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The Ultimate Glitch Page 2

At Sea — March 2001
By Capt. Bill Pike

The Ultimate Glitch
Part 2: The answers we got were not entirely comforting.
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The answers we got were not entirely comforting. To begin with, the instructor explained that the raft he’d unsuccessfully tried to inflate had goofed up because of a fouled triggering mechanism, a problem commonly associated with improperly maintained and serviced rafts—a group our dud obviously belonged to. Then he tossed in an even gloomier bit of information: Such a malfunction in the real world would have almost guaranteed incredible inconvenience, if not downright catastrophe. Why? Because the only second chance proffered by a failed raft, whether properly maintained and serviced or not, is the manual pump in its standard equipment bag.

Finally, as many of us stood there dismally envisioning a frenzied seafarer drowning with a foot pump, our instructor added one last, cautionary comment: “It’s a good idea to put your trust in rafts that carry SOLAS [International Convention for the Safety Of Life At Sea] and/or U.S. Coast Guard approval and have these rafts serviced regularly by a facility that is also approved by the Coast Guard or some authority designated by the Coast Guard.”

A conversation I later had with Bob Markle, lifesaving standards chief for the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C., drove home the wisdom of this advice. According to Markle, while there are no statistics available for liferaft failures—primarily because those who experience them seldom live to file official reports—there are many stories of near-failures due to slow leaks from compressed-gas bottles, snagged or defective lanyards and cables that refuse to activate triggering mechanisms, damaged or rotted fabric, and last but not least, improper packing and servicing.

For emphasis, Markle noted an incident investigated by the Coast Guard within the past few months. A yachtsman had taken a liferaft to a nonapproved servicing facility in Warwick, Rhode Island, and felt a little uncomfortable with the way the place did the job. So just for the heck of it he decided to have the raft reserviced at a Coast Guard-approved facility in another town. What the reservicer discovered was deeply disturbing: Instead of a liferaft inside the fiberglass canister, the Warwick facility had filled the thing with old, wadded-up sails and chunks of refuse, apparently selling the raft to another customer.

The moral of the tale’s as clear and cold as the waters of the North Atlantic: Don’t mess with cheap, unapproved liferafts or liferaft service centers. If you’re shopping for a piece of offshore emergency gear you’re going to bet your life and the lives of your passengers and crew on, don’t settle for anything less than a SOLAS- and/or Coast Guard-approved liferaft. After all, SOLAS and Coast Guard standards are among the most stringent and comprehensive in the world today. And after you’ve purchased, follow the recommended service regimen, taking the raft into a Coast Guard-approved shop annually. Fees range from $200 to $300 per servicing (depending on raft size and how much standard equipment must be replaced), although the third and fifth years will probably cost more due to required overhauls. Reputable servicers for your liferaft will have an approval certificate from the manufacturer posted in some obvious spot as well as an approval letter from the Coast Guard attesting to the fact that they have passed regular on-site inspections. If you’re not sure about the legitimacy of a certain servicer, you can find a list of approved facilities on the Coast Guard’s Web site (www.uscg.mil/hq/g-m/mse4/raftsvc.htm) or request one from your nearest Coast Guard Office of Marine Safety. Sound like a lot of hassle? Consider the alternative.

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

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