In the 1960s, Cape Breton fisherman Floyd Mackenzie nearly drowned in an accident that ultimately claimed the life of a different crew member.

Mackenzie and his “hired man,” Ernest Brown, were jumping from their fishing boat into a dory. The smaller vessel destabilized, tipping both men into the water. Floyd managed to rescue himself by grabbing one of the rowboat’s oars. Brown was less fortunate. He was swept away by the tide, and his body was recovered later that day.

Today, Floyd’s great grandson is adamant that Brown could have survived if he had been wearing proper safety equipment. Ben Collins-MacKay is the founder of P.E.I.-based CM Marine Safety Equipment, which is designing a lifejacket integrated into waterproof oil pants like those fishermen already wear.

“The whole reason why a lot of (fishers) don’t wear the lifejackets that are out right now is they’re an external device that goes over your oil jacket,” said Collins-MacKay in an interview.

“They’re very bulky, they stick out probably a couple inches past your chest. So when you’re working on the boat, when you’re moving traps or picking up trays of fish and lobster, they’re always getting caught on stuff. They’re just getting in the way.”

CM Marine’s offering is designed to auto-inflate when it hits the water and comes with a transponder to aid rescue efforts. It will be integrated into the shoulder straps that hold up oil pants, and will come with an emergency whistle and a knife for cutting away tangled fishing gear.

“This (design) will maximize comfort and flexibility, and allow fishermen to work well in space, while still being safe at the same time,” said Collins-MacKay, who himself works in the industry.

In 2017, a Globe and Mail investigation found that more than 200 fishers had died on the job in Canada since 1999. Since then, deaths have continued at a rate of at least several per year, sometimes numbering in the double digits.

Collins-MacKay plans to partner with local manufacturers to produce specially designed oil pants tailored to accommodate the CM lifejacket. Inflatable lifejackets typically also require servicing, such as replacing carbon dioxide canisters, and oil pants usually only last a couple of fishing seasons, offering the promise of recurring revenue streams. Using in-house designs for the pants also means Collins-MacKay expects to be able to more easily work around constraints like the need to prevent the lifejacket from catching on the fabric when it inflates.

Tentatively, he said he expects to price the gear to compete with traditional oil pants and life jackets, which would mean somewhere around $500 for the set. But he warned that figure depends on the final design and costs.

On Monday, he became one of three entrepreneurs to win $50,000 from the Spark startup competition. He said he plans to use the funds to continue prototyping following a successful early build, as well as to lock down CM Marine’s intellectual property.

“My great grandfather was nearly killed out there,” said Collins-MacKay of the incident that inspired his company. “His hired man died that day. For us to still be facing the same problem 60 years later, it’s pretty ridiculous.”