Rhumb Lines February 2013 Issue

Life Rafts, Pride, and Prejudice

My cruising life often seems like a string of disasters narrowly averted—storms, reefs, mechanical failures, bad enchiladas—but the most frightening near miss (apropos of this month’s special report on life-raft inspections) was the one I never knew about.

The life raft inspection station on the island of Curaçao was near the airport, which made sense because the owners of small planes who expected to survive nose-dives into the sea were its chief clientele. (This was one of the many clues I missed.) Tucked into a small industrial park, the “station” reminded me of a mom-and-pop tire repair shop. A hand-lettered sign graced the door. (Yep. Missed that, too.)

Inside, a bare fluorescent bulb lit the room, tools spread across a workbench, and empty life raft canisters collected dust in a corner. I dimly recall a framed certificate verifying that the facility could be trusted with our six-man Beaufort life raft. At the time, this was the most expensive piece of equipment on Tosca, the wooden ketch my wife Theresa and I eventually coaxed across the Pacific.

From what I could see, the inspection station was a one-man operation, and when I finally met the owner—a ruddy Dutchman whose name I have forgotten—I immediately liked him. He reminded me of other engineering wizards I know: extremely intelligent, though a little bit quirky and absent-minded. (Only later did I learn the severity of the last affliction.) Other cruisers we knew had recommended him. And the price—this was 21 years ago—was right, about $300.

“Come back in a week,” he said cheerfully, when I dropped off the raft.

A week later, the price had risen to $550, and I liked the ruddy Dutchman a little less. He ran down the list of extra charges: the inflation canister was out of date; the signal flares were expired; so were the survival rations, flashlight batteries, etc. He let me wriggle out of other charges, but the bill still approached $500—a month’s worth of cruising in those days. Wanting the raft, I had no choice but to pay.

I hated parting with precious freedom chips for something I didn’t intend to use, but it was nice to know that if my luck ran out, I’d be remembered as a man who was never without fresh flashlight batteries.

Across the eastern Pacific, the worst disasters were duly averted, and the raft stayed in its canister. By the time it was up for re-inspection, our cruising funds were nearly depleted, and we were bound for eastern Papua New Guinea, where sanguine aeronauts and life raft packing stations to serve them were in short supply. My faith in the raft and the happy Dutchman’s handiwork became a matter of expediency.

Five years after the Curaçao inspection, I took the raft to an inspection center in Guam licensed to service life rafts on commercial vessels. I immediately disliked the overbearing ex-Coast Guard officer who ran it, but he seemed to know his business. (My journal describes him as “anal retentive.”) I braced for an exorbitant bill. Two days later I got a call.

“Mr. Nicholson, where did you get your life raft inspected last?”

I told him the story.

“Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t need it. The inflation lanyard wasn't attached to the raft.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your raft would have floated away before you had the chance to get in . . . ”

Although he didn’t say it, his message was clear: “Skipper, you have peanut butter for brains.”

He replaced nearly everything in the raft. It cost a small fortune, but I deserved it. For no good reason, I decided to keep the old emergency flashlight, which had been condemned along with the other survival gear. A piece of junk whose innards were riddled with corrosion, it illuminated nothing . . . except the risks of misplaced trust.

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