Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   May 2005

Would You Let a Pirate 
Pack Your Parachute?

by Brad Glidden
As it comes to that time of year when many yachts head offshore, it also comes to the time to think about your lifesaving gear, and the thought should be: We are dealing with lifesaving gear, why would we cut corners?

Your Correspondent was leafing through a cruising sailor's services directory the other day and came across an ad for a management company. Amongst the services they offered was something called "liferaft reconditioning". I used to work for a liferaft service facility that was United States Coast Guard/International Maritime Organization inspected and approved, and where personnel were trained and certified by 42 different liferaft factories - and I have no idea what "liferaft reconditioning" is. In the same publication there were a sailmaker and a marine supply store listed under liferaft servicing. Now maybe these guys serve as a drop-off point and pass the rafts on to a properly licensed repacking station. If they don't, I hope they at least offer life insurance, because, Skipper, you are going to need it. A liferaft repacked by someone who wasn't trained for it represents a clear and present danger to the user. That's you.
Let's look at how often a raft should be inspected, and then by whom.

Most liferaft makers nowadays recommend two to three years from manufacture to the initial service, than yearly after that. Two to three years for a canister-packed-deck-mounted-sitting-and-baking-in-the-tropical-sun raft is certainly a maximum. Yearly keeps your warranty in force. Yearly also helps lessen the sticker shock of an inspection done at longer intervals. Items in the survival pack need replacing on one-, two-, or three-year cycles, and when they all are due at once it's expensive. There are also certain tests done on a three- and five-year schedule. A raft that is five years overdue will need a significant percentage of the cost of a new raft spent to bring it up to date.
For a used raft, if there is any doubt as to when it was last serviced, it is due.
If there is any doubt as to the competence of the last service, it is due.

If you are going off to the Back Of Beyond and it may be years before you see another first-class service station, it is due.
Now, where should you take the raft? Here are some suggestions on what to look for in a reputable station.

First of all, a place that packs liferafts packs liferafts - and that should be it. A station might be part of a larger business that sells inflatable boats, safety gear et alia, but the liferaft packing part should be dedicated to servicing rafts. No outboards disassembled and lying about. No table saws cutting wood. No puddles of bottom paint, motor oil or epoxy on the shop floor. No cute little shop cats curled up in a raft under inspection. Being multi-talented is laudable. But not in a liferaft station.

Station Certification
Second of all, paperwork. In the United States, a packing station is certified by the US Coast Guard. Slack is not in the Coast Guard's vocabulary. There are standards for the station and they are enforced. Flares are kept in a fireproof box. Tools are not scattered about the floor. Sharp tools are kept off the shop floor at all times when they aren't in someone's hand. Your raft depends on a precise amount of CO2 for inflation. That is determined by weight. There's a scale, with an inspector's seal on it. The condition of the CO2 bottle is determined by a hydrotest. A really first class operation has a hydrotest pressure vessel on the premises. All these requirements and many many more make up a volume of the United States Code. There should be a well-read copy of that around. All this will lead to a Coast Guard approval. Ask to see it.
A station operating outside of the US is subject to SOLAS/IMO rules. Once again there should be a facility inspection certificate, usually issued by a national authority (such as the British MCA) or a well recognized, reputable survey and insurance operation like Lloyds or DNV. Once again ask to see it. This inspection is a general approval for the facility.

Manufacturers' Licenses
Third, even more paperwork, and this time the papers deal with that station's legal right to service your brand of raft. A firm that is licensed by Aardvark Rafts might not be able to deal with Zygote Lifesaving Technology's products. There are a hundred ways of folding a piece of paper into an airplane. Some of them will actually fly. Likewise there are half a dozen ways of getting your raft back into its container. Only ONE of them is the right way for your brand of raft. The only way to know is to go to that manufacturer's service school, take the class, pass the final exam and get a license, which is a legal document giving a specific person the authority to service a liferaft. It is also the only way to get the proper parts for your raft; manufacturers will not sell their parts and supplies to businesses that haven't passed their school. If the business you're entrusting your life to can't produce a manufacturer's diploma, keep on going.

Properly licensed stations receive tech manuals and bulletins from the makers. There should be shelves groaning under the weight of three ring binders. Lastly, most makers of rafts have their own company stickers to put on the canister, and company-supplied forms for you to go away with. These are necessary to continue your warranty and to give the next station a history of what's been done - or not done - to your raft. If the people you're dealing with can't come up with the right paperwork, it may be because they have no right to it.

Want to Watch?
Next, will they let you watch? Most companies will. All should actively encourage you to be there when your raft is inflated so you can literally see just what it is you are getting into. It is a lot easier to familiarize yourself with righting the raft, deploying the sea anchor, and what little there is in the survival pack on a shop floor than it is bobbing around offshore. On the average of five years, every raft must actually be inflated by pulling the painter/firing lanyard. If your raft is at that point in its cycle, ask to do it yourself. It's fun - and instructive just how hard you have to pull.

There are too many instances of fatal incompetence on the part of some repacking services. If you are there when your raft is open, you too can see mismatched parts on the CO2 bottle that wouldn't have fired. You can see painter lines so hopelessly snarled they would never have payed out and inflated the raft, profoundly out-of-date items packed in a raft that was "certified" only a year ago, bad gaskets on the canister that have let in water that has ruined much of everything. A first-class station discovering this type of work will have no hesitation in reporting a pirate station that has done something that would hazard human life, and neither should you.
Every major advance in life-saving technology has come about in response to a disaster. You should take advantage of lessons learned with peoples' lives - and deaths.
Being there and actually seeing the contents of the emergency pack is also instructive and sobering. There really isn't a lot of stuff in there, and you will have a graphic demonstration of why a separate "bail-out bag" is needed for anything other than the briefest of stays in a liferaft. You can also take advantage of having a few personal non-bulky items added to the pack if you're there.

A liferaft is like a parachute. It's got to work the first time, every time. If it doesn't, it's too late to go back and file a complaint. Dealing with an inspected, trained, certified and professional operation is the only way to go.  There are a number of legitimate operations in the Caribbean and you should go to them. Avoid Joe's Liferaft Repack, Small Engine Repair, Island Tours and Chicken Fry as if your life depends on it.

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