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Old 20-02-2006, 21:22   #1
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Survivorman

Hi folks,

Not sure if anyone here is familiar with Survivorman (the host gets stuck in remote area's without any food or equipment and must survive 7 days on his own, while video taping himself), but I finally caught the episode "Lost at Sea". In this episode Les was going to survive 7 days at sea in a life raft. In order to simulate a real world experience, the production team purchased a life raft from sailing boat owner. They purposely found one that was expired by a few weeks....and guess what... After hitting the water and inflating, the raft lost all pressure. Apparently it was unfixable, so they had to get another. They ended up purchasing another one that did inflate, but after setting off les discovered that the second raft also had a slow leak. There was a comment that this is very common, which surprised me, since the whole purpose of a life raft is to use it as a last resort when your life is in jeapordy. So i would expect life raft makers to use great care during construction. Another surprise was when the second raft was first placed into the water. It opened upside down. OK, so no big deal although in a storm having to flip it might not be that easy. Regardless, les flips the raft over and gets in. Now the only thing that he gets to keep with him besides his video equipment is the supplies that are in the raft,a nd guess what...Everything is soaked because the raft opned upside down. So the flares and all other items are not packed water tight....DUH...what the hell are these life raft manufacturers thinking?!?

Does this surprise anyone?
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Old 20-02-2006, 22:00   #2
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Surprised?

No not really!!
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Old 20-02-2006, 22:07   #3
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There was an article in either Sail, or GoodOld Boat a few years ago about this. (Life rafts) A number of rafts were checked right after being serviced, and a very large percentage were found not to function properly. This is a very real problem. I am sure that most companies that service life rafts are reputable, it only takes one to ruin your day.
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Old 20-02-2006, 23:01   #4
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Firstly, a liferaft is actually easier to turn right side up in windy conditions or swell as long as you use these elements to help. A lot of liferaft failures are due to incorrect stowage with UV damage to the canister seal and salt ingress causing chafe on the tube material.
I have had experience of the supplies in a liferaft being soaked even when it inflated right way up. I put this down to the canister being uncovered when stowed.
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Old 20-02-2006, 23:22   #5
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There is no real concern by the liferaft companies. You see, if the raft doesn't work, no one is going to sue them.
That is positively deviant
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Old 20-02-2006, 23:32   #6
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Now that is very true, Wheels!!
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Old 21-02-2006, 20:20   #7
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I am chief designer for a company that designs and manufactures inflatable liferafts, so this is something to which I feel obliged to make a response.

I should point out up front that the company that pays my wages specialises in large capacity liferafts and evacuation systems - the smallest product that we manufacture is currently a 50 person capacity inflatable liferaft...so don't sue me if you have problems with your 4 man RFS, Zodiac or DBC raft

All liferafts have to be designed to a very stringent set of criteria laid down in the International Maritime Organiosation's SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) regulations - specifically the Life-Saving Appliance Code - IMO Resolution MSC.48(66). The liferaft must then go through an incredibly stringent and compicated set of prototype approval tests, as laid out in The Revised recommendation on testing of life-saving appliances - IMO Resolution MSC.81(70). The design and testing must be strictly monitored and approved by an accredited body such as, for example Det Norske Veritas or Germanischer Lloyd, as well as, in most cases, relevant local Marine Safety bodies such as, say, US Coast Guard (USA) or MCA (UK) or AMSA (Australia), etc. Liferaft manufacturers are also required to maintain strict QA / QC systems and most are approved to ISO 2001 & 2002 standards.

The testing includes, just as a random selection, off the top of my head:
Testing at -35C (-31F);
Testing at +60C (+140F);
3 x working pressure air-holding test.
Self righting test (that is a relatively new requirement, older liferafts will not automatically self right);
Heavy weather testing;
Self-draining testing;
Wind tunnel testing (try getting a wind tunnel to suit a 128 person liferaft...)

The approved liferaft must be serviced regularly (usually ever 2 years) by a certified and approved agent. The servicing includes a stringent air-holding test of each individual chamber of the liferaft (all rafts have at least 2 independent chambers, most have 4). The associated equipment such as flares, first-aid kits, food, water etc is checked and has a used by date. This gear is also supposed to be stored in sealed waterproof valises and the flares are supposed to be waterproof as well.

That is the theory. In practice, as in every industry, the reality is different from the theory. There is shoddy design & shonky manufacture. There are cheap chinese copies. There are marine surveyors who are bent, or even, in some cases, in the direct employment of the company who's product they are supposed to to certify. There are also shonky service agents and dodgy deals galore. I could tell you who are the "best" brand names and who are the worst, but to so would be terribly unprofessional of me. I could tell you of well known company names in the commercial passenger ferry industry who pay surveyors and service agents to issue service certificates for liferafts that they have not touched, but again, it would not be proper for me to do so.

I hope that I am not giving a bad impression of the industry, because it is a small proportion of the industry that can make everyone else look bad. Certainly the company I work for take adherence to the standards and regulations very seriously, and our equipment (touch wood) has never experienced a failure... But bear in mind that liferafts are not so different from automobiles - there are good ones and bad ones - reliable ones and not so reliable ones. Just as there are "good" mechanics and garages and there are also dodgy and unscrupulous ones too, so it is with agents and servicing establishments. Try to build a relationship with your servicing agent - usually it will be at a local chandlery, so that the guy who services your raft also knows your face / name, and thinks of you as a "good guy". Be very suspicious of second-hand liferafts (at least until they have been serviced by "your guy"). Think very hard before purchasing your liferaft...
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Old 21-02-2006, 22:48   #8
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Weyalan, Are there any tests or checks that we as consumers should or can do to our liferafts to verify that they have been certified properly, or to check them between certifications? I admit I am a bit uninformed on this, as I have not owned one. I do not want to start a discussion about the logic to have one or not, but I have been curious about how to test them ever since I read the article.
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Old 22-02-2006, 07:35   #9
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Weyland's response is my understanding of liferafts as well. They are not a "purchase and forget" item. They need routine matinenance, and must be cared for if you expect service out of them. Also, it is not good practice to rely on items stored in the liferaft as your only "ditch bag." You should have a ditch bag prepared and readily accessible aboard the boat at all times. You would carry this waterproof bag with you as you exit the boat and get into the liferaft. (A fanny pack or other type that firmly affixes to your body would be best)

Also, it's a 50/50 chance if a liferaft will open right side up or upside down. That is why they have righting straps, etc... built in. Everyone who plans to use a liferaft should be familiar with its operation and should have practiced righting one.

Funny story: While my wife and I were taking our STCW-95 certifications, there were many 200+ lb men who could not right the liferaft in the pool. My 101lb wife had no trouble at all.

It's all technique and training.
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Old 22-02-2006, 14:02   #10
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Quote:
Kai Nui once whispered in the wind:
Weyalan, Are there any tests or checks that we as consumers should or can do to our liferafts to verify that they have been certified properly, or to check them between certifications? I admit I am a bit uninformed on this, as I have not owned one. I do not want to start a discussion about the logic to have one or not, but I have been curious about how to test them ever since I read the article.
Well, in theory, yes there are. The service station that conducts the service of the liferaft is required to fill in a service report and send a copy to the manufacturer, and also to pay a royalty to the manufacturer (a small percentage of the service charge). Therefore, in theory at least, the liferaft manufacturer should be able to tell you when & where the liferaft was last surveyed by an accredited agent.

In practice, however, it is difficult. We (the company I work for) are a very small player in the industry, with less than 30 accredited service agents worldwide. However, even with this tiny number of agents, we have trouble getting some of them to send us the service record and royalties - especially in some of the places that are already "dodgy" (such as Greece or Turkey or Korea). While we do not suspect our service stations of doing less than proper services, and we think that their recalcitrance is about avoiding paying us the royalty money, we still cannot say for sure the service history of some of the rafts in these areas is 100% above board. Contrast this to the fact that we produce a couple of hundred liferafts per year (50 person or larger), whereas some of the big manufacturers probably produce tens of thousands, and must have hundreds if not thousands of service agents...imagine the nightmare that would be!

If I were to offer advice, it would be this:

Try to use a "reputable" service agent - Obviously, they would all claim to be "reputable", but use some common sense. If you have a land base, this is easier than if you are live-aboard with "no fixed address", but if you ask around local yachties, they will usually be able to give you good suggestions.

If one does have at least a semi-fixed location (perhaps you haul for winter in the same spot - i.e. ideal time to service the raft), I think that it is important to try to "cultivate" a relationship with ones favourite local chandlery, so that they know and trust you and you know and trust them...by so doing, you are less likely to be stitched up. If you get to know your servicing agent reasonably well (who will usually be associated with a chandlery anyway), you may be able to ask them if you can come see your liferaft during the service (have you ever seen your liferaft inflated?)...they ought to be happy to oblige.

If you have got money to burn, the obvious thing to do would be to throw your liferaft in the water, pull the inflation painter and see what happens! Obviously, you will have to then pay for an additonal service & repack (which will probably be slightly more expensive than a standard service, because the inflation cylinder will have to be refilled). If you are going to do this, I advise doing it on a calm day (duh) and in flat water that is as clean as possible. If, as seems likely, you conduct this "test inflation" in salt water, try to hose the raft down with fresh water, then, if possible, let it dry out completely before you deflate it and transport it to the service agent.

Other than test inflating yor raft yourself, you are, unfortunatley, pretty much at the hands of your servicing agent and your manufacturer. And eve if your raft test inflates fine, that doesn't guarantee that it will next time...

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Old 23-02-2006, 00:04   #11
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Sounds like cheap insurance. I have always viewed packing a raft along the same lines as packing a parachute. I know a few guys that do thier own, but I am not one of them. Would it be practical to learn and pack your own liferaft? I can not imagine that replacing the cylinder would be a big deal.
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Old 23-02-2006, 00:06   #12
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Hey Weyalan.

Does your company or other companys that you know of, train some people to pack their own liferafts?
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Old 23-02-2006, 05:38   #13
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Several years ago, my wife & I flew out to Scottsdale, AZ and tested 38 liferafts in a large wave pool. The testing sponsor was Belvoir Pubs who publishes a number of consumer-oriented sailing & aviation periodicals, accepts no advertising, and the person conducting these tests (he's now done this 4 times) had a rigorous test regimen that lasted 3 days. Participants included USAF and USCG personnel who were professionals in the area of raft and survival technologies, so we learned a lot from them as well as the testing program. We made this trip in order to be better informed before purchasing our own liferaft, doing so at our own expense. Here is some of what we observed:

-- 37 of 38 rafts inflated right side up; the 38th just had to be nudged (caught a strap during inflation); non-issue
-- commercial aircraft rafts were among the cheesiest (but least likely to be used, I suspect) while some yacht rafts were the most impressive
-- every inflated raft was left to float in the pool for the balance of the 3-day period; none deflated (tho' none had been 'repacked')
-- most yacht rafts had vacuum sealed supplies; the raft could be fully immersed and supplies would not be effected
-- there were no interim 'maintenance' needed nor recommended; OTOH how the unit is mounted/stored aboard the boat is important (the typical cabin-top rack mounting is probably least desirable from the raft's point of view and also for the crew - see below)
-- the quality of construction and especially the design features of the rafts varied immensely; the rafts most highly rated by the guinea pigs (testers) like me - we had to deploy, board, capsize, right and reboard, and then much more - were rated much higher than the poorer ones, some of which gave us the willies
-- it's clear many manufacturers use their own rafts very infrequently if at all, and testers found many dysfunctional attributes aboard many rafts; examples include poor boarding features (boarding is difficult with an inflated vest), ineffective sealing of canopy in heavy weather (a 2" fire hose was used to test this), raft interior pitch black in daytime when sealed up due to weather (some rafts have clear vinyl 'windows' which are a great feature), cheezy supplies (pumps being a good example), wimpy ballast bags, crummy drogues (the only guaranteed way to keep the raft upright) and much more
-- you can get seasick riding a closed-up raft in a wave pool in the middle of the Arizona desert in very short order; plan on being sick if using one at sea
-- thinking thru the deployment and boarding of a raft for the scenarios in which it is needed, the best overall option seems to be to pull the raft from a cockpit locker or cockpit storage location, do NOT put it into the water until you are certain you will be boarding it & are ready to leave the boat, then plop the cannister/bag directly over the side at the boat's leeward quarter while benefiting from the protection of the cockpit (center cockpit folks lose out here...), pull out all of the activation line and pop the raft, secure the raft alongside the cockpit, crew #1 jumps right onto the top of the raft (inflated canopy will give easily and cushion the crew), crew #2 passes ditch bag, water jug, 406 unit, etc. to #1 (tether on items a good idea) which goes into raft, then other crew jump into raft. Almost all rafts are now equpped with a 'slit knife' in a pouch at the raft's entrance (like you might use to open envelopes) and web activation line is cut.

The universally highest rated raft manufacturer in these tests - Winslow - does not recommend repacking anywhere other than their own facilities, which are in Europe, Caribbean and USA (perhaps more now) where all employees must be flown to the FL mfg. facility to be trained in raft inspection, repair and repacking. IMO the minute you introduce a repacker into the equation, the reliability of the repacked raft plummets, an opinion I hold after visiting a number of repacking operations.

Hope some of this is useful to everyone.

Jack
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Old 23-02-2006, 09:00   #14
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Wow Jack!!

That was a very insiteful post. Thank you.

That answers alot of questions I'm sure. I know Kai Nui & I have made our posts, concerning that issue.

At least we have you, to many thanks for that.

So you firmly believe that the "Winslow" brand is most highly international manufactered liferaft worldwide? Our at least, the northern hemisphere? Well, I'll look into this comapny. Thank you Jack, for your wonderful post!!
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Old 23-02-2006, 09:30   #15
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Thanks Jack.
One thing that tends to bug me a lot is sales staff who do not know their product simply because they have never used or tested it. I tested everything I sold in the boat and motorcycle business and I would like others to do the same. I realize at boat show time the need to drag in extras.
I hate reading books on boating where the author says do it this way, but they have never tried it. To test the idea of getting back into a canoe after flipping I had two fit lightweight 16 year olds flip a canoe and try and get back in by the book. Does not work, I have photos. The Pardeys were honest enough to admit that they had never tried there hoving to tecneque until they rounded the hone recently. Not all their fault the needed the appropriate conditions.
As an example of what I am saying, go to your local marine store and ask them about a sealer for your fiberglass hull, and a good paint for your keel. Also ask about how any life jacket works in the water, especially the ones for kids.
I will also check on Winslow. Sounds like Winthrop WA. Nobody knows where it is.
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