Whether liferafts are permanently encased in a hard fiberglass case or packed in a soft fabric valise, their hidden nature renders them largely inaccessible to the probing minds of sailors. Many cruisers are capable of diagnosing electrical problems, fearless when it comes to valve adjustments or injector extraction, and gung-ho about any number of other maintenance feats that cruising requires, but when it comes to liferafts and servicing them, this is the terrain of authorized personnel only. The liferaft is a different story, a pandora's box of sorts, offering equal parts hope and terror. You hope it will work when you need it, but also know getting into it means confronting a worst-case scenario. There is the tendency to bypass the annual liferaft inspection based on budget constraints, half-founded ideas about safety margins, dealing with the host of competing chores a boat demands, and the propensity to think optimistically that you won't ever have to use it.
All liferafts require inspection. In the case of my unit, the Switlik Rescue Pod, and most others found on voyaging sailing vessels, this is an annual event. When inflatable liferafts were first approved in the 1960s, an annual servicing requirement was established in order to ensure that the rafts had fully charged cylinders, the fabric remained in good condition, and the equipment packed inside them was not damaged or outdated. Since then, liferaft manufacturers have designed and built their rafts with the understanding that they would be serviced annually, a fact worth noting since after the one-year mark comes and goes, the burden of responsibility falls squarely on the liferaft owner.
The Rescue Pod we have is designed to provide four individuals with a high-quality flotation platform with a canopy offering basic protection from the elements. Because of its relatively small size, the Rescue Pod is not be considered appropriate for severe weather and sea conditions, and according to the manufacturer, the Rescue Pod is described as a piece of equipment that fits somewhere between lifejackets and a life raft, at about a third the price of most offshore units. While our unit, a Switlik Rescue Pod, is not rated as an offshore model, in many ways it represented an acceptable compromise between our budget, safety outlook, and intended coastal route.
Regardless of what make and model your liferaft may be, it should only be serviced by an authorized dealer. All liferafts are not the same. The valves, the seams, the material, and the equipment inside rafts are all different. The best way to find a company to service your liferaft is to call the manufacturer for a list of the closest service representative.
Many sailors have the misconception that a liferaft in a hard fiberglass case is impervious to water. This is not the case. Actually, if you look at the bottom of all liferafts kept in hard fiberglass cases, you'll notice drain holes there, which allow water that makes its way in to the unit a way out. While the two halves of the casing have a gasket between them to keep water out, the main source of water intrusion is where the painter exits the unit. Water can also find its way into the raft via condensation as well.
Storing a liferaft below may be easier on it, but also demands a locker free from other clutter, designated solely for the unit. A unit inside can also be wedged into a tight spot and over time and enough vibration, the dimensions can change and make the raft difficult to remove in a panic situation. In the event of a fire, the bow is usually the last part of the boat to burn, and in the event of a sinking, the bow is also the last part of the boat likely to go under. However, if you must store your unit the cabin top, Lyons recommends having the plug face aft to minimize the amount of spray finding its way inside.
To deploy the raft, the drill is to attach the unit to a fixed point on the boat, heave it over the side to leeward, and pull the painter. This activates the CO2 canister, which inflates the raft. Some raft cradles can be mounted with a hydrostatic release, which releases the raft automatically once it becomes submerged to a certain depth. With this arrangement, a weak link in the painter attaching the raft to the vessel must be in place, and must break once the vessel sinks to a certain depth, allowing the raft to automatically deploy without being dragged down with the boat. Hydrostatic releases must also undergo yearly renewels. If a raft with a hydrostatic release is manually deployed, the weak link must first be broken, and the painter then secured to the vessel before the raft is thrown over the side. In non-hydrostatic arrangements, the painter is secured to a strong point on the vessel, and then thrown over the side.
To inspect the unit, Lyons clipped the stainless steel bands holding the canister together. These bands have holes drilled through them to allow the fiberglass halves to break away when the painter is pulled, although for inspection purposes the CO2 canister was not activated. The unit was then disconnected from the CO2 tank, spread out, and inflated with an air compressor, allowed to sit for 24 hours, and repacked. All batteries were replaced, the fabric inspected, a new set of stainless steel bands were put back on the case, as was the a placard noting the date of servicing. The total fee for was $192 and the turnaround was about a week, which in the larger scheme of boat expenses, strikes me as a small price for peace of mind, and a small price to see a vital piece of equipment fully deployed.
While an EPIRB is among one of the most important safety items, if a vessel has only one, it should not be stored inside the liferaft. There are many instances, piracy or a man overboard situation, when an EPIRB could need to be activated without having to inflate the liferaft. Image 5
In the event the raft inflates upside down, there is also a righting strap enabling the raft to be righted, similarly to how one would right a small dinghy. A knife to cut the painter and disconnect the liferaft from the vessel is also standard. The Rescue Pod has an orally inflated double-walled canopy to offer protection from the elements and keep heat inside. A ride in any liferaft is guaranteed to be a cold and wet one, and guarding against hypothermia should be chief on the mind of those getting into the raft. If at all possible, board the liferaft without getting into the water, and dress for a potentially long, wet ride.