It seemed a good idea to have the ship’s life raft inspected prior to setting off from Los Angeles in 2003 to cruise the world. When the present owners purchased their sailboat in 2001, it came with an Avon 6-person life raft, mounted in a hard canister on the back deck.
At the inspection station, the stainless steel retaining straps were released and the top of the hard canister removed. When opened, it was discovered to be a Pandora’s Box. The Avon raft was sitting in a mass of black muck, incubated from water that had somehow intruded into the canister. The putrid raft was rolled out on the inspection floor and inflated. To every ones surprise, it grew into a life raft and retained air. Since mildew, algae, along with extreme heat, can degrade the fabric of a life raft, the most prudent thing to do would be to replace it. The owners were so impressed with the toughness of this Avon, they decided to replace it with a new 4 Person Avon.
The new 4 Person Avon, in a canister, was purchased and mounted on deck in 2003. Five years later, the raft was inspected and repacked in October 2008 by USA Services, Inc., a certified Avon repacker, in Norfolk, VA.. The owners were not present for the repacking. In February 2013, the raft was shipped overland from Whangerei, New Zealand to Wilco Marine Services in Auckland, another certified Avon repacker. At Wilco Marine Services, the raft owners were again not present for the repacking but it was inspected, vacuum bagged, repacked and again took its place on the deck of the owners boat.
On 26 January 2017 the now 14 year old life raft was taken to an inspection station in Penang, Malaysia. At this licensed station, but not certified by Avon, the vacuum bag was removed and the raft was rolled out on the floor, then inflated. The raft was quickly losing air. It only took a minute before the inspectors spray bottle, of diluted hair shampoo, was squirting the surfaces around the most common leak area, the inflate nozzle. But no bubbles developed. Moving around the life raft, both upper and lower chambers were wetted. This left a startling trail of large bubbles, little bubble and lines of small white bubbles. At this point, even the inflated canopy support, which gets its air from the upper chamber, was wilting. Nearly all the corner seams of both upper and lower chambers were leaking. Clearly, some of the long streaks of foaming bubbles were leaks at the folded areas when the raft was last packed. It was a catastrophic failure which fortunately happened in an inspection station and not in a terrible situation at sea.
According to Practical Sailor magazine “Avon was acquired by French competitor Zodiac in 1998. Zodiac stopped making Avon liferafts in 2004”
Information still on the Avon website recommends their rafts should be brought in for “servicing within 3 years of date of manufacture then every 3 years. Boats that operate for hire or sail in tropical waters remain subject to an annual inspection.”
An annual inspection for a life raft on a long range cruising boat is simply not physically or economically practical. It makes sense, for marine use, a life raft should to be exceedingly reliable even if specified and used for near shore use.
No tests were done to determine exactly why the raft so thoroughly failed. However, it was the inspector’s opinion that the best material for life raft construction is neoprene, coated on both sides with urethane. The Avon’s literature says their rafts are constructed with “the unique Avon butyl fabric”. This material, Avon likes to link to the aviation industry. Even if aviation life rafts use this material for construction, aviation standards do not require the ruggedness and durability that is set for the marine industry.
Avon used several manufacturers around the world and it was not determined from which plant this raft came from. During the failed servicing, the inspector pointed to the terrible looking glued joins and said heat sealing is far superior.
In the world of life raft repacking, there is a debate about how to best protect a large deflated object which has been severely compressed into a small capsule or set in a soft valise. The question arises with vacuuming bagging. Vacuum bagging a raft may give added protection from moisture but adds additional compression on the folded creases which could cause porosity in those areas with resultant air loss. However, according to the old Avon literature, “All Avon Ocean and Coastline life rafts are now vacuum sealed in special plastic envelope, before being packed in a valise or canister.” So the vacuum packing of the raft when serviced in New Zealand was the manufacturer’s preference to which, the owners had complied. Additionally, if a severely compressed life raft is sitting on deck in a tropical sun, temperatures of 160 degrees can be reached, further affecting the already stressed material. But one would think life raft manufacturers understand this and use that certainty as a component of their construction, the same as an architect specifies proper building materials to stand against U.V., wind loading and temperature changes. (See the February 2013 issue of Practical Sailor, “Life Raft Inspection an Inside Look”) If a life raft manufacturer thought sun shining on a deck mounted life raft to be a significant problem, then a sun cover would be suggested. In any case, the owners always had a sun cover shielding the raft.
Attempting to reach Avon, the raft owner tried sending an email to them at email@example.com which is listed on an Avon website. The raft owners received the following automated response: “Due to the amount of spam received, we will not read your e-mail. If you want to get in touch with us, please contact us through our website contact form.” Others who tried this site were directed to a German language site which had nothing to do with life rafts.
On the www.avonmarine.com website, the raft owner found a contact form under the “Find a Dealer” link, and tried several times to send a message using that form, but kept getting the following: “Failed to send your message. Please try later or contact the administrator by another method.”
Certainly the raft owners would like feed back from Zodiac/Avon now known as Zodiac Nautic. But it gets even more confusing as there is another brand of “Zodiac” liferafts owned by SurvivetechZodiac. Over the years operations have been spun off, bought and sold or acquired by other companies.
Avon literature on the internet states the 4 Person Avon life raft is guaranteed for 12 years. But a guarantee term is not considered an expiration date. A reasonable person would expect this raft to be serviceable for many years past the guarantee date. This is a wake up call for the owners of all life rafts to take nothing for granted.
The raft was purchased on March 12, 2003 and the cost was $2,922.75.
Raft serial #AVBOA983L203
As a postscript. When this Avon raft was manufactured, Zodiac had contracted the manufacture of Avon liferafts to several companies in different countries. Apparently the quality assurance was not consistent. Working through a liferaft dealer, the raft owner was able to get a response from Zodiac and Zodiac was willing to sell the owners a new raft at cost. When the owners agreed to this proposal and tried to arrange shipment of the raft, they lost all communication with their contact at Zodiac. In the end, they bought a Lalizas raft.
Some of this information was used in Practical Sailor articles March 8, 2017 and Features April 2017 Issue