Gunnar Guddal, 77; Invented Lifesaving Immersion Suit

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006

Gunnar Guddal, 77, an inventor and businessman whose neoprene survival suit, or immersion suit, is credited with saving the lives of countless mariners swept overboard into frigid waters, died of congestive heart failure May 11 in Seattle.

Mr. Guddal invented his oversize, insulated suit with a watertight zipper in the late 1960s, then spent more than 20 years trying to persuade change-resistant fishermen to wear the outfit on the high seas. He demonstrated the suits on Puget Sound docks, had his young daughter model them in a wading pool at marine trade shows and gave away some for fishermen to try out.

"Fishermen consider themselves immortal, manly men," said Kurt Hines, an engineer in the Coast Guard's lifesaving and fire safety standards division. "It's hard to get fishermen to spend that kind of money."

So it wasn't until 1991, when the U.S. Coast Guard began requiring commercial ships to carry the suits as part of their lifesaving gear, that they became widely used. Immersion suits, made of the synthetic rubber neoprene, greatly extend the amount of time a person can survive in cold water before hypothermia sets in, typically from minutes to 12 hours or more.

Hundreds of people have been saved by the suits, including a Detroit woman on her first fishing trip to Alaska. After her boat went down, she climbed into the suit and survived in 33-degree water for nine hours. She drifted onto a beach, where she survived an additional 10 days with the air temperature in the 20s. She was rescued and sent Mr. Guddal a card every Christmas.

In the first few years after the suit was available, fishermen would show up at Mr. Guddal's Seattle home to thank him for saving their lives, his daughter Kari said. Later, letters would arrive from all over the world describing how the suit was the difference between life and death. "It really brought home how important it was," Kari Guddal said.

Although Mr. Guddal is credited by the Coast Guard as the inventor of the immersion suit, there were earlier versions of survival suits in use during World War II, said Norm Lemley, technical director of the U.S. Marine Safety Association. A neoprene wet suit developed in the early 1950s is often credited to University of California physicist Hugh Bradner. Other people devised a watertight zipper and inflation and deflation valves.

"I guess what made my dad's [suit] different is that it worked for the purpose," said Kari Guddal, now the president of the firm her father started to import marine electronics and fishing gear. "There were different suits throughout history that people experimented with -- the Native Americans used whale blubber, and others made wet suits. But his was a very functional immersion suit."

Mr. Guddal was born near Bergen, Norway, and moved to the United States in 1956, first working as a farmhand in North Dakota and then as a forest firefighter in Alaska before settling in Washington state with his wife, Elsie. His wife and daughter survive him, as do two brothers, a sister and a granddaughter.

Inspired by his grandfather, who died at sea, Mr. Guddal began tinkering with a suit to keep fishermen, oil rig workers, sailors on container ships and any other mariners unlucky enough to end up in the water alive long enough to be rescued.

Once he was happy with the survival suit design, he worked persistently to get it into common use by fishermen, who work in one of the nation's most dangerous professions. He never patented the suit, his daughter said, because a lawyer said he would have to spend so much time defending the patent that he'd miss out on the market. There are now a number of firms that compete with the Guddals' Imperial International Inc. in manufacturing and sales.

The immersion suit was not his only invention. He also created deep-sea rubber bobbins, which drag fishing nets along ocean-floor fishing grounds; long-line snaps; and an instant course plotter.

The Coast Guard gave Mr. Guddal an award in 2003 for his "outstanding, sustained contributions to marine safety," and then-Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) lauded him in the Congressional Record. Mr. Guddal, by most accounts a quiet, hardworking man, celebrated by putting a set of new snow tires on his car.

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