Updated: May 13
Under federal regulation (46 CFR 28.140), any commercial fishing vessel that is required to have a survival craft, must have its inflatable life raft serviced within two years of the date of manufacture and annually, thereafter. Nothing riles some fishermen so much as the requirement for an annual repack of their boat’s life raft. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s an expensive procedure.
There’s the cost for the inspection and the repack. Then, there’s the cost to replace any expired equipment in the raft’s survival kit. These are things like smoke and handheld signal flares, parachute rockets, flashlight and raft light batteries.
Are you fishing more than 50 miles offshore? You will need to replace expired food and water, as well. Add to the list, the cost of shipping your raft to the nearest repacking service, if there is not one located in your homeport.
All in, the cost for repacking a life raft can run well into the hundreds of dollars.
No wonder some fishermen consider life raft repacking to be a racket. So, what’s the deal? Why must you have your boat’s life raft repacked so often?
Let’s start with the fact that life rafts live in a tough environment. The canisters are exposed to hot tropical sun with destructive UV rays or freezing arctic temperatures. Add to that, rain, freezing spray, hail, salt water, and vibration. Occasionally, people will abuse a canister by storing gear on top of it, which is always a bad idea.
As a result, canisters can crack and weathered rubber gaskets can leak, allowing water to seep inside. Water can even wick up the fibers of the painter line and find an entrance into the canister.
The result is a wet and moldy canister which damages the life raft material and the glue that holds the raft sections together. In addition, water intrusion will damage the contents of the survival kit, such as flares, lights, food, etc. Annual servicing catches these problems before your raft and its contents become unserviceable.
Real life experience has shown us that life rafts that have not been repacked on schedule are frequently subject to damage from water intruding into the canister. At AMSEA, we use donated, expired life rafts for training. We seldom see a dry life raft come out of a canister that has gone several years without being repacked. Many of these rafts have damage to the raft or survival equipment due to moisture, corrosion, and mold.
A factory-authorized repacking service station will ensure that your raft is in serviceable condition, should you ever need it in an emergency. The service station will inspect the raft’s seams, fabric, valves, gaskets and other components.
Should, a manufacturer find that a supplier has shipped them parts that do not perform properly, they will send a safety alert to its authorized service stations, who will replace the defective parts when the raft comes in for its annual inspection. This is an important reason for why you want your raft repacked by a service station that is authorized and certified by the manufacturer. An unauthorized service station will not receive service bulletins and alerts.
Commercial fishermen looking for an alternative to annual repacks may want to consider a rigid survival craft, like the Ovatek ™. Rigid survival craft are common on ships and oil platforms. However, many smaller vessels may not have the room onboard to place a rigid survival craft where it can float free, should the vessel sink, and many vessel owners may find the purchase cost prohibitive.
While annual the inspection and repacking of your vessel’s life raft is expensive, it’s the best way to ensure that your survival craft is ready to go. You will likely consider the annual your life raft's annual maintenance cost to be money well spent, should you ever call on it in an emergency.
Your life raft is survival equipment that was designed to be used in extreme environmental conditions. On a dark and stormy night with the vessel sinking, you and your crew will want to feel assured that your life raft will perform as it was designed and be failure free.
Photo: Rescuing Crew of the F/V Last Stand, Near Cape May, New Jersey, Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard
Editor: This article was originally published in Tradewinds magazine.