Buoy, oh buoy, did John Ruffing take a different path as an inventor.
First, the Ahwatukee man – Mountain Pointe Class of ’99 – quit his job to travel around the world for five years, pursuing his passion for kiteboarding, fishing and stand-up paddling.
Along the way, he realizes he has lost so many hats to his water pursuits that he designed and prototyped a floating hat.
Now, he and his globe-trotting buddy in Washington State are growing a business, Buoy Wear, that is selling the floating hat.
He also is slowly expanding into a whole line of accessories for people who enjoy water sports – such as unsinkable sunglasses and velcroved beverage-container holders for surf and other water-sport boards.
It’s not the career track that Ruffing, 36, envisioned as a business and geographic information major at Northern Arizona University before getting into software sales.
“I did a 9-to-5 thing for quite a while,” he said. “It’s a scary thing to leap into what I did."
Then again, he added, "I definitely don’t have a lot of things.”
It’s just as well, because owning too many things would have weighed Ruffing down when he and his buddy Ryan Curtright, Curtright’s wife and the couple’s 3-year-old daughter decided to chuck it all and explore the world – and kiteboard, fish and “SUP” every ocean, lake and river he could find in South America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.
To understand his idea for the floatable hat, you have to understand his longtime love affair with kiteboarding – which uses a board attached to a sail to soar well over 50 feet above the surface of water.
He got into it after watching some kiteboarders in Seattle and, as he explained, “Once you see someone jump 40 feet into the air, it really grabs your attention.”
It didn’t just grab him. It grabbed his hats.
“Kiteboarding is what really inspired me to make the hat because I would lose so many,” he said.
So, he started on his round-the-globe odyssey, giving kiteboarding lessons and writing for a kiteboarding magazine to support his freewheeling lifestyle and carrying his 5-foot board and 45-foot inflatable sail – folded, of course – from country to country, beach to beach.
He chose his destinations based on the countries’ windy season so he could teach kiteboarding while there.
“When I was traveling, I needed a hat for everything, but I lost so many that I just started thinking about a way to not lose them,” he said.
Two years into his adventure, Ruffing was in Peru – where, he said, “they have a lot of tailors.”
He took his designs to a tailor there and eventually had a prototype for the unsinkable hat. He had them make about
“I made a lot of prototypes,” he said. “It helped to speak Spanish. Once I had the prototypes, I took them along with me and looked for hat makers. No hat maker I ran into had ever seen a hat like this.”
He worked on an endless line of prototypes and designs for nearly two years before perfecting it and finding a manufacturer in China – “I couldn’t find a company in the U.S. that could make them,” he said.
The hat is not much different from caps you see on the heads of thousands of people, the back half made of a mesh-like material and the front sporting a broad brim.
The secret – for which Ruffing and Curtright have a patent pending – is what sets his hat apart from all the rest.
“There is no water retention. It looks and feels like a normal hat, but it’s really only for people who love the water,” said Ruffing, adding that his invention “is not only a floating hat but one that has combined style and practicality for use on and off the water.”
Retailing for $30 online at his website, buoywear.com, the hat comes in only four solid colors and camouflage. With its polyester-like material, the hat dries in less than five minutes if it landed in the water and it retains its shape. It’s best not to wring it out or jam it too tightly in a bag because it “won’t look as good,” Ruffing said.
With a centralized distribution center near Seattle, Ruffing and Curtright are marketing the floating hat mainly through online sites and the contacts Ruffing has made in the small but international kiteboarding community.
“I have a decent name in the kiteboarding world, so right now I’m pushing it through magazines, news releases just to develop brand awareness,” he said.
Once it snows in north country, he’ll also market his hat to skiers at Snow Bowl.
“People see the hat in competitions, and they like it. I’m also trying to reach the ‘influencers’ in these sports,” he added.
He and Curtright also are branching out, adding accessories slowly for water sports – an area where surprisingly few accessories exist despite the popularity of activities like surfing and the growing number of fans of sports like kiteboarding.
He thinks he’s hit a sweet spot, adding “We like to think we’re innovating.”