Life Raft Service

On our way home from Sidney in January, we stopped at Westpac Marine Services in Tacoma, Washington, to have Duet’s Switlik life raft serviced. We arrived at 8AM and started right in with Rollie Herman, who is the life raft guru at Westpac. We took plenty of pictures of the process, many of which are included in this blog. Obviously, each lift raft is different, but this should give our readers some idea of what happens during a service.


Duet’s life raft is a 6 man Switlik Offshore, and it is original equipment, so it’s 15 years old. It has been serviced twice, once in about 2005, and then again by Duet’s second owner, in 2011. Both services were done by Rollie. On our Nordhavn 46 we had a Wilson life raft, in a soft valise, also a 6 man unit. This raft is in a hard container, mounted on Duet’s boat deck, so it’s quite a different animal from what we are used to.


When Nancy scheduled our appointment with Rollie, he emphasized two things. First, take good pictures of how the raft is installed in it’s cradle. It is very easy to forget and this is one of the most likely points of failure if the raft fails to deploy when you need it, namely you put it back wrong. Second, make a list of all the questions you want to ask. Nancy and Ron are good at following instructions (particularly Ron) so we did both.


The first thing Rollie did when we arrived was review the release assembly that is attaches the raft to the cradle. The assembly has two critical parts, a hydrostatic line cutter and a breakaway clip. The cutter cuts the sacrificial line that holds together the cables that hold the raft to it’s cradle. The breakaway clip is shackled to one of the cables on the cradle and to the raft’s painter line. Hooking these items up in the right order is absolutely critical to ensuring that the raft will do what it it supposed to in the event of emergency, so we spent quite a bit of time on this.

In the picture below, you can see the raft release assembly attached to the raft cannister.

Below is a more detailed close up of the release assembly itself.

In a “normal” deployment, it is most likely that the raft will be deployed manually by Ron. He will release the cables by undoing the shackles and heave the raft over the side. The cutter will do nothing in this scenario. The raft’s painter will run out, but will still be attached to the cradle by the breakaway clip. When the painter is fully deployed, it triggers the raft’s automatic inflation system, which blows off the canister and inflates the raft.


The painter will remain connected to the cradle while the raft deploys next to the boat. Then, once we are in the raft, we will cut the painter. Should Duet sink before we get in the raft, the breakaway clip will break and the raft will remain on the surface, rather than being towed under water by Duet. The breakaway clip breaks at a load of about 4000 pounds, so it won’t snap if the raft is bumped by a wave. The painter is approximately 35 feet long, so we are going to test how far the raft can get from the boat, if the painter is still attached to the cradle.


If we do not deploy the raft manually, the cutter is activated by a hydrostatic release, which triggers at about 12 feet underwater. The cutter cuts the sacrificial line, thereby freeing the raft from the cables holding it to the cradle. The raft then floats off the boat deck and up to the surface, but the painter will still be attached to the cradle. Similar to the manual deployment, the painter playing out will inflate the raft. The break away clip will release when the sinking Duet pulls hard enough on the end of the painter. This is why placement of the cradle is important, you don’t want the raft getting tangled in something and being unable to float to the surface, especially if Duet is going down quickly.


Duet’s raft is placed under the boat deck crane arm. As part of our standard offshore set up prior to departure, we move the crane out of the way, so the raft doesn’t get tangled in it. We are now going to keep the crane arm off center all the time, in case we hit a rock in the Inside Passage on our way to Alaska and sink rapidly. First lesson learned.


Rollie inflated the raft manually, rather than pulling on the painter to trigger the automatic release. The automatic release puts a lot of strain on the raft, as it inflates it very rapidly, so the standard procedure is to inflate the raft using a air compressor. The automatic release inflator is tested by weighing it, like a fire extinguisher. This tells Rollie whether it is in good working order. Ours was fine.

Below is the raft completely out of the cannister being hooked up to the inflation hose.

Here we can see how long the raft painter is, we shall do some testing on Duet to see if it’s long enough to keep the raft close to the boat but not too close, once it is deployed.


Rollie unrolls the raft carefully before inflating it.

Once the raft is inflated, we can see all the component parts, of which there are many. Rollie is a patient teacher, and works his way carefully through all the things we need to know. First, of course, one has to get into the raft. The best way, as all boaters know, is to step up into the raft from the deck of the boat. This is not, of course, always possible, for example if the vessel sinks rapidly or is on fire. So first we learn how to get into the raft.


But what if the raft is upside down? This is not as unlikely as it seems, if the weather is bad the raft may overturn. It has ballast pockets underneath, which should fill with sea water and keep it upright, but it could inflate and immediately flip over, before the pockets fill. Also, it might be dark, in which case we may not be able to see what the raft is actually doing. Presumably Duet’s big deck floods would be on, if she still had electric power, but the chances are by that point she won’t.

The ballast pockets are shown in the photo below. They are red, with square holes at the top for the water to flow in. 


The Switlik has a fluorescent cross on the bottom, which will light up when hit with a flashlight. So, even in the dark, we should be able to tell that the raft is the wrong way up. Righting it is a process familiar to anyone who has righted a small sailboat. Grab the white strap at the top and stand on the bottom, thereby using your weight to bring the raft down on top of you. Hold it down until the ballast pockets fill and the raft stabilizes.


At this point you are in the water, presumably wearing an inflated PFD to keep you floating. Once the raft has settled down, it can be boarded using a step ladder on one side. There are signs to make sure you find the ladder. Rollie pointed out that the strongest crew member should get in first, and then pull the rest of the crew aboard. In our case the first boarder would be Ron, which is also convenient, as Nancy is the better swimmer.


So now we are in the raft.

First, we cut the raft free of Duet, using either one of the knives that we wear around our necks as part of our overboard process, or the knife conveniently located next to the life raft painter.


Then we focus on getting the raft sorted out. The raft has an inflating canopy on each end, which should have inflated automatically. In the pictute below you can see the two cannister which inflate the canopies at each end of the raft.

There is a roof between them, so we can then zip ourselves in, out of the elements. Ron zips us in, carefully supervised by Rollie.

There is also a sea anchor to keep the raft head to the waves, which should make it ride more comfortably.

The raft will most likely over inflate, to avoid under inflation in cold temperatures, so we need to release any excess pressure. The same is true for the canopy. Of course the raft could also under inflate, if we are in very cold conditions, such as those potentially found in Prince William Sound, or Kodiak, Alaska, both of which are on our cruising plan for this summer. Then it might need additional air.

The raft’s over inflation release valves, which open automatically, are shown below, inside the red circles. The raft has two independent tubes, as well as the tubes for the two canopies, so there are a lot of valves which might all be hissing at once. 


At this point it makes sense to start looking in the kit provided inside the raft. Notice in the photo below that the kit is tied to raft. Just to the right of it, in light blue, is the survival book. Everything in the raft is attached and Rollie suggested we immediately tie in our MOB, as things tend to float away around or in rafts. 

You can also see the heaving ring, with it’s yellow line just to left of the orange kit. This is intended to be used if a crew member has become seperated from the raft, the orange ring is easy to throw and the line will pay out but remain attached to the raft, so the crew member can be retrieved. 

The kit contains a lot of items, but the first to find is probably the pump, in case the raft is a little soft. We should also our own overboard kit with us, which contains a hand held VHF radio, an Iridium Go!, at least one smart phone, extra batteries, protein bars, water, mylar blankets, hand and foot warmers, personal medications, a Gpirb, etc. So we should have lots of stuff.

In the photo below, the pump is in Rollie’s left hand and he has just removed the cap.


The raft kit, in addition to the pump, contains a patch kit, which is in and of itself an interesting process. Rollie carefully instructed us on how to use it. Essentially, it is two aluminum discs, joined by a line. They are placed on the inside and outside of the leak and then the line between then is tightened until they form a patch on both sides of the leak.

Our raft, like most rafts today, is made of nearly indestructible neoprene. Rollie has unpacked neoprene rafts nearly 20 years old and seen no deterioration, his personal guess is our raft should last at least 25 years. Thus far WestPac has not had to pull a raft from service for deterioration of the construction material. Rollie invited Ron to try and punch a hole in this material with a screwdriver. Ron was not successful.


WestPac packs a lot of commercial rafts, for ferries, fishing boats, etc. These rafts must be done every year, including setting off the automatic inflater. So Rollie has a lot of experience with what fails. In his opinion, we are quite safe with a 5 year, or even longer, interval between repacks. The auto inflator should last at least 5 years, probably closer to 10. It was replaced in 2011, courtesy of Duet’s previous owner.


Problems with these units are usually discovered when a commercial raft fails its yearly inspection. In the case of Switlik, commercial rafts use the same equipment as our raft. So Switlik will know when something is failing and put out an informational broadcast to all raft owners, as well as technicians like Rollie.


The only things which go out of date are the flares, which are contained in the life raft’s kit. Even out of date, they will work. Everything else should be just fine. Nevertheless, Rollie will check everything and then replace nearly everything in our kit, plus the overhead light on the raft. This is not normally replaced, only it’s batteries are changed. Unfortunately, our particular battery manufacturer has gone out of business, so the batteries for our light can’t be replaced. This new light was the most expensive part of the repacking, at close to $400. The contents of the kit are shown below, we did not add anything personal. Rollie prefers that we prepare our own MOB kit, which we review every time we go offshore.


As an aside, we also talked to Rollie about the new lasers, which the US Coast Guard is testing as a replacement for flares. We are considering adding them to our overboard kit. Rollie made an interesting point, namely that, once we leave the USA rescue parties may have no idea what it is or what it means. Flares, on the other hand, are universal. So we shall add a full SOLAS kit of flares for our trip through the South Pacific.


Anyway, so there we are in the raft. Presumably, it’s not leaking, our canopies have inflated, we have set off our rescue devices and now we need to keep busy. Rollie noted that the experience of people who have spent considerable time in life rafts, or other survival situations, have shown that keeping the crew busy is important to keep them from focusing too much on the downside of the situation. 


So there is a log book, for us to note times, positions, directions, contacts with the emergency authorities, etc. There is fishing gear, should we be in the raft long enough to need food, beyond what is already supplied. There are seasickness medications, and we will also add scopolamine from our own supply. There is sun block. There is even a book about survival, to give us something to read. There are also paddles, which definitely aren’t going to be any use for paddling but Rollie did suggest they did pretty well at bailing.


This experience is one we would recommend to every boater who has a life raft. There is no substitute for seeing your particular raft, climbing in and out of it, and talking to someone as knowledgable as Rollie about how it works and how to get the best from it. We appreciate all the time he took with us, and the stories he told about fisherman he knows who have actually used their rafts, including one gentleman who has used his three times. While we don’t want to repeat their experience, it is very educational to hear about it.

We even got the chance to write Duet’s name on the raft, in case it is found somewhere, preferably with us in it.






Project Work in Sidney BC

We returned to Duet on Boxing Day, as the Canadians call it, or the day after Christmas. She was just as we had left her, dozing in her slip, waiting for spring. Peggy from The Boat Butler had given her a good wash before we arrived. We even had neighbors on the boat next to us, a beautifully maintained old Chris Craft with a navy blue hull. They were from the San Francisco Bay area, very nice folks, tolerantly putting up with the endless noise of project work from Duet.


So we settled in with a long list of things to do. But first, leak checks were conducted in various areas. The section over the master berth seemed in pretty good shape, although some searching found several drops of water, which are probably due to continued leaching from the damp core. We will check it again when we return in March. Every other area looked just fine.

Ron installed our new Pepwave router, which will allow us to use the local wifi. It took a little fiddling but he got it going and it is working perfectly.


Nancy started in what seems like the endless paperwork routine, in this case she had confirmed our PLB and Gpirb registrations, so they needed their new stickers.

We also got a chance to start our walks along the waterfront in Sidney again. There is a nice 3 mile path that we try to do at least every other day. Getting exercise off the boat requires a time commitment but we find that it pays dividends, not only health wise, but also in giving us a chance to clear our heads a bit after a long day in Duet’s trenches.

During the weekend a storm passed through and at least one boat had a much tougher time with it than we did. There are a lot of abandoned boats on moorings in BC, more than we expected frankly. The previous week one had overturned and sank off the marina, it was still there several weeks later. Removing these derelicts is expensive and it is often impossible to find out who is actually responsible for them.

On Monday, we got in touch with Philbrooks to see where we were on their schedule. The boat service business has definitely picked up this year, the fairway to their shop was absolutely packed. We were assured that they could start on Duet the following week, right after New Year, so Ron got focused on finishing up the new inverter.


Our readers may wonder why we were still working on the inverter installation, and so did Nancy. The new inverter was installed on the last trip and was working just fine. So we were done, right? Well not exactly. First, we ran the last of the new power cables, which actually were being connected to the old inverter/charger, now serving as a charger only.

The pictures below are a set taken during the project, which should give a general idea of what goes on during this kind of wire installation. Ron, unlike professional electricians, relies on Nancy as his assistant, which does mean he gets lunch, but probably reduces his productivity, as she can’t get into the small spaces like he can.

In the picture below we are using a “fish” to drag the cables through a tight area. The fish is the shiny line in front of all the cables. Once it it thru the hole, Nancy pulls on it, while Ron feeds the cable in from the other side. In this shot, the fish is coming through the area where the wall of the master stateroom joins the ceiling.

Then we had to chafe protect all the new cables. The ‘hot” cables need to be protected their entire length, which means inserting them into long runs of plastic wire loom. The other cables need to be wrapped in rubber or tape wherever they might chafe on anything. So this process took a day or two.

Then the old inverter/charger was hooked up. We now have twice the charging capacity we had before, so the project was deemed a great success. Doubled capacity means half the generator run time, thereby saving fuel and also running the generator at higher loads, which is much better for it.


Since the old inverter/charger had moved from one side of the lazarette to the other, the automatic fire extinguisher was also relocated. Ron had brought the bases he made, neatly painted, on this trip, so this process went relatively quickly. Relocating the water maker filters will be accomplished just before we leave in April, since the water maker is currently pickled and we don’t want to depickle yet.


As an aside, Ron tries to fix problems he sees when he is working on something. So, when he got to the pilothouse electric panel, he took some extra time to protect various connections. These connections had nothing to do with the inverter installation, but since he was there he got them sorted out. Duet’s electric panels are in good shape, which is one of the signs of a well maintained boat. Sometimes, we will open a boat electrical panel and see unlabeled wires running every which way, which is not good.

In the picture below, Ron added a clear rubber boot over one of the terminal lugs to prevent inadvertent shorting to the opposite phase of a split phase system. If you want to know more about this, please apply to Ron, as Nancy doesn’t even know what any it means. 


So New Years week was spend finalizing the inverter/charger installation, with a time out for New Year itself. Other small related projects were also completed, including photographing and ordering some parts from PAE. Duet was built in Taiwan, and many of her parts were custom made there. Her porthole screens are a good example. We have 7 portholes, each with a custom made screen that fits neatly in the hole. 5 of these portholes are oval and 2 are round. During our last cruise Nancy inadvertently dropped a screen into the water when installing it in the master stateroom. So we have been operating with 4 oval screens, which works fine unless we want to open both the oval portholes in the guest stateroom.


PAE can get more parts, but they need to be made in China and shipped to the US, so it takes a little time. Often, with small parts, project managers traveling to and from the China factory hand carry the part, which is what we were hoping would happen with our order.


We also placed an order for extra water and fuel fill caps, since they, particularly the fuel caps, are easy to drop overboard. Ron needed replacement strainers and caps for several custom made thru hull strainers in the engine room. Most of our strainers are Grocos, but there are two that were made in Taiwan. Over time Ron will replace the Taiwanese made strainers with Grocos, but since the Grocos have a different footprint this is not an easy swap out.


Bright and early the following Monday the Philbrooks team began appearing. First came Robin, master mechanic. We were lucky to get Robin, he is normally managing other mechanics, but the yard is so busy that he has been pressed back into service on the front line. He confided that he actually prefers working on boats to administration, so he was happy to come spend time with us.


First, Robin started in on the leaking wet exhaust. He removed the leaky section easily and ordered a replacement.

Then he removed the overhung load adapter. Once that was out of the way, it became apparent that the hydraulic pump would also need to come off, as its oil seal had been damaged by the leaking overhung load adapter. Unfortunately, Robin was afraid that the pump shaft had been scored from rotating against the damaged seal, so the right thing to do was order a new one, rather than try to repair the old one. It was taken away and it’s supply hose plugged until new parts could arrive. The overhung load adapter just needs a new bearing, so Robin put it on his bench and fixed it right up.


During this time Steve, who is to make our new exhaust wrap, stopped by and did some measurements. Once that was complete, Ron and Robin removed the old wrap, which came off quite easily with almost no mess.

The exhaust run has a long fixed section, suspended from the ceiling of the engine room by flexible mounts. It marries up with the wrinkle belly (shown above), which serves as a shock absorber, so that vibration in the main engine doesn’t shake the fixed exhaust run.

The wrinkle belly is mated to the two ends of the exhaust using gaskets. Our gaskets showed needed replacement, so Robin took the wrinkle belly away to serve as the pattern for the new gaskets. Gaskets are custom made on the spot, rather than ordered, it ensures a better fit.

In the picture below the wrinkle belly has been removed and the gap between the long exhaust run and exhaust pipe exiting the engine is visible. 

The replacement hose for the leaking exhaust arrived in a few days and was installed in short order. It is a handsome blue color and much more flexible than the hose it replaced. The silicone hose does not require sealant to join it to the rigid exhaust sections, so it will be much easier to replace in the future, should that become necessary. Obviously we couldn’t sea trial the hose, as the main engine is out of service until it gets new exhaust wrap and a hydraulic pump, but our guess is this repair will be just fine.


Sometime during this week, the diesel heater, possibly feeling neglected, decided to give up the ghost. It did so in a truly spectacular fashion, blowing huge amounts of funny smelling smoke all over the dock. We were concerned that someone might fall off the dock in the fog, so we shut it down pronto. Ron disassembled it, and diagnosed a failed fuel injector pump. So a new one was ordered and installed. Unfortunately, this didn’t fix the problem and smoke still billowed everywhere.


At this point, our neighbor Ian, from the Nordhavn 56 motorsailor Lolani down the dock, walked by. He stopped, sniffed the smoke and said “when my heater did that, it was coolant leaking into the heat exchanger”. Ron and Nancy looked at one another, said “that makes sense” and off came the heat exchanger. It was in very bad shape, from coolant leaking into it over time. Coolant is quite corrosive and it had eaten holes right through the exchanger wall. So a new heat exchanger was ordered and, in due course, arrived.


Replacing the heat exchanger is not a complex process, replacing the fuel pump was much more difficult. Removing the old exchanger, however, requires detaching it from the exhaust pipe. When the exchanger was originally installed it was cemented to the exhaust pipe, so that means sawing it off. Ron gave it a good try with a hand saw, but after several minutes decided to use our Rotozip instead. We will bring that with us on our next trip in March.


Once the exhaust is sawed off the exchanger a custom join needs to be fabricated by Sure Marine, makers of the diesel heater. So we will saw the exhaust pipe off the first day we arrive in March and immediately order the new exhaust join. That will hopefully mean that the diesel heater will be up and running by the end of our next visit.


Our readers will now be wondering why we don’t just deep six the diesel heater, as it always seems to be on the to be repaired list. The diesel heater is a wonderful bit of gear when it works, it heats the boat far more thoroughly than the reverse cycle A/C. It can also produce hot water at the drop of a hat. So we have decided to keep it. Frankly, the diesel heater has been neglected while Ron has brought other ship’s gear up to his standard, and we are paying the price for that. The same can be said of the dinghy engine, which has now given up the ghost again. We aren’t sure why, but we think it is due to a mangled impeller, as there is no exhaust cooling water coming out. It is high on the repair list for our next trip as well.


As an aside, we manage Duet on the principle of continuous preventative maintenance for everything. Most long distance cruisers we know do the same. In our perfect world, nothing ever breaks, because it has no reason to. This does not, of course, actually happen, things break all the time, but we strive for perfection. Actually, key equipment, like the main engine, doesn’t break often, if at all. This, coupled with a detailed understanding of how everything aboard the boat works, gives us the confidence to trust Duet to take us far and wide.


So the diesel heater was out of the picture for the rest of our stay. The reverse cycle A/C was doing fine, although it doesn’t keep the boat as warm as the diesel heater, there are large cold spots everywhere. We also ran the oil heaters, to keep key areas, like the salon, warm. Fortunately, it was not too cold in BC, although we did have several days of 0 degrees centigrade. This meant the dock water was turned off, so we filled our tanks and went on water rationing (to a point) for a week or so, until warmer temperatures returned.


In the meantime, other Philbrooks personal joined our team. The fiberglass repair was completed by one gentleman, who spends all his time doing fiberglass work. His skill was patently obvious, he completed the repair in about a quarter of the time it would have taken Ron. It is so perfect you can’t tell he was even there, which, he informed us, is his goal for every repair he does. He used a combination of fiberglass resins and gelcoat finishers, which are the same as those used when Duet was built, so the deck is now as good as new.

The picture below shows the wet material removed from underneath the deck, before the new glass was put in.


The folks from the canvas shop, accompanied by several woodworkers, also joined us. We had two projects for them, an easy one and a harder one. The easy one was to replace our fly bridge cushions, which were original to the boat and had completely lost their waterproofing. We had some debate on what to replace them with. Most folks go with Sunbrella covering and have a separate cover made to put over the cushions when not in use or in inclement weather. We did not want to follow that route, as we don’t want the work of having to cover our cushions all the time. We want to put them out at the beginning of the season and bring them in at the end. We also hope to only wash them once or twice a year.


We chose to make the new cushions from a Stamoid product, similar to that used to cover our storm plates and flopper stopper. The cushions will be filled with a combination of comfortable foam and draining foam that allows water to run straight through. We shall see how they work out over the next couple of years.


The next project was more complex. Our pilothouse settee is not comfortable for the off watch to sit and keep an eye on things. First, the seat is high enough that our feet don’t touch the ground. Second, the corner is rounded, which means it is impossible to lay back with your feet up facing either forward or to the starboard side. So we need new cushions and a square corner.


The corner requires the attention of skilled woodworkers, as it needs to look like it was always there. When we change things on Duet we try to do them at the standard established when she was built, and the Taiwanese woodworkers know their trade. Fortunately, so do the craftsmen from Philbrooks, so we were in good hands.


Two skills were actually required for the woodworking part. First, the woodworkers, to remove the curved cover and craft a 90 degree version, complete with a bottom seat that retained the access to the storage underneath the settee. But we also needed the finishers/painters, to match the grey paint underneath the settee and, more importantly, the finish on the visible teak surfaces. The two gentlemen assigned to our team felt that the matching would be no big deal, so they dismantled the corner and carried it off to be reformed. They returned to fit it once, and then it went off to the paint shop. It will be installed on our next visit.


We also spent time with Luke, head of the Philbrooks canvas shop, discussing choices for the pilothouse settee. He took us aboard a redone Nordhavn 47 so we could see what he had in mind, and also get a chance to sit on it. We chose the same black ultra leather that was previously on the settee and matches the Stidd helm seat. The cushion form will be slightly more restrained than the previous ones, and should enable us to put our feet on the ground.


In between hosting the Philbrooks folks, wrestling with the diesel heater and other boat work, we did manage to go out to dinner a few times. Most notable, we took the afternoon ferry to Vancouver to visit with Lawrence and Penny of the Nordhavn 46 Northern Ranger II. They introduced us to the owners of Nordhavn 60 Sea Level II, and we all had a very enjoyable dinner at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club.


We also spent some time inventorying boat parts, provisions, clothing and other gear for our Alaska journey. Our next trip north in March will be the last time we drive, so anything large and heavy needs to either come then or we will do without it.


Unfortunately, a few days before our departure, our new Victron inverter started crashing intermittently. Naturally, it first did it when Nancy pushed the trash compactor button, but it really wasn’t her fault, even Ron said it wasn’t. Several days of careful testing, supervised by Ron and using Nancy as a guinea pig, because, honestly, if anyone can break it Nancy can, did not provide any reasonable explanation for its symptoms.


So we called Victron technical support, who asked us to ship it to a Seattle facility for further testing. We put it back in its box, which we had fortunately kept, and loaded in the car to go home and then be sent on. Since we couldn’t operate without an inverter, Ron rewired our old one to serve in the meantime. It is not obvious what caused the Victron failure, but we will provide an update on it’s status when we return to the boat.


Finally, we removed our life raft for service. It was headed to WestPac in Tacoma, who has serviced it twice before. It came off easily, and we made careful notes, including taking pictures, of how it was installed, as suggested by Rollie Herman at Westpac.


Too soon we were off home again. Peggy prepared to wash Duet and keep an eye on her while we were gone, and we set off south again, via the ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles. Our next blog will cover our experience at Westpac watching our raft be repacked, and we will return to Duet in early March.