bag on board

Oʻahu surfers Cathy Chin and Marlene Renee Smith yearned for a way to bring their favorite snacks out to their local break. For them, keeping food on hand meant avoiding a long paddle back to shore and having more time to ride waves.

“I had been trying to bring out protein cookies by attaching them to the back of my surfboard in a Ziplock baggie, but that did not work. All we wanted was to surf for longer, but we kept getting hungry and would have to paddle back in,” explained Chin. So, in January 2023, the two entrepreneurs began devising water-tight designs.

A surfer paddles out to a break on Oʻahu.


Smith created over 10 versions of a surf bag at home with her sewing machine and iron, ranging from Tyvek to sailcloth to polyester. Prototypes had to meet several criteria: be small enough to fit in board shorts and not create water drag, functional and waterproof with a good zipper, and durable to withstand wear and tear from the elements. She shared various options with other surfers and friends, including former professional surfer Keone Downing, who pushed Smith to consider repurposed material.

“Downing said something like, ‘You know, if you are surfers, then you care about the ocean and what you're taking out into it. Maybe you should look for some kind of recycled material.’ That triggered us to look at materials like old boat sails and busted party tents, but we struggled with those materials having too much sun exposure, too much degradation, too many holes in it, you name it.”

Then one day, the answer came to Smith: aviation life vests. 

Aviation life vests are stored beneath aircraft seats and replaced every 10 years.


“My husband works in aircraft maintenance, and we had a facility in the Netherlands doing maintenance work for private jets. I'd seen them take the expired life vests out of them and toss them in the trash,” she explained.

Aviation life vests are made with durable nylon and coated with polyurethane to make it waterproof. While the material can withstand the test of time in its packaging, the vest accessories can degrade or weaken, and manufacturers require airlines to replace them every 10 years. 

While enjoying another good surf day on Oʻahu’s South Shore, Chin and Smith paddled to their friend Brad Otani, an aircraft mechanic for Hawaiian Airlines, and inquired about the carrier's expired life vests. Between sets, they discussed their idea with Otani, who later put out feelers with colleagues. Then, in July 2023, Chin and Smith received a donation of 300 life vests from Hawaiian's Brand and Technical Operations teams.

Image by Think Blue
Brand and Community Specialist Janelle Bayne (left) helped coordinate Hawaiian Airlines' first donation of expired aviation life vests to Chin (right) and Smith.


“I thought it was great what they were doing and was happy to support,” Otani said. “I was one of the surfers who tested the prototype made from our aircraft vests and I still use mine today.”

That first donation allowed Chin and Smith to scale production and launch the Think Blue Surf Bag, a 100% waterproof pouch for surfers and outdoor enthusiasts. The Surf Bag can fit items like an electronic car key, a small protein bar or snack, surf wax, a small tin of sunscreen or lip balm, or a credit card and ID. It is available for purchase at and in select Oʻahu surf shops. 

Image by Think Blue
One of the various iterations of The Surf Bag. Because the bags are hand-cut, each item is unique and may have different patterns or images.


Thanks to its partnership with Think Blue, Hawaiian Airlines has so far given new life to 600 expired life vests. The collaboration adds to Hawaiian’s company-wide waste reduction efforts, including minimizing the use of single-use plastics, upcycling cabin materials, sourcing sustainable packaging and more. Details on these initiatives can be found in Hawaiian’s annual Corporate Kuleana report.

Tech Ops
The Hawaiian Airlines Tech Ops team who has helped facilitate the donation of expired life vests.


Adding to its success, in April 2024, Think Blue became one of 15 emerging brands to graduate from Founded Outdoors and REI Path Ahead Ventures’ Embark program, an outdoor business accelerator connecting Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x, Asian American and Pacific Islander founders to industry and startup experts as they learn best practices and gather valuable feedback on their businesses.

Cathy and Marlene
Image by Think Blue
Chin and Smith pictured at the 2024 Grassroots Connect Tradeshow in Reno, Nevada.


“We didn't have any big dreams or expectations about, like, saving the whole world or anything,” Smith said. “But if we could make something people liked and get enough people to buy it and make it affordable, I think we can make a significant dent.”