Life Raft Check Up

Having to deploy a liferaft and abandon ship is every offshore sailor’s nightmare. But it could be worse—say, if your boat is sinking and the raft is too. Getting your raft regularly serviced by a licensed facility is the only way to ensure that it will work properly when you need it. If you’ve forgotten about your liferaft or balk at the idea of paying to have it serviced, you do so at your own risk. All liferaft manufacturers require (and do not just recommend) that their products be regularly serviced by a licensed service facility.

Moisture is the enemy of all packed life rafts. It can work its way into a raft stored on deck and eventually damage the CO2 cylinder, its firing head, and any flares stowed in the raft; over time, it may also contaminate the raft’s food supply. Rafts packed in plastic vacuum bags that are designed to rip away when the raft is deployed do a good job of keeping moisture out and generally need service every three years. Non-vacuum-bagged rafts should be serviced annually. Regular service is also required so that any food or emergency gear (flares, batteries, and so on) with expiration dates is replaced as necessary.

I got a firsthand look at liferaft servicing when the licensed technicians at Life Raft and Survival Equipment, Inc.’s service facility in Fall River, Massachusetts, walked me through the process. I soon learned that a raft inspection involves much more than just pulling the inflation trip line to see what happens. Each raft is inspected by a technician who is trained and certified by that raft’s manufacturer. Techs receive frequent additional training and must be recertified every two years.

1) Before the raft is unpacked, the container or valise is visually inspected for damage. Then the raft is carefully unfolded, and the trip line, CO2/N2 cylinder, and firing head are all removed. The firing head is inspected for cracks or corrosion and is replaced if there are any signs of deterioration. The cylinder is visually inspected and is weighed to confirm there hasn’t been a leak; it is also sent out for pressure testing every 5 years (see “Cylinder Test”).

2) The raft is then inflated, using compressed air, to its proper operating pressure. The firing head is tested, by pulling the inflation trip line, only every five years. Once the raft is inflated, the tech checks for visible chafing or tears and makes sure the pressure-relief valves work properly and don’t leak. A thin film of soapy water is spread over each valve; if any bubbles form, there’s a leak. Pressure-relief valves use metal springs that can rust; a malfunctioning valve is, obviously, replaced.

3) The tech also goes over the raft and all its equipment bags with a fine-tooth comb. Are the handholds and righting line firmly attached to the raft? Do all the lights work? All the gear bags containing food, water, flashlight, batteries, flares, and so on are inspected, and any damaged (like this firing head) or expired items are replaced.

4) We observed the inspection of a vacuum-sealed raft brought in for regular service; it was in good shape and was relatively dry. The tech found that the battery sensors (used to turn on the strobe when the raft is inflated) and the safety knife needed to be replaced. Another raft we saw (it was not vacuum-sealed and had not been serviced in over seven years) was soaking wet. All the food and water rations were contaminated, the manual pump and the CO2 cylinder were heavily rusted (pictured above), the firing head showed signs of corrosion, and the flares had not only expired years ago, but were also wet. Obviously, it’s better to find out about these problems sooner rather than later.

5) The body of the raft is put through a battery of tests. First, all the pressure-relief valves are sealed, and the raft is overinflated to stretch the fabric prior to testing for leaks. At this point the fabric and seams are inspected for any sign of deterioration. The raft is then deflated to its normal operating pressure and is pressure-tested (using a digital pressure indicator hooked up to each tube and adjusted for temperature) for over an hour. Even the slightest pressure drop indicates there is a leak that the tech will then locate using the trusty bucket of soapy water.

6) If a leak is found, it’s patched and the whole process is repeated to confirm that the patch has fixed the leak. Once any and all leaks are patched, the raft is deflated using a vacuum pump to help get rid of any air that could complicate the repacking process.

7) Before the raft is repacked, the inspected (and updated) emergency packs are secured inside and the light system is reconnected. The inspected CO2 cylinder is secured in its sleeve, the firing head is attached and often wrapped in foam to minimize chafe inside, and the firing cable for the inflation system is reattached. All rafts are designed to be packed into very small containers, and each has a unique repacking procedure. Most are folded to ensure that the weight of the cylinder will allow the raft to inflate right side up and that none of the emergency packs will be damaged. Once the raft is carefully folded, it’s compressed in a hydraulic press (and/or vacuum-bagged) to help it fit into its container. The serviced raft is now armed and ready to use.

Here’s a piece of advice: Get your raft serviced regularly. When it comes to raft inspections, you can usually pay a little now or a lot later—or worse.

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  1. says: Geoff

    Great write-up here Bill, thank you. Just bought a liferaft that needs a service (never been on a boat). Now I know what I’m about to pay for.

    Regards from Cornwall, England.

  2. says: Anonymous

    This is nice to know, as I prefer to DIY to ensure that what I think I have, I in fact have. Trusted to someone else, you will never know until too late. It could have been a Monday morning inspection/repack.