After 12 years of meandering across the Pacific and Oceania to Southeast Asia in our boat, Laughing Buddha, my husband Jim and I are halfway home to the United States. We have been refitting at Rebak Marina, located on a tiny islet adjacent to the larger island of Lankawi on the northwestern side of Malaysia.
It's fair to say we have little of our original equipment still aboard and what has held up has aged considerably. Superb anchorages and marinas abound, but many have no more resources for the cruiser than a warm beer and a shady place to sit. If you're lucky, there might be a skipper flogging usable equipment with a scrap paper sign in a place like the marina laundry room, but it's astounding just what gets thrown into the dumpster (or the "tip" as it's known Down Under). One must be very resourceful without a marine supermarket around the corner.
Tip-diving can be a lucrative pastime, in spite of the shipboard wife grumbling at the clutter it creates. No, I wasn't thrilled when Jim dragged home a very heavy valise-encased liferaft. We already had an Elliot six-man raft on deck. But Jim pointed out, if the refuse workers placed it on the burn pile, as they tend to do with trash on these islands, the pyrotechnics would be spectacular. If kids got into the raft, or worse, the monkeys, there was no telling what carnage they could generate with the flares. The previous owner was seriously negligent by just abandoning it. We dragged the orphan around, even on the hardstand, where it sat through the monsoon mudslides and oppressive Malaysian sun.
An Idea Is Born
It was here that Jim met John Aston, an experienced safety guy and seafarer. When you put two intellectually curious chums together that share an interest, they demand details. They could have ripped the old liferaft apart right then and there. But it is Jim's nature to exploit Karmic opportunities. He had to invite anyone in the area who would be equally curious to a free liferaft refit demonstration. Our adopted liferaft would be put to good use.
John, on Solaris, has been connected with maritime safety all of his adult life. He taught numerous boating courses and collected a wealth of data from volunteer maritime rescue experiences, which included nearly continuous British and Australian coast guard collaboration. He often teamed up with south Australian firefighters and police department SEALs, and his heavy weather rescue work in the Gulf of Adelaide is particularly striking. By trade, he is an ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council) certified maritime electric/electronic engineer and a teacher. He volunteered to demonstrate how to unpack and pack a liferaft. Jim, also a professional engineer, is well trained in sea safety, and is a graduate of U.S. Air Force Aircrew Survival Training. He would enjoy facilitating the coordination and logistics and he had his mystery liferaft to donate.
Jim didn't have to look hard for an audience. It was peak season for Rebak Marina. With a head nod from the adjacent Taj Resort Hotel, which graciously supplied their conference room and pool for the exercise, a note on the bulletin board attracted enough attention.
So now, John and Jim had a venue to do what they do best: pull things apart to see how they work. They included 40 curious international bluewater cruisers on the process of abandoning ship into a raft. There were to be two mornings of exploring the whole process: first listening to a lecture and dissecting a raft, followed by practice raft boarding at the hotel pool.
John presented his talking points in the resort's air conditioned conference room, followed by the raft demonstration outside using Jim's mystery valise. His fundamental question was: "When did your liferaft last get some serious thought?" He was keen to point out that this free presentation was not a part of any certification process. The goal was just to take some mystery out of what happens when you jump off your boat into a liferaft. This is one of the few pieces of equipment on board vessels that even long-range cruisers don't have an intimate relationship with. The differences between offshore and coastal requirements can be a bit obscure, so those vessel owners headed to blue water after years of gunkholing would be wise to study the distinctions. The participants were eager to have a hands-on illustration.
The audience was sophisticated in the art of reaching other continents in small boats. I'm sure all had given grave consideration to surviving at sea in their chosen inflatable escape pod. They all bought the best raft they could afford before their departures or en route. Now seasons, or years, later they readily acknowledged that slippery slope of liferaft neglect. True, it's expensive and inconvenient to follow the manufacturer's instructions and inspection schedule when you're tooling around exotic locales. Few, if any, of these captains were required to "meet survey" for commercial operation. The first recertification due date may slip for many reasons. Then, before you know it, another year passes and then another. It's not uncommon to have not seen the inside of a raft for 10 years - or ever! John elaborated on how they would probably be appalled at what they would find.
Preventing Liferaft Neglect
As the audience listened intently (with varying degrees of guilt), they were briefed on the consequences of neglecting a liferaft. Even the most rugged equipment eventually suffers degradation from heat, moisture, corrosion, chafe, and abuse. But first, John posed these questions on selecting and mounting the equipment:
- Is the raft correctly sized for the ship's complement? It's actually more comfortable at sea, and safer, if the human ballast is adequate and positioned as designed. Too large a raft may become airborne.
- What should the total shelf life of your model be? Construction materials have various expiration dates. Is it rubber, vinyl, or a more modern synthetic material? Are the seams glued or welded?
- What has the manufacturer pre-packed in the raft for your survival? How might expired flares and EPIRBs or leak-discharged inflation cylinders affect your deteriorating situation, not to mention any insurance adjudication? By the way, cylinders should always be refilled with inert gas like carbon dioxide or nitrogen. Don't be tempted to use compressed air as it supports combustion if a flare fires off.
- What does your raft manufacturer recommend regarding deployment, boarding, and/or righting? Have you studied the data in earnest, or are you waiting for some time when it's more important?
- How well is the raft located for ease of deployment? Do any other boat modifications make deployment questionable (like lashing it under the dinghy)? Remember-factors other than bad weather do arise, like fire and collision. Time lapses can be crucial.
- Have you actually tried to lift the raft past your lifelines? Even a small raft can be hazardous in rough weather conditions. This is especially true if your crew or guests are not intimate with the process and the skipper has been injured.
- Of course, it's critical to ensure the raft deployment cord is securely attached to a strong point on the boat. But skippers who are in the fray at night have been known to forget this small point. If it is permanently mounted with cord attached, remember to regularly inspect any exposed parts for UV damage and chafe.
As mentioned earlier, heat, moisture, corrosion, chafe, and abuse are the chief factors in raft degradation. Covering your raft with dark fabric may match your decks nicely, but it will exponentially increase the amount of heat that builds up inside. It's best to select a light color. Newer rafts are often vacuum-packed. Still, don't underestimate the amount of jostling your raft takes in sloppy seas. Chafe will take its toll. And once that rain or sea moisture finds access, goodies like charts, medicines, and food will melt like gum on a hot sidewalk.
Getting Into It
The group then joined John for the outside demonstration. Was it worthwhile to get a free peek into the secret world of the liferaft certifier? You bet! Again, the do-it-yourself hopefuls were reminded of how tricky the process can be.
The certification professional keeps positive control of the entire process, with one person in charge and one or two assistants, using tape to mark positioning of the lines and equipment before methodically disassembling. Some might use a digital camera to record each step, enabling them to create a reverse record. For reliable deployment, the raft must be repacked as the manufacturer packed it-in all aspects.
Their tools include a safety knife, special tape for resealing where old tape was, and purpose-built containers or vacuum packers for protecting contents and the raft itself. They keep a fresh inventory of replacement survival gear.
The professional works in a highly controlled environment. It is clean to keep foreign debris from being introduced and it is also kept secure, so components don't walk off the project. These are two chief reasons why the packer might discourage you from hanging around the work area. Another critical reason is safety. Your raft cylinder is under enormous pressure. Accidental discharge may explosively separate the solid shell and catapult it toward the unwary. (By the way, never lean over your raft when it discharges; a 400/500 psi detonation under your chin will ruin your day.)
John's demonstration began by carefully removing the breakaway string from the valise, his movements resembling those of an explosive ordinance disposal officer. In this case, he was "cracking' a vinyl instead of a fiberglass container. He examined the interior plastic bag for moisture invasion. In the most delicate manner, John then probed the connection between the gas bottle and the inflation cord. Just as he noticed the crumbling plastic protector...BOOM! In unison, John and the crowd jumped for cover as frosty gas shot out sideways through the dried-out hose. Not an inch of rubber raft inflated. Seams glued together 15 years prior had outlived their 12-year life expectancy. Day two's session, the pool-boarding demonstration, was then scrapped. But that was by no means the end of our morbid curiosity as to what remained of the survival kit.
We watched as the poor liferaft was peeled apart. It felt like a coroner's briefing. John probed deteriorating rubber seals and all the other gooey components, slowly lifting and separating seams to reveal old, useless lengths of flapping tape. Floppy, tacky packets of water, fishing gear, and navigation tools emerged. The group leaned over and pondered the enclosed manuals, all written in French with World War II vintage illustrations. What they imagined to be the tools of survival against all elements looked more likely to have emerged from a Cracker Jack box. Most disturbing was the unrecognizable safety knife. At first it was assumed missing; but hidden in a pocket was a sheathed two-inch piece of sheet metal on a lanyard. One might do better chewing off the raft's tether to your sinking vessel. And there were those expired, dead batteries seeping a nasty, sticky acid on anything surrounding it, even through plastic. If an EPIRB were in there, its battery would have self-destructed as well.
On the bright side, the flares, although past their expiration date, looked quite usable. (There were a lot of heads nodding at the need to practice handling flares, as they are easy to point in the reverse direction in the dark.) The group satisfied their curiosity about the sea-ration biscuits. Not bad for having aged 15 years, although one would have to be pretty desperate to make it through the allotted supply without liberally swilling down the rationed water.
Everyone got hands-on with the components of the abandon-ship survival kit. Participants were reminded to get familiar with what the manufacturer says is in the raft, but don't expect those things to keep up with the demand. Sustaining life is a mental, as well as a metabolic challenge. One must try to minimize hardship and maximize rescue (see sidebar).
During John's presentation, the crowd murmured of near and actual catastrophes encountered, and of friends who didn't make out so well when their ships went down. Threads of ideas and methods of survival wove around in little stories that begat other little stories. It was evident that no one can think of everything to prepare for a crisis, but that doesn't mean we can't learn more, or we should owe it all to fate.
At the conclusion of his presentation, John had one last classic piece of advice: Always, always, for a moment of alertness, take a deep breath or two-then act. Try hard not to panic and remember the old adage: The very last thing you should do is abandon your vessel, and if you do, wait until you have to step up into your raft.
John and Jim packed the raft back into its tattered valise, the incendiary equipment properly disposed of. Beside it lay all the survival equipment in a dauntingly large bag.
Our little group paid a great deal for their liferafts to have peace of mind. We all consider ourselves competent skippers and crew, but we're not angels. It is a fact that following the manufacturer's recertification requirements is almost always pricey and inconvenient. At the start, we secretly hoped this little demonstration would teach us enough to repack our own rafts and avoid the cost and hassle. Sharing this experience gave us all pause for thought. Even among the most budget conscious, members of the group leaned toward choosing professional packers to crack and pack their rafts-wise people.
As we near the season when many boats will leave Malaysia for the Red Sea or South Africa, there are suddenly an unusual number of liferafts on trucks being shuttled to the ferry from Rebak Island, destined for Penang for commercial recertification. Maybe it isn't all that high a price to pay.