We bought our life raft at the Annapolis Boat Show a few years ago. For those who don’t know, this is the largest boat show in the US, and one of the largest in the world. All of the life raft manufacturers were represented at this show and we had the opportunity to make side by side comparisons to help us decide which raft to buy. Also, these same manufacturers offer special pricing if you buy at the boat show (or shortly thereafter) to entice you to buy. Given all of that, we purchased a life raft by Revere, a six person Offshore Commander.
Someone not familiar with life rafts may wonder why on earth we bought a six person raft when we very rarely have that many people on board. Simple, these companies allow only four square feet per person when sizing these rafts. A six person raft will allow three people to lay down at the same time with not much room to spare.
Life rafts have a three year service life before needing to be opened, inspected, and repacked. Also, some of the contents of the survival kit such as flares, flashlight batteries, etc. have shelf lives and must be replaced at regular intervals. Being a US company, Revere has many service centers located around the United States and Caribbean, but only one location in Europe. This facility is located in Grosetto, Italy, about two hours northwest of Rome.
The Grosetto location is a company named Eurovinil (EV) Survitec Group, which is a firm that also manufactures their own line of life rafts, inflatable boats, and similar products. Apparently, this company used to manufacture the raft for Revere until a year ago when operations were moved to another firm overseas. (This was per the folks at EV and I have not confirmed it independently.) Since EV was the original manufacturer, they have maintained their status as an approved service center for Revere life rafts. We made arrangements by e-mail to have our raft serviced and confirmed that we would be able to witness the inspection and packing.
I had bought a folding cart to help transport the raft to the service facility. I checked the specifications and the raft weighs 86 pounds. Pretty heavy, but manageable. We put the raft on the cart, secured it with bungee cords, and got a ride to the train station. The cart complained, but held the weight. At the station we had to go up and down stairs to get to the platform for our train, and that was when I realized how heavy the raft was. When the train arrived I was able to get it aboard and next to our seat for the one hour trip to Grosetto.
At Grosetto, we disembarked and walked to our hotel, only a short 100 yards away. We put the raft and our luggage in the room and went to visit the walled medivial city of Grosetto. It was very pretty and interesting and we had a great time relaxing in the piazzas.
The next morning we took a taxi to EV’s service facility and were met by Ms. Francesca Crugnola and Alberto Scala, the head of the raft service and repacking department. We discussed the service that our raft would require and how it would be inspected and repacked. At first, the EV folks wanted us to pull the emergency cord on our raft to watch the raft inflate. While this is the ultimate test of performance, it stresses the raft and associated equipment by inflating it with very cold nitrogen, and should not be done as a regular practice. This is why most facilities use an alternate source of dry air or nitrogen to inflate the raft, rather than pulling the emergency cord.
Once we explained that we did not want to stress the raft, they asked if we would like to watch a different raft be inflated from the emergency cylinder. (Apparently most of their customers like to pull the cord!) We agreed and they provided another raft that needed service to allow Laura to pull the cord and witness the inflation. It was an experience we hope to never have to do, but it was educational to realize how much force is required to trigger the auto-inflation.
After the other raft was inflated and we asked a few questions about location of the knife for cutting the safety line, etc., we turned our attention to our raft. The technician carefully cut open the straps securing the canister and removed the raft. The raft is vacuum-sealed, and thus enclosed in an airtight plastic bag. This was also cut open and the raft removed. Several tests and inspections were conducted on the compressed air cylinder, valve, and the hoses between the two. The cylinder was then removed since replacement of the cylinder was part of the service.
The cylinder was weighed with a precision scale to determine if there has been any leakage. CO2 does have weight, and with a sensitive enough scale you can determine how much, if any, has leaked out. In our case the cylinder was well within specs, indicating the cylinder would have properly inflated the raft.
During inspection of the raft, we found the only problem. Although the raft itself was fine, there is another vacuum sealed package with water, flares, flashlight, and other survival gear inside. The water is in small foil packets of about 8 oz. each. One of the foil packets had either leaked or was punctured, contaminating the contents of the package. This probably meant that the flares were no good, and perhaps other items as well. The technician simply discarded the packet to be replaced with a new one. We were told that the water packaging had been redesigned to prevent occurrences just such as this.
Our raft was then inflated using dry air from their compressor. The raft inflated properly and no leaks were immediately apparent. The raft was then lifted to a rack and left inflated to check for any leakage. The acceptance criteria is six hours with no leakage, although ours was checked until the next morning since six hours was after the work shift.
From the above photo you get an idea of the size of the raft. Six people would have to be very good friends to spend much time together here.
At this point we left the facility to allow EV to finish the leak down test. By now the luggage cart was really drooping from the weight of the raft, and arrangements were made to have the raft shipped back to the marina where we were staying so we would not have to take it on the train again.
We left for a sight-seeing trip of Pisa and Florence, spending several days seeing delightful countryside and all of the sights. We returned to our boat in time for the raft to arrive, just as scheduled.
We used a spare halyard to lift the boat from the dock and swing it onboard Orontes II. It easily went back to its cradle mounted on deck, where we hope it happily remains for another three years.