Sometimes I’m a little too optimistic, I guess. For example, until
recently my take on most any kind of inflatable liferaft was buoyantly
positive. Not that such naiveté came from my actual use of one
to survive any sort of catastrophe during the years I worked at sea. In
fact, to this day I’ve never had to deploy any kind of emergency
lifesaving equipment under anything like extreme conditions (knock on
wood), unless you count the liferaft training sessions I endured at the
maritime academy some 25 years ago. In part intended to discourage cadets
who weren’t up to the bleaker realities of seafaring, these exercises
were both intense and instructive, what with having to deploy a succession
of rafts and then struggle into each one from the bone-chilling waters
of Lake Michigan. The experience helped build character, no doubt, but
it also imbued me with the belief that liferafts always work.
Subsequent experience working aboard various merchant vessels around the
world maintained this belief. Except for periodic Coast Guard inspections
of onboard safety equipment, I simply had no real-life contact with liferafts,
other than to stand beside them during monthly abandon-ship drills or
maybe hose one off during wash-downs of superstructures on sunny afternoons.
In recent years my writing for marine magazines only pushed day-to-day
familiarity with liferafts further toward the back burner, and I continued
to blithely trust in their infallibility.
But the truth will win out, eventually. A couple of months ago, I was
asked to attend a training seminar for yacht crews in Fort Lauderdale
and perhaps develop a story out of it. With my background in ships, oil-field
vessels, and oceangoing tugs, I was anxious to see how safety training
and equipment in the yachting realm compared. As it turned out, the seminar,
put on by The Crew Network, Fraser Yachts, the Super Yacht Society, and
various other sponsors, was superb. All of us attendees learned new things,
and I was reminded of a few old ones I’d entirely forgotten. And
yes, the safety issue was obviously a big priority to the young yachties
around me, a state of affairs that bodes well for the future of yachting,
both stateside and abroad.
But one little problem did obtrude. It occurred at the beginning of an
excellent demonstration of emergency lifesaving equipment before an audience
consisting of myself and about 100 young people who worked on yachts or
planned to. The guy doing the demonstration attempted to inflate an old
raft he’d brought along, pulling with considerable force on the lanyard
that is supposed to activate a triggering mechanism inside. Nothing happened.
No pop. No hiss of compressed gas. No scrunched-up orange clump of heat-sealed
polyurethane stretching into a comforting hexagon. The thing just sat
there inert, a vision of failure so stunning in its implications that
silence prevailed for a moment. Then the questions started. What had happened?
What would such a failure have meant in the real world? Was there a way
to manually overcome such a malfunction? Was there any sort of second
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