Life raft: more than two four letter words

26 Jul

Examining raft contents. Photo (c) Michelle Elvy

How do you choose a life raft? We looked for the best raft available. That wasn’t enough.

As dewy-eyed gonna-be cruisers, we focused on choosing a superior product for that moment of (heaven forbid) dire need. We looked at independent research reports, read books and blogs about the life raft experiences of other cruisers, and met with all major brand reps at boat shows. After much deliberation, we settled on a six-man Winslow life raft as the crucial piece of safety gear that we hope to never use.

Our initial certification on the new raft was good for three years, a longer term than typical thanks to the durable vacuum packing by the manufacturer. Fast forward a few years, and we’ve arrived in Australia with a soon-to-expire certification. It didn’t trouble us initially, because we planned to park in Oz for a while while working to refuel the cruising kitty. The service could be done shortly before we planned our next ocean voyaging when it was time to depart; Winslow’s website listed a center near us where the raft could be serviced and re-certified. Except that as departure time approached, we tried contacting the nominated service center. The number was disconnected, and eventually, it became apparent that our options for certification in Australia were …zero. Winslow’s website offered a “404″ (page nto found) error on their list of service centers. It was not encouraging.

bench boat cabbates

In port, the life raft stows under a custom bench

In Malaysia now with our eyes on next year’s Indian Ocean passages, servicing has been back up on the priority list of projects. There are multiple life raft service providers along the Malay peninsula, from Singapore to  Using a “Winslow Certified” provider suddenly felt less important, since there were several to choose from. We wanted to observe, we wanted to see the facility, we could talk to other cruisers about their experiences. Those experiences told us a lot! One cruiser friend cracked open their raft to find out that the registered agent who had serviced it in New Zealand had repaired seams with duct tape. Another boat, Crystal Blues, used a facility in Thailand and started noticing trouble when the re-certified raft wouldn’t fit back in the cradle… and then saw that simple cloth tape was used to hold the case together- they spent more than $1400 and discovered later that personal items supposed to be packed inside “went missing” at the Bangkok facility. Another friend used the Winslow certified agent in Singapore for their (non-Winslow) raft, and ended up with a surprise bill at three times the original quote (from line items like: inflated raft floor)-  at that point, it’s nearly enough to justify buying a new raft instead of servicing an older one.

We were preoccupied with other projects when a new arrival to the marina, Bernie and Michelle and family on Momo, ferreted out a local agent with liferaft servicing- it turns out, they also needed re-certification and have exactly the same raft. We didn’t have a lot to go on besides the obvious volume of business in their shop and the marina’s referral, but they were willing to let us participate in the process. Honestly? I wanted to see that raft blown up!

So we did.

It wasn’t a perfect process. The cost jumped from the original estimate (although the final price arrived at a reasonable level, once it was clear what we did, and didn’t, want). We were assured the raft would fit back into our case, were assured throughout that it would- no problem!- and then told mid-process that it wouldn’t fit. With our built-to-spec storage spot, yes, that was a problem! Ultimately it did meet our  needs: proper work, right price, and back in the case. Not to mention, we had the very satisfying experience of seeing what it would really be like to get into that raft… and how much we wanted to avoid that ever being necessary.

The moral, for us? When we purchased our life raft, we focused myopically on “the right raft”. We have a new appreciation for the availability of trusted service providers to re-certify the raft. If we’d just done a short sabbatical cruise or a few years, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but… well, we’re not. Servicing is generally an annual affair, and when you tackle Slow Living Afloat and purchase from a raft manufacturer with exactly FIVE outlets outside the USA for servicing, you’re probably going to be stuck at some point.

Well certified people know we love it when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

This article was syndicated from Sailing Totem


  1. Behan - s/v Totem

    * William- the cost varies by region but ranges from “high” to “higher”. Expect a range from $600-$2000 depending on your location, your raft, and the stuff inside.
    * Rob- it really feels that way, especially when we hear so many stories of service fees coming out at 3 or 4 times the estimate!
    * Carolyn- a cautionary tale indeed. WOW.
    * Lynn- I’m going to be better at commiserating than making recommendations here: you’re kind of stuck, actually, just like we were. Let me guess- when you bought your raft, that happy Winslow service map still showed a location in Australia, didn’t it?

  2. Lynn

    We’re on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands with our Winslow liferaft that was serviced 5 years ago and finding it difficult to ship to the USA because of the flares. We’re thinking once we get to Australia we’ll find a way to ship it to NZ. We haven’t researched it yet, do you have any recommendations?

  3. Pingback: Finding bliss in stagnant cruising | Sailing Totem

  4. Michelle Elvy

    Good, succinct post about the importance of considering servicing of the liferaft — something we, like you, only thought of well after the purchase. I’m not sure it’s so much an intentional scandal — but the corporate interests are certainly not thinking ahead to your servicing needs when they sell you the fancy liferaft in the first place. We’re still happy with the apparent quality of our Winslow — and also pleased to find a servicing agent who charged a fraction of the ‘official’ price.

    I think this experience points to the fact as well (for newbies and wannabes, as mentioned by William) that you gotta think outside the box — that is, beyond what you’re told by manufacturers. For us, asking questions and ferreting out possible solutions beyond the ‘party line’ has worked well.

    Glad you posted the high-speed vid, Behan!

  5. Pingback: Life raft: more than two four letter words | Sailing Totem

  6. Rona House

    Life rafts with their servicing needs and modern business models don’t seem to marry well.
    A few moments thought and I realized I could not think of a single comparable article cars and fire extinguishers being the closest

  7. Rob van olmen

    A big scandal those ‘service’ providers. We had ours checked in new zealand and the vacuum bag had leaked. The raft was falling apart and had to buy a new one. This one is promised to not fall apart, even if it gets wet in its container.
    Never hope to use it…

  8. William

    Valuable insight on the frustration with having your life raft recertified!
    Please don’t be afraid to list prices for servicing and suggestions about what would have been a wiser solution for a life raft purchase. Newbie cruisers and cruiser wannabe’s need all the help they can get. Thank you !!

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