Tom Cunliffe April podcast: The thought police say it isn’t safe, but we service our own winches, rigging and engines, so why not our own liferafts?

“Like an sailor brought up with the assumption of self-help, I decided to look into doing the job myself”

My liferaft comes due for servicing this spring. One of the benefits of no longer owning a yacht that’s coded for charter is that this unwelcome expense doesn’t fall annually, but now is the time, according to the manufacturers, and who am I to argue? So off I went to the nether regions of Southampton to discover how much this important task was going to cost me.

Even after shopping around I didn’t like the bottom line one bit, so, like any sailor brought up with the primary assumption of self-help, I decided to look into doing the job myself. I asked a few pals first, and the fact that they all seemed to think it was a viable proposition probably tells you something about the company I choose to keep. The internet was less conclusive. When it came to the nuts and bolts of bottle weight, flare renewal and whether I stood a dog’s chance of ever repacking the thing, the results of my research were less than illuminating, but they cast a surprising searchlight on the human condition.

First, I took a swift surf around Youtube, where I found one or two constructive videos and rather more that were less than useful. Unsure of how, or whether, to proceed, I drew a deep breath and plunged into the dark world of the unedited Internet chat forum, and this was where things started to get interesting.

Two contrasting opinions leapt off the screen in reply to someone with the same query as me. The first batch of replies came pouring out from a group of vociferous finger-waggers, braying along these sort of lines: ‘You can’t mess around with safety. This is a serious matter. People could die if you get it wrong. Do-it-yourself meddling has to stop here. Hand your security over to the professionals right now.’

The language chosen by these safety crusaders was confrontational. It implied that the innocent chap who had initiated a perfectly sensible enquiry was an agent of subversion. I read down the column through more of this stuff, then a crew with a different point of view broke cover. One said that he knew of a man who had launched his recently serviced raft, only to witness a total failure to inflate. Another had pulled the string in his shed with equally disappointing results, while a third made negative comments about what he had found, or rather not found, in the onboard kit designed to make life easier while awaiting rescue.

All this, of course, isanecdotalandnot admissible evidence. But what really made my heart sing was the skipper who took the Thought Police directly to task over their attitude. I don’t recall his
words exactly, but the gist went like this: ‘Hang on a minute! I service my own engine.

I splice up my own halyards and I survey my own rigging, which I replace after ten years even if I can’t find anything wrong with it. That’s my decision. I use all these things every time I go to sea and I consider them just as integral to my safety as a liferaft, which, God willing, I shall never test. I rebuilt my engine last year from the crankshaft up. If I can manage that, I ought to be able to cope with blowing up a raft, weighing and inspecting the bottle and doing whatever else is needed. And, by the way, it’s my life, my money and I have no interest in losing either.’

I have yet to make a decision about my raft, which is a simple, coastal sort of contrivance that ought to be within the capacity of a man who recently replaced the cylinder head, the water pump and the master cylinder of a 1949 motor car.

The question we should be addressing is, which of the forum sailors would you rather be at sea with on a nasty night?


Tom Cunliffe