Life raft: more than two four letter words

Examining raft contents. Photo (c) Michelle Elvy
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.

Based on this experience, AND on interviews and a survey of experienced long-distance / long-term cruisers, I co-authored an article with Michelle on factors to consider when purchasing a life raft. It was published in Ocean Navigator and is available free online.

4 Responses

  1. About a 2 years ago I wrote a similar piece in cruising forum warning people about purchasing a life raft without checking for service centers. We had to hand carry the Winslow raft back on a bus from Mexico to San Diego. Thinking ahhh back in the land of plenty we can get it recertified . It turns out no one in SD was authorized and the LA re packer didn’t have all the parts so we had to send it to the east coast. WTF

    So while in Panama the crossroads of he world for yachts we tried to get it recertified. You think we could find a place in Panama City?? Nope closest place was the factory in USA.

    Your article is spot on and people should avoid WINSLOW life rafts if they are going outside the USA waters. Just plain crazy! Yes we could have had it packed at another vendors center but if we needed a part we would be stuck ordering it and having to wait

    Who is at fault? ME for not doing my homework before making a darn expensive purchase.

    Please take warning potential life raft buyers. Check world wide service centers first


    1. It’s disturbing, isn’t it? We had very different expectations about servicability, too. I think it’s a great raft, but I no longer think we made the right/best choice for our needs. I’ve been doing some research on other vendors, and unfortunately, it’s not a much better story. More to come in that area!

  2. Perhaps you’ve written elsewhere already, but I’m now curious to hear where you stand – or maybe how firmly you stand – on the question “life raft, yes or no?”
    It’s a huge expense when you count in recertification-almost a year’s cruising for us. And it still leaves you adrift at sea. Does it make practical sense, or is the emotional value sufficient? We haven’t answered the questions yet. Sure wish they at least came with sailing rigs!

    1. Well, I guess the fact we bought one new and invested in re-certification (despite the total hassle we had here) speaks pretty well for our feelings! But no, we wouldn’t go without one, or spend that much on something we felt held only emotional value.

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