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The Human Access Project donated nearly $11,000 to buy the rings, and convinced the city to install them

COURTESY WILLIE LEVENSON  - An exhibit in an Amsterdam museum documents the invention of the life ring, or life preserver, by Leonardo da Vinci in 1487. The basic design has changed very little in 430 years. For a city that grew up along the Willamette River, Portland has given scant attention to basic water safety for those who fall into the cold waters.

Until now.

The all-volunteer Human Access Project has secured agreement by the city to install 25 life rings, purchased by the nonprofit, along the downtown sea wall The goal is to get them all installed by July 1, says Human Access Project ringleader Willie Levenson.

The life rings — also known as life preservers — will be attached to 90 feet of floating rope, available by punching a plexiglass window in a fiberglass cabinet.

COURTESY HUMAN ACCESS PROJECT  - Twenty-five of these cabinets, with life rings inside, will soon be installed along the sea wall in downtown Portland. "If you can throw a Frisbee, you can save a life; that is what is so important about a life ring," Levenson says.

The Willamette runs cold and quickly for all but the summer months, and can be perilous for people in the water due to motorized vessels and floating logs that can run the size of telephone poles, says Mark Herron, a sergeant with the Multnomah County Sheriff's River Patrol.

"If we can mitigate that liability, potentially with some kind of inflatable device, that saves lives every time," Herron says.

The rings could prove valuable when someone falls in the water, Levenson says, especially on the downtown side where the sea wall forms an imposing barrier. And even people that try to take their own lives by jumping off bridges often regret the decision as soon as they hit the water, Herron says.

Levenson credits a spirited discussion at last week's City Council hearing — on ways to improve active use of the river downtown, along with riverfront habitat — with clearing the way for the project. The Portland Bureau of Transportation quickly agreed to install the cabinets and life rings along the sea wall, which it controls.

It's hoped that the Parks bureau, which controls the esplanade on the east side of the river, will agree to install another 25 life rings later, Levenson says.

The parks bureau will seek guidance from Portland Fire & Rescue on where to put life rings on the esplanade, says bureau planning manager Brett Horner.

Levenson, whose group has been working to improve swimmers' access to the Willamette, says he was struck by the sight of life rings along the Chicago River during a recent speaking engagement there. Then, when he was traveling in Amsterdam, he came across a display of what's believed to be the first life ring — invented 430 years ago by none other than Leonardo da Vinci. The artist and scientist created a life preserver made of waterproof leather, sewed and filled with air. Da Vinci's basic design "has not been improved upon," Levenson marvels.

The fiberglass cabinets protect the life rings from damaging ultraviolet rays, and tend to fend off pranksters and vandals who might otherwise tamper with the life rings, says Scott Summers, sales manager for Cheyenne Manufacturing, which built the cabinets in the Salmon Creek area of Vancouver, Wash.

The Human Access Project purchased 25 of the cabinets, which come with the rings inside, for $10,850.

Cheyenne sells the rings nationally, including many in Washington.

"I haven't seen too many on the other side, on the Oregon side," Summers says.

"The need hasn't been there, to be frank," Herron says. But with increased swimming on the Willamette in the downtown area, it's time for safety measures to improve, he says.

Steve Law can be reached at 971-204-7866 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or Twitter at

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