Givens' creation features a unique ballast mechanism—a flexible neoprene-coated nylon hemisphere on the raft's underside. When filled with water, it keeps the raft's center of gravity under the topside where survivors sit. Givens says the raft thus floats with the pitch and roll of the sea, and if it should turn over, the ballast bag will right it. Out of the water, the bag resembles an inverted parachute attached to the raft bottom, which is no coincidence. In Korea as a paratrooper, Givens recalls, "I met several fighter pilots whose buddies had died after ditching in the sea because their rafts kept turning over. On my next jump, I looked up at my parachute and thought, 'I don't know why there couldn't be one of these at the bottom of a life raft.' I didn't have an engineering degree but even then I knew how things worked."
A dropout who earned his high school diploma in the service, Givens prospected for gold in California among other jobs after discharge, but all the while he tinkered obsessively with his raft concept ("My wife thought I was crazy, a real banana"). By 1974 Givens' first raft—and marriage—was finished. (Now remarried, he and wife Meredith have two daughters.) To date he has sold 6,000 of the rafts, which range from a six-person, $3,995 model to a $6,300 version holding 25. He also has an agreement with NASA, which is exploring use of his technique for space shuttle emergencies. Last year Givens grossed $1 million.
The Coast Guard has approved his raft but still authorizes conventional flat-bottom designs too, which infuriates the inventor. He claims his raft has saved 223 lives, including those of survivors who rode out Hurricane Fico in 1978 and Hurricane Allen last year. "I have brought fathers home, preventing their kids from being orphans," says Givens, a Brooklyn-raised orphan himself. "I feel I may get to heaven."
Your goddamn raft really works." That was how Massachusetts fisherman Robert Scott began a phone call last December to James Givens of Tiverton, R.I. After abandoning their 83-foot dragger Christina, Scott and four shipmates had survived a North Atlantic storm in a Givens Buoy Life Raft. The raft, Scott told the 48-year-old inventor, "did exactly what it was expected to do. It wouldn't turn over." The seas had been a terrifying 32 feet, the winds 85 knots.