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The Ultimate Glitch

At Sea — March 2001
By Capt. Bill Pike

The Ultimate Glitch
Think that lifecraft you’ve got onboard is fallible as well as inflatable? That’s what I thought.
 
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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 chance?

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This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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