Features January 01, 2001 Issue

Safety Alert: Life Raft Repacker Cited

A Rhode Island dealer is charged with improperly repacking several canisters.

On September 15, 2000 the US Coast Guard’s 1st District issued a Safety Alert to warn life raft owners who had rafts serviced by Inflex Corp. or Inflex owner Mike Bouressa of Warwick, Rhode Island (see www.uscg.mil/d1/newengland/128-00.htm). This former Viking Life Raft leisure raft service center was alleged to have improperly serviced a number of rafts. Actually, “service” might be stretching things because in at least one case the life raft was reportedly replaced with an old sail, and in others with unserviceable or unserviced life rafts of another manufacturer.

This situation was uncovered on April 27, 2000 when Viking Life Saving Equipment (America) Managing Director Paul V. Jensen received a call from one of his service stations advising him that they had just received a life raft previously serviced by Inflex that was missing vital survival equipment.

After further investigation, Jensen contacted Mike Bouressa, advising him that Inflex’s certification for servicing Viking’s leisure marine life rafts was being revoked. Initially, it was believed that these were the only rafts Inflex had serviced, but this may not, in fact, be the case. At least one other manufacturer’s raft was discovered packed in a Viking valise and at this point nobody is sure where it came from.

When contacted by Practical Sailor, Mike Bouressa insisted the incidents referred to in the Coast Guard Safety Alert were isolated and declined further comment. “It’s just not worth going into,” Bouressa said.

Coast Guard Notified
After considerable urging by Viking, the Coast Guard issued its Safety Alert and initiated its own investigation, but lacking authority they cannot pursue sanctions. Because of the uncertainty as to the rafts involved, all raft manufacturers were invited to join in the alert, but only Zodiac, Avon, Winslow and RFD/Revere accepted. Said Alan Brocious of Zodiac and Avon, “As it has come to light that Inflex had life rafts in its possession that they were not authorized to service, we felt it only prudent to be involved with the safety notice.”

Winslow’s Gerard Pickhard, chairman of the USMSA (United States Marine Safety Association) Life Raft Manufacturer’s Committee echoed those sentiments, adding, “The industry cannot be too cautious in such unfortunate circumstances.”

When we spoke to Greg Switlik, of Switlik Parachute Company, he explained that his company didn’t feel it was necessary because “Inflex was not a Switlik service station so no Switlik owner should have been having their raft serviced there,” and that they had “no reason to believe any of their rafts were involved.” He added that anyone needing to contact them can find contact information on the life raft canister or valise.

Viking Takes Action
Jensen initially obtained a list of owners whose rafts had been serviced by Inflex during the prior two years. Viking sent letters to these owners advising that their rafts may not have been properly serviced and offered to have them re-serviced at Viking’s expense. At press time, six of the owners had responded and arrangements were being made for re-certification of their rafts.

Upon further investigation, Jensen discovered that at least an additional 15 rafts may have been taken in by Inflex for service last winter and these life rafts were now missing. Viking, to its credit, has provided these 15 owners with new rafts free of charge. Said Jensen, “It’s not the customer’s fault our certified service station turned out to be untrustworthy. The customer should not suffer for that.”

A court order, sought by Viking, has been issued requesting that Bouressa furnish records that would help determine the number of Viking life rafts Bouressa may have serviced. “If they are in use on someone’s boat, we want to ensure they have been properly serviced,” said Jensen.

If you own a Viking life raft serviced by or purchased from Inflex, we suggest you contact Viking (305/374-5115) immediately. If you own any other make of life raft serviced by or purchased from Inflex or Bouressa, immediately contact your raft’s manufacturer and arrange for an inspection by an authorized service station.

Lessons Learned
When discussing life raft servicing, the first rule is to have your raft serviced by an authorized service facility. These Viking owners did the right thing, yet still got into trouble. We talked to manufacturers and respected service station owners to find out what you can do to ensure this doesn’t happen to you.

Using an authorized service station is still sound advice, but as with most things, all are not created equal. You can contact your raft manufacturer for the name of a station near you, and USMSA is assembling a consolidated listing at www.usmsa.org.

Which brings us to recommendation number two: Be present when your raft is both unpacked and repacked. If the service station won’t allow you to do so, go elsewhere. Roland Herman, president of the USMSA, explained that “not every service station understands the difference between their typical large commercial customer who sends him dozens or more rafts a year to be serviced under Coast Guard review, and the recreational customer whose raft isn’t subject to such oversight and who, more importantly, has a vested personal interest in seeing the job done right.”

If you cannot be present due to your circumstances, ask the repacker to videotape it. This is now standard procedure with many service stations.

It’s old advice, but no less valuable: Check with the local Better Business Bureau. Selecting a service station that is Coast Guard-approved (even though not required for recreational life raft servicing) is another sign that the service center is more likely to do a good job, if for no other reason than the Coasties are looking over their shoulder in related areas. However, the list of approved stations on the CG web site isn’t current and cannot be relied upon.

Then there’s that nearly universal truism: If the deal is too good to be true, it’s probably not. While paying the going rate, or even top dollar, is no guarantee you’ll get what you pay for, a significantly discounted price, absent other consideration, is almost sure to result in disappointment.

Greg Switlik suggests that you ask to see the station’s certification from your raft manufacturer; it should be current. He also said that another good sign is membership in any of the many alphabet boating organizations, including USMSA, a suggestion seconded by Herman. Finally, he noted that it is impossible to properly service a raft on the dock or in a parking lot, a sure indication of a “pirate.”

Herman also reminds us that a certificate to service one manufacturer’s rafts doesn’t mean they are competent to service others. Multiple approvals is probably an added positive sign to look for in a facility.

-Doug Ritter

Doug Ritter is Practical Sailor’s Safety & Survival editor, and editor of www.equipped.org.

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