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Article by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tips


eBay Life Rafts
© 2011 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

The popularity, pitfalls and guidelines for buying a secondhand life raft,
with a close look at the life raft inspection / recertification process


Of all the equipment we pile onto and into our boats, the life raft is unique at least in this respect: Nowhere else do we spend so much money on something we so fervently hope we’ll never use. While a life raft is not a legal requirement aboard non-commercial vessels in the US, how many of us are reckless enough to venture offshore without something into which we and our fellow crewmembers can escape and survive if the worst happens and our boat sinks or burns at sea?

A new 6-person, offshore life raft in a canister and deck cradle costs between $3,000 and $8,000 these days. That’s a big bill for a budget conscious cruiser. So today more and more boaters are turning to the Internet to shop for secondhand rafts for sale on web sites like eBay and Craig’s List. These pre-owned (but never used) rafts often seem like a bargain when compared to buying new.

However, most of these old life rafts for sale are past due for inspection, some by many years. Before they can be relied upon to inflate and float when needed they must be re-certified, and this raises some questions for the bargain hunter contemplating a pre-owned life raft. What exactly is re-certification? Who does it? Why should I trust them? Where should I have it done? How long does it take? How often is enough? What’s it cost? Will this old raft pass? What if it doesn’t? What will I need in addition to what’s inside this raft if I ever do have to abandon ship?

What Life Raft Service Facilities Do

A life raft service facility basically does three things to ensure the rafts they process will function properly when needed: They inspect, they repack, and they re-certify. The inspection and repacking must be done exactly according to the raft’s design, each make and model being unique in numerous ways. The third step, re-certification, simply documents and records the fact that the first two were done correctly, when and by whom.

In the course of the inspection, the service technician inflates the raft and checks for stitch, seam or glue failure, tube and valve leaks, general wear, kit inventory, inflation bottle and valve condition, and a long list of other features. He or she will also automatically replace any items with past-due expiration dates such as flashlight batteries, flares and food & water packs, plus anything else that’s not looking and working perfectly. The shop should return to you all the old items they’ve removed. This offers you some proof that the items were indeed faulty, and it relieves them of having to dispose of hazardous materials like out of date flares and batteries.


Senior service technician Shelia Ketterman removes the raft from its cradle and (since this is a full five-year inspection) pulls the lanyard to auto-inflate the raft with its own inflation bottle.

They are required to replace faulty items with manufacturer-specified equipment brands and models. For that reason they may refuse to substitute comparable equipment you picked up at your local marine store hoping to save a few bucks on the servicing. They’ll  also treat the raft to any applicable manufacturer parts recalls and/or required upgrades, usually at no additional cost to the customer.

The life raft technician uses a detailed worksheet to ensure that every single item in and on the raft is inspected, tested and replaced if necessary. After inflating the raft with compressed C02/nitrogen from its inflation bottle, the technician then purges the chemicals from the raft’s inflation chambers by vacuuming, then refilling the raft using a shop air hose, and vacuuming again. This raft’s inflation bottle valve had been recalled by the factory since its last inspection. After noting the information, the technician replaced it with a new one. Replacement of factory recall items is typically free to the customer.


You can give the shop additional items, not originally included with the raft, to pack into it, but they must necessarily be limited to what the technician feels will safely fit and what the shop and the raft manufacturer allow. Adding some equipment, such as ACR Electronics’ 406 EPIRBs, PLBs, SARTs and survival radios, into the very compressed innards of a packed life raft will void the item’s warranty. Check with your raft service facility about specific items you’d like to add. A hand operated watermaker, an EPIRB, a hand-held VHF and lots of other useful gear can, and probably should, be packed instead into a separate ditch bag, which we’re going to discuss later.


Who’s Watching Whom?

All American life raft service facilities must be USCG inspected and approved, and all the technicians working there, the folks who actually open, inspect and repack your raft, have to be manufacturer factory trained and certified for each and every individual brand and model life raft they service. That’s a lot of schooling, and that factory training is both extensive and expensive. One class can cost as much as $2,000 per person, usually plus travel and lodging for the technicians, and occasionally foreign travel. Multiply that by the many different brands and models a life raft inspector must be qualified to service – the senior technician at Vane Brothers Marine Safety, for example, is certified for at least 15 different raft, both recreational and commercial - and you begin to understand why it costs so much to have a life raft serviced.

In addition to periodic Coast Guard monitoring, life raft manufacturers periodically send representatives to inspect all the repacking facilities they authorize, which effectively doubles the outside oversight a shop must satisfy. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in 3rd World countries. There is one particularly disturbing story of some locals at a South Pacific port who set up shop and charged cruisers to inspect, repack and re-certify their life rafts. What they actually did, however, was put a bag of cement into the canister to make it weigh about what it should and give that back to the skipper, who then set sail believing his life raft was up to date and ready if needed. Then they’d sell the purloined raft to someone else. Presumably those scoundrels have long since been drawn and quartered, but it highlights the need to have your raft serviced in an authorized, certified, monitored shop.


Selecting a Service Facility

This doesn’t mean cruisers have to bring their raft back to the U.S. to keep it current. All life raft manufacturers utilize authorized repacking facilities around the world, where you can expect the same careful, safe workmanship you’d get at home. For example, Switlik, which manufacturers in Trenton, New Jersey, lists inspection shops in Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Chile, Caribbean, Egypt, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain and United Arab Emirates. In most cases, the same shop will also be authorized to service many other brands of recreational and commercial rafts. 

In the United States there are one or two life raft service facilities in almost every major port, around 55 altogether. All of them are Coast Guard and manufacturer inspected, and employ trained, certified technicians. Even so, some technicians (and some shops) may be better than others, varying in the time and care they’ll put into your raft, in their years of experience, and even in integrity. Yet the rates will not vary much from shop to shop (although they do tend to be higher in California and New England).


Life raft service technicians must be manufacturer factory trained and certified for every individual brand and model life raft they service. Their completion certificates are often proudly displayed in the shop, like the ones shown at right, hanging in Vane Brothers Marine Safety’s service facility in Norfolk, VA.

When you’re ready to have a life raft repacked for the first time, try to visit a few manufacturer-authorized service facilities before selecting one. Notice whether the place appears to be clean and well organized. Floors and all other surfaces must be wiped down often to minimize particulate matter in the environment, to ensure no dirt or debris is packed into a raft. Talk to the technicians working there. Ask them how long they’ve been doing this and how many individual training certifications they have. You should come away with a feeling for the shop and the experience and attitude of the people in it and so stand a better chance of picking the best place. If it is simply impossible for you to visit these facilities, then at least seek recommendations from various boat owner groups and cruising forums online. It’s not so different from choosing an auto mechanic. You look around, ask around, and check out more than one. Choose deliberately the first time and in the future you’ll be able to send your raft in for servicing with complete confidence.

Bring Your Raft Yourself

You can ship your life raft to a service center – at least one, Vane Brothers Marine Safety, even offers free regional pick-up and delivery in the mid-Atlantic states - but there are several good reasons to bring your raft in yourself, at least the first time. (Also, bring any hold-down cables that secure the canister to its cradle, and bring the cradle itself if you can.)

Service technicians bench-testing life raft equipment. A hydrostatic release on a canister-packed life raft is a wise option. This water pressure-activated hydrostatic release illustrates its function. When the mechanism senses a water depth of 1.5 to 4 meters, it automatically severs a line connecting the cradle retaining cables so the raft can float free of a sinking vessel. Then it provides a weak link that releases the inflation lanyard after that has been pulled by the rising canister hard enough to trigger the inflation bottle’s valve. This allows the inflating raft to rise to the surface where it can be boarded by crewmembers.


Shipping a life raft there and back can be costly. Some of the contents like the compressed C02/nitrogen bottle and the distress flares are considered hazardous materials, which are awkward and expensive to ship. Besides, life rafts are just plain heavy. Depending on your point of origin, the freight roundtrip may cost as much as the gasoline you’d burn driving to the shop, and even the price of a modest motel room if you have to stay overnight. In any case, it’s not going to cost you much more money to go yourself, and the time it takes will be time well spent.

As long as you’ve made an appointment in advance, most shops will allow you to watch them open your raft the morning you arrive with it. (If they won’t, consider finding another shop.) In addition, most will be glad to show you how to use it. You’ll learn a lot, and your firsthand familiarity with the life raft that is on board your boat could be invaluable should you ever need to deploy and board it – suddenly, in the dark, in turbulent and frightening circumstances.

Of course, by accompanying your raft and observing its opening and inspection, you’ll know for a fact that everything is as reported, that items needing replacement and/or repair were indeed faulty. But mainly you’ll get to know your life raft.

How Long Does It Take?

Most life rafts can be opened, inspected, serviced and repacked in a day or two. However, shops usually tell you it’ll take up to 2 or 3 weeks. This permits them to work your raft in around their commercial raft accounts, ships carrying one or two-dozen 25-person rafts, which are their primary source of income. Still, some shops will expedite the process for a recreational customer if asked.

Regular Inspections – Are they really necessary?

The United States Marine Safety Association estimates between 5,000 and 15,000 recreational life rafts are inspected annually in the United States, yet this is just a fraction of the rafts out there that are actually due or overdue for re-certification. Annual servicing is expensive and inconvenient, and you might wonder why you should bother? What could possibly go wrong in just one year with a life raft perched high & dry on deck or stowed in a locker, just sitting there? The answer is, a lot.

The shop technicians all have stories to tell, ranging from funny to frightening. Mine recalled one raft that came in, perfectly ordinary on the outside, which was absolutely teeming with cockroaches inside. Another housed a huge ant nest, and still another contained a family of mice that had gained entry by chewing though the rubber plug where the lanyard passes through. Life rafts may seem impregnable in their tight valises and sealed canisters, but persistent critters can and do get in, perhaps attracted by the food rations inside, or maybe just homesteading.

Even without an alien invasion, life rafts need to be taken out and aired out. Things deteriorate from sitting in such a compressed position even in ideal atmospheric conditions, which is usually not where they are. Over time the folded raft will form creases, creating weak points in the fabric. For these reasons alone it’s wise to keep your life raft up to date with its recommended inspection schedule.

Frequent inspections also protect your investment by finding and fixing problems early, before a small issue has time to damage the raft beyond repair. If water has gotten into the raft, or if vermin have moved in and chewed things up inside, or if one or more of the valves has failed or any number of other things have gone wrong, you need to find out about it now, on shore, not at sea when your life depends on it. Certainly, before casting off for an offshore passage the skipper needs to ensure the raft’s inspection record is up to date. Remember: A life raft isn’t OK just because its container looks clean and solid.

Older recreational life rafts were designed to be inspected annually, with a more thorough examination every 5 years. Today, however, some manufacturers are vacuum-bagging their rafts inside the canister or valise. Those units need only be inspected every 3 years. Vacuum bagging adds to the up front cost of those rafts, but it will save the owner time and money in the long term.

Annual or tri-annual inspections will cost you a few hundred dollars each time just for the inspection. In addition, there are re-certification fees, plus the sometimes inflated cost of items that need replacing or repair, plus shipping unless the facility offers free pick-up and delivery or you bring it yourself.

For these short-term inspections, the technician will usually open the raft manually and fill it with compressed air from a hose, leaving the automatic inflation CO2/nitrogen bottle in tact. The 5-year inspection, however, is more thorough. Rafts then get their inflation bottles emptied, hydro-tested and refilled to ensure they’re still structurally sound. Those inspections are more fun to watch because the inspector actually pulls the cord to auto-inflate the raft. Some equipment that remains aboard through the annual inspections may be automatically replaced at the 5-year mark. If you bring in a raft that’s due for its 5-year inspection, expect to pay more for the additional testing and servicing.

What’s it cost?

Re-certifying a life raft that’s up to date and doesn’t need anything replaced or repaired is likely to cost $400 to $500 plus shipping. Add another hundred or so for the additional testing at the 5-year inspections. A raft with an expired certification will usually cost more to bring back up to snuff, from $800 to $1,800 according to one shop’s estimate. It all depends on what the inspector finds when they open it up.

Expect to pay top dollar for replacement items. One invoice listed $23.70 for six D-cell flashlight batteries ($3.95 each), $38.98 for a pair of stainless steel bands to re-secure the canister, and $59.85 for three handheld flares. Ouch!

In addition to the high retail prices charged for common equipment items, repairs (if any are needed) can run into many hundreds of dollars. Finally, there are various, inevitable shop fees, which might typically include:

Hydro-test cylinder* 
Cylinder refill* 
Miscellaneous shop supplies
New raft label 
Shipping, round trip

*Only required every 5 years



While some charges might seem excessive, remember that these shops have to recoup their very considerable investment in ongoing training for their technicians in addition to maintaining the high, mandatory safety standards imposed by Coast Guard and industry regulations. This is the price of knowing your life raft was serviced and repacked correctly, by professionals, and is in perfect working order. If the time ever comes that you have to use it, you’ll know it was money well spent.

The Big Gamble

A couple brought secondhand life raft into a repacking facility in Norfolk, Virginia. The woman had surprised her skipper husband for his birthday, buying it for him on eBay at a “bargain price.” Typically, it was many years past due for re-certification. When the inspecting technician pulled the auto-inflation lanyard, the raft quickly opened and filled, and then all the valves – all of them at once! – blew out with a loud POP and the raft collapsed like a punctured balloon. It was trashed, un-repairable, a sorry sight, and the owners were a sorry couple. They took the condemned, loosely folded remnants home with them saying they would try to get their money back from the seller. We wish them luck.

Thanks to easy availability on the Internet, more and more budget conscious sailors are buying secondhand life rafts. The rafts often appear to be a bargain compared to the high price of purchasing new. However, very few of them are sold with a current inspection certificate, and most are sold “as is, where is.” Herein lies the Big Gamble. If you buy an old raft that hasn’t been inspected in many years, it stands a very good chance being condemned. In fact, that is the most likely outcome! According to United States Marine Safety Association board member Frank Hornig, “Most life rafts purchased secondhand and out of date (on their certification inspections) ultimately fail their inspection. They’re not repairable and by law must be condemned.” In other words, they’re absolutely worthless and useless. The shop will return the condemned raft to you, loosely folded and boldly marked CONDEMNED, and about all you can do with it is drop it into the nearest dumpster.

The Bottom Line

If you’re going to buy a secondhand, uncertified life raft, insist that the seller agree, in advance and in writing, to pay for any necessary repairs above a specific dollar amount that you’re prepared to spend in addition to the purchase price. In other words, if you buy the raft for $1,000 and feel it would still be a good value if you had $2,000 into it after inspection and re-certification (which is easily possible), then require that the seller agree to pay for repairs above the $1,000 difference. If the seller’s share of the service facility’s repair estimate turns out to be more than he or she is willing to pay, or if the raft is condemned outright as is often the case, then the seller must refund your money and take back the raft. Be sure to clarify details like who would pay for return shipping of a damaged or condemned raft.

This way you’re protected from buying an unusable, un-repairable piece of junk and the seller is agreeing not to profit from selling you one. Considering the high statistical likelihood of the old raft proving to be problematic when it’s inspected, this is the only reasonable and fair way to do it. If the seller will not agree to these terms, it would be imprudent to buy that life raft no matter how low the price.

When you do bring or send in your “new” old raft to a service facility for re-certification, always ask up front for an inspection and total-cost estimate first, before authorizing them to repair, repack and re-certify the raft. That way you and/or the seller can make an informed decision on how or whether to proceed.

Survival Equipment

Offshore life rafts contain more survival equipment than their coastal or coastwise counterparts, but conditions aboard any recreational life raft will be much improved with a well-stocked ditch bag, an abandon ship survival pack (see sidebar). If you’re working within a tight budget, you might save money by purchasing a US Coast Guard Certified coastal life raft (rather than an offshore model), which is essentially an offshore-capable raft with less equipment included, and then make up the equipment difference in your own ditch bag.

Regardless of what equipment is packed with or carried into a life raft, adding a hydrostatic release onto the securing cables of a canister-packed raft is a wise option. A hydrostatic release automatically releases the raft if your boat sinks before you’re able to launch the raft manually. Most of these release mechanisms work by automatically cutting a rope link in the securing cable that holds the raft in its deck cradle. The hydrostatic unit, activated by the higher atmospheric pressure underwater, is pre-set to cut the line when it reaches a depth of 5 to 10 feet, allowing the life raft rise to the surface and automatically inflate. An integral weak link in the tether ensures the raft cannot then be pulled down again with the sinking boat. Whether you spend the additional $100 or so for a hydrostatic release is your call, but considering the likely result of not having one if you ever find yourself treading water above your sunken vessel, it could be a good investment.

In Conclusion

A certified life raft is essential equipment aboard a boat that ventures offshore. If you can afford it, buying a brand new raft and then maintaining its certification is ideal. If, however, you’re haunting the Internet (and marina bulletin boards and boating classifieds) in search of a “deal” on a secondhand raft, then remember this: 

  • A life raft that has spent a substantial portion of its life stored indoors, out of the elements, such as in a closet at home, is more likely to be re-certifiable than one that has been outdoors all along. (Once you have your raft store it indoors yourself, beyond the reach of the elements and vermin, when you know you won’t be taking the boat offshore for an extended period, and especially during periods of vessel storage.)

  • Do not buy an old, un-certified life raft “as is, where is.” If the seller won’t agree in writing to pay for all necessary repairs above a certain amount, and to refund the entire purchase price if the raft is too expensive to fix or is condemned outright by an inspector, then don’t buy that raft. Remember, the statistical odds favor it being condemned.

  • Once you have a raft in need of re-certification and have selected a service facility, make an appointment to accompany your raft for its initial inspection. Watch them open and examine it. Ask, listen and learn. Ultimately, if you’re happy with the folks there and with how it all went, then use them for the raft’s regular, factory-recommended servicing in the future. Like your dentist, your car mechanic or any other necessary if painful specialist, once you’ve got a good one it makes sense to stick with them.

And after all that, may you never, ever need to use your life raft!

~ End ~

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