Originally Posted by amarinesurveyor
I remember back in the 80's when I was sailing a Swan 44 around pretty regularly, the raft was due for re-padking and the owner of the boat said; Ok I think it's time for a life raft drill. We proceeded to act like we had an emergency and get the raft in the water and pull the rip cord, on a mooring in Newport harbor! I forget how long it took us exactly to be in the raft, but it was just a couple of minutes for the 4 of us to be in the raft with the grab bag. It was quite the experience, in a non-emergency...good practice.
Somewhere in the back of my brain is a notion that inflating your raft by "pulling the cord" shouldn't be done unless it's really necessary. When we had our raft repacked at the Winslow factory in Florida they manually unpacked it and inflated it with compressed air. I seem to remember that using the compressed gas to inflate the raft subjects elements of the inflation mechanism or the raft material proximate to the inflation mechanism to extreme cold generated by the expanding gas, and that this is not good. Obviously, it's OK to do when you need it, as that will probably be the only time it's done (assuming the raft is abandoned after a rescue) -- but that repeated inflations weakens critical components. Maybe someone with better knowledge on this subject could chime in here.
Most manufacturers recommend repacking every year or 3 years, by a facitily that is certified by the manufacturer. It is important for it to be done when specified, because the more years you put it off, the more it costs, and then there might be the time when they say "sorry we can't repack your raft. If you are diligent you can get many years from a raft. Most times when I survey a boat with a raft, it is past due for inspection.
I also remember from discussions with the Winslow factory people that one of the reasons you get it repacked very so often is to lessen fatigue on the fabric at the fold points. If the fabric remains folded in the exact same place for years, it loses strength. Periodic inflation and repacking puts folds in slightly different places. This may be why some shops won't repack a raft that's seriously out of date.
In addition, one of the causes of degradation of rafts is moisture and it's effect on metal components of the inflation mechanism. Periodic repacking allows the insides of the raft package to dry out and metal parts to be inspected. I believe Winslow pioneered the idea of a "3 year pack" by using vacuum packing that adds a layer of moisture protection to the raft/contents. Other's may have followed suit, I don't know. One of the downsides of three years between repacks is that all the gear packed with the raft must have expiration dates that go beyond the due date of the next repack.
I'll admit I'm no saint when it comes to expiration dates, but I rarely let the raft go much more than a year beyond its due date for the reasons stated above. Given it's initial cost, I want to get as many years out of it as possible. Given the intended use, I want it to work as advertised if needed.