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Repacking the Liferaft

The only time you want to see the inside of a liferaft—during the annual inspection at an authorized dealer.
When it comes to lifesaving equipment and the prospect of abandoning ship, no piece of gear has a stricken crew's immediate hopes pinned on it as much as the liferaft. Whether because of fire, collision with a floating object at sea, or being overwhelmed by the elements, the liferaft is expected to be an unfailing safety net in the event it is pressed into service.

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.

There's always trouble with calculating worst-case scenarios at long-shot odds. Unfortunately, there have been several recent cases in which liferaft repacking services used this kind of thinking, and in several cases, instead of repacking the liferaft in its hard container, old sails, sand, and other items were substituted in an unconscionable, for-profit act. In a two-year trip from San Francisco to Charleston aboard our intrepid 26-foot Westerly Centaur, there were many long hours to contemplate just what was in the hard fiberglass case strapped to its cradle up forward. Would we ever need it? Would it work? While I had purchased the unit new, watched the video, and read the testimonial and the other literature that came with the raft, having to use it as a survival platform would obviously be much different.

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.

All liferafts have righting straps in the event of a capsize. The ballast pockets (yellow squares) are designed to keep the raft stable by using seawater as stabilizing weight.
The Coast Guard has developed extensive experience over decades demonstrating that annual servicing generally ensures that liferafts remain in an acceptable condition of operational readiness. Annual servicing as a basic requirement for liferafts is the norm internationally, and for commercial ships on international voyages, it's required by an international treaty. Unfolding a liferaft periodically relocates the creases in the fabric, and also prevents chafing against the container or other fabric at the same points during long-term movement and vibration at sea.

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.

Spend enough time sailing over the horizon and you're apt to ponder whether your liferaft would be up to the task in the event of an emergency.
In my case, that happened to be River Services, Inc., located in Thunderbolt, GA, which specializes in marine, aviation, and fire and safety equipment. While I had harbored visions of launching my raft at a dockside barbeque prior to repacking it, in the end it seemed like the seaman-like thing to do would be to bring it to the experts. The first thing I noticed at their facility was the two, 20-man liferafts that were inflated and suspended off the floor on chairs, and the half dozen or so smaller rafts that were also inflated. Vice-president Stephen Lyons explained that they prefer to be able to leave the rafts inflated for a 24-hour period. This stretches the fabric out and also ensures that the liferaft dries thoroughly. When my model was inflated next to these giants, it had the appearance of a kiddie pool. That said, it's important to keep in mind that liferafts need to be properly ballasted. An eight-man life raft with only two people in it is likely to roll across the seas in heavy winds, rather than ride the waves. And though I've not had the experience of spending any quality time in a liferaft, I understand why experts recommend taking seasickness medicine along. "Even if you never get seasick, you will in a liferaft," said Lyons.

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. 

"A liferaft mounted forward is subjected to the full fury of the wind and sea."
A liferaft mounted forward is subjected to the full fury of the wind and sea, as well as the baking tropical sun. Some cruisers have canvas liferaft covers made to protect their rafts. While this maybe marginally benefical, it's really an aesthetic choice as the unit should still be inspected each year. And Lyons does not recommend covering the raft, as this can interfere with accessibility.

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.

Simple instructions, but ones mariners should be familiar with before venturing offshore.
In a manual launching, pulling on the painter inflates the raft. Once inflated, the raft will continue to emit excess CO2 through a pressure-relief valve for several minutes. Other features common to many models of liferafts include an automatically deployed sea anchor designed to slow the rate of drift from the vessel. Inner lifelinesto enable the occupants to hold on, and outer lifelines to enable anyone outside the raft to cling to it as well. Retro-reflective tape provides increased visibility, as does a brightly colored canopy. Ballast pockets also increase the stability of the raft.

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.


Liferaft Essentials

Launching the raft is no time to wonder what the raft contains in the way of survival supplies. In the case of the Rescue Pod, the manufacturer makes no claims for providing adequate survival equipment. A manual inflation pump, repair clamps, and waterproof combination strobe/flashlight is the extent of the equipment provided. Obviously, a well thought out ditch bag should accommodate such a list. Consider an EPIRB, VHF, water, food, solar still, desalination kit, first aid kit, charts, navigation equipment, fishing kit, flares—hand held and rocket—dye markers, signal mirrors, strobe lights, survival suits, and anything else that might buoy morale or keep the crew occupied. Assign tasks to individuals and try to keep spirits up.

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.

Mark Matthews is offline  
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