 26 May 1955. U.S. Naval Medical Research Laboratory. Submarine Base, New London. Conn.
  • A Simple Guide to Conducting Ground Search and Rescue Detection Experiments. Volume II. Appendixes. Potomac Management Group. 20 May 2006. Prepared for: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. U.S. Coast Guard Office Of Search and Rescue. Contract # HSCG32-04-D-R00005.
  • American National Standards Institute (ANSI) 107 Standard for high visibility garments.


As always, we are continually seeking sponsors for research projects like this one. This particular project has a high appeal to college students (outdoor recreation, skiing, wake boarding, etc.) but to really attract college students it needs some funding or cool stuff. Money or travel (to boat, tube, ski, wake board factories, test sites, competitive sites, laboratories, research labs helps) attract them. Travel to some busy lakes around the country to observe detection issues, factory tours, free branded clothing (caps, hats, t-shirts) are nice. Access to a boat and some gas money would be helpful as well.

Pizza is well known for livening up college design team brainstorming sessions. Even a few hundred dollars on a national pizza chain prepaid card could help attract students to the project.

We have a general page with more research project sponsorship information.

This project should especially be interesting to companies in the towed sports and tow boat business because if things continue to get worse, their business is going to eventually feel the brunt of the safety issues. We invite anyone interested in sponsoring or partially sponsoring a college student research project in this field to visit with us using the Contact Us tab on the top menu.

Our Other College Student Senior Design / Capstone Projects

Please visit our Research Projects category to see other college student design project ideas and the finished work of several design teams as well.


  1. Armando Rositas

    I recently had a gentleman contact me in reference to my invention SWIMMING BUDDY. I asked as I always like to know where he heard of it, he gave me your website. I just finished reading your column … I thank you for this, I do not know exactly how or if you can use Swimming Buddy in your research or how many students you have at one time but I feel compelled to donate several to your research. I just recently received an assessment from Lifeguards Without Borders (Jacksonville, Fl.) … Feel free to contact me by phone or email.

    Armando Rositas
    Swimming Buddy Inc.

    • Thank you very much for your offer. We really appreciate it when manufacturers offer to help in anyway, and thanks for your efforts to improve the visibility of people in the water. I will contact you by email.

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