Know Your Life Raft Inspection Requirements

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Spring is when many sailors have to bite the bullet and have their liferaft inspected, an expense that costs 10 to 30 percent of the price they paid for the raft-or more.

In the U.S., there is no inspection requirement for liferafts on recreational boats. Inspection guidelines are set by the manufacturer. In Europe and other parts of the world, rafts for recreational boats that sail offshore are supposed to meet ISO Standard 9650-1. This standard allows for an inspection interval of up to three years, but manufacturers often specify shorter intervals, especially for boats that spend most of their time in the tropics. For some rafts, the three-year interval only applies to the first three years after purchase. After that, annual inspections are the norm.

The experience of the owners of the 14-year-old, six-man, valise-stored Avon liferaft pictured here reminds us of the importance of following the manufacturers inspection schedule, however onerous and costly it might seem.

The pictures were taken in Malaysia, less than four years after the rafts previous full inspection in New Zealand. The hand-glued neoprene raft had a 12-year-old warranty when it was bought new in 2004. According to the service experts at Zodiac, Avon rafts of this make and model are supposed to have annual inspections. However, because the interval can be as long as three years in newer models, it is not surprising that some owners (and even some inspection stations) are not aware of this. Regardless, the owners of this particular raft, like many cruisers, waited nearly five years between inspections. It was condemned, and the failure to follow inspection schedule, as well as the rafts age, voided any warranty coverage.

The owner’s experience raises an important point about purchasing a liferaft. When respected brands are passed between investment groups and production is moved overseas to save costs, quality control and service support can suffer. Although we were unable to confirm the country of origin of the above raft, experts we spoke with said it probably came from a plant in Hungary, where some manufacturing was moved after Avon was purchased by Zodiac. We were also told that during this period, some lightweight aviation rafts were repurposed as “marine” models, which are typically made of heavier materials than aviation rafts. In the past, other manufacturers have also slightly modified aviation models for the marine market.

When it comes to any liferaft, service support is just as important as the raft itself. In fact, many liferafts are sold with very small profit margins, with the expectation of additional profits through routine servicing. It is important that you have a clear picture of warranty coverage and inspection costs in your cruising area before investing in any liferaft.

A pioneer in the world of inflatable boats, Avon was acquired by French competitor Zodiac in 1998. Zodiac stopped making Avon liferafts in 2004, and then scaled back to two Zodiac brand life rafts. Emerging from bankruptcy in 2015, the company, now known as Zodiac Nautic, introduced two new liferafts this year.

To complicate things, several Zodiac-related brands have been spun off, and there is another Zodiac liferaft on the market. During the economic downturn, British-based Survivetec acquired the Zodiac brand for commercial (SOLAS) life rafts, sold under the SurvivetechZodiac label. The company also stepped up its acquisition of several other liferaft brands. The companies now under the Survivetecs umbrella include Survival Offshore Systems (Australia), Crewsaver (U.K.), DSB (Germany), RFD-Beaufort (United Kingdom), and Revere Supply (U.S.).

A State of Flux

With the world of inflatable boats in such a state of flux, it is important to know what you are buying, from whom, and the quality of service support you will get. Well-established brands that also serve the commercial market have worldwide service support, but not all stations are trained to inspect and service recreational rafts-one reason why we recommend a SOLAS raft for worldcruisers. Although we were not able to confirm this, it appears that several of the inspection companies listed at the US Coast Guard’s Maritime Information Exchage that are certified to inspect Zodiac liferafts abroad, actually fall under the Survivetec umbrella. It is not clear if all of these SOLAS-compliant facilities on this list are authorized to inspect Zodiac’s new recreational rafts. Zodiac’s list of approved facilities for the new recreational rafts is available here. Having a SOLAS-trained technician inspect your liferaft is not necessarily a bad thing, but most liferaft manufacturers require you use their certified inspection stations to maintain warranty protection.

 

Patrick Childress

 

The elastomer used to make the Avon liferaft pictured above is chloroprene rubber (CR), also known as neoprene. Another elastomer common among inflatable boats is chlorosulfonated polyethylene (CSM), known by the brand-name Hypalon. It appears that the materials coating has failed, possibly due to age and folding stresses during vacuum bagging.

Zodiac Nautics new liferafts are made of plastomers, and the company is working with the owners of the raft in these pictures to provide a replacement. The new offshore model is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and the new coastal raft is made of polyurethane (PU). In both types, the seams are thermo-welded, a reliable way to join fabric that also reduces labor costs. One drawback to plastomers, especially PVC, is that the plasticizers can migrate to the surface and make the outer coating sticky, especially in hot climates, although this is less of a problem than it once was.

If you are buying a new life raft, Volumes One and Two of our Survival at Sea ebook series offers hard won advice. The ebooks are part of a recently updated four-volume set, Survival at Sea, available at www.practical-sailor/books. For more guidance on liferaft inspection, see Liferaft Inspection, an Inside Look, PS February 2013.

If your liferaft is up for inspection in the coming year, you can often negotiate a cheaper price and surely get faster service if you do it in the late summer, fall, or winter, after the spring rush in the recreational market.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Speaking personally, I am quite happy to live in NJ and relatively close to the Switlik plant. In each instance that I’ve had to have work done on my Switlik raft, or have gear inspected or repacked, the Switlik crew was “on board.” Note that I am talking about a raft that’s VERY old but, according to the manufacturer, still up to standards. Note that I did not suggest they offer “bargain rates.”

  2. When you do accomplish your recert make sure vendor will allow you to observe and ask questions. When i did mine i was amazed at how much i didn't know i didn’t know.

    You don't want to do a voyage of discovery on a dark and stormy night when you are already scared out of your wits.

    My vendor was great and also allowed me to video for future ref.

  3. I bought a Winslow liferaft in 2008, before a trans-atlantic crossing, and had it inspected in 2011, in France. It would not hold air for more than 1 hour, because the fabric permeated. To their credit, Winslow replaced the raft, at no cost to me, but I did pay for the inspection. The new raft has been inspected here in FLorida, at great cost, but this one seems to hold air (at least, it did last year during the inspection). My caribe dinghy has been out in the sun, in the ice and snow of the the northeast, across the Atlantic on-deck during 5 storms, continuously for 20 years, and the only wear it shows is from the lines that lashed it down on deck. It only deflates slightly when the hot sun over-pressurizes it and causes the valves to burp.

    I don’t like to count on safety equipment that you cannot test or inspect, and which is expected to work only once, when you absolutely need it. I bought an electronic “flare” because I can test it and see that it works. I have tested flares well after their expiration dates, and most of them still work. But a liferaft or an inflatable lifejacket are really questionable. I don’t have a solution, but if I do need to abandon ship, I will toss the dinghy into the water first, and then the liferaft.

  4. Yes, I agree with Ralph, My biggest complaint with rafts is the incredible up front expense, and the incredible cost for recert. Sometimes it is so expensive to re certify that you are almost as good just to buy a new one. That’s wrong.
    I was so ticked about the cost that once I did my own inspection. It’s not rocket science. And really gets you familiar. Just don’t inflate with the CO2 as the extreme cold is not good for the material. I also carry a very significant ditch kit. So much so that it almost negates the raft supplies. I have also. Fitted my AB Rib with a small SCUBA tank inflation system. And Hi quality knives to cut the lashings. So if any way possible, I’ll go with both raft and dingy. It is amazing how a quality Hypalon Dingy takes a lot of extreme wear and elements for a long time.

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