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.






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