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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jerk to inflate

Over the years we have acquired several inflatable PFDs all branded as "Sospenders".
The first 2, bought in 1995, included life harnesses and are auto-inflate. They have a water soluble "pill" which will allow a spring loaded pin to pierce the CO2 capsule and inflate the life jacket, hopefully, in the case where one plunges, unconscious, over the side. They are also suitable for non-swimmers because one doesn't have to have ones wits about one for the things to inflate.

The other 2 PFDs we bought in about 2000 are so-called manual inflation models. These are lighter (no built in harness, so no heavy stainless steel rings and clips) and they have to be inflated by pulling a handle. They are nicer to wear just for a quick run in the dinghy or on a calm day.

When we bought the PFDs we bought about 3 sets of spare gas bottles and retention plastic clips to prevent the handles from being pulled accidentally - you have to pull quite hard: the handle at the end of the cord says "JERK TO INFLATE", which for pathetic reasons I find hilarious.
The thing we noticed at the time we bought the second set was that the design of the inflators had changed and the plastic clips we had for the old ones are not the same for the new ones...same idea, but about 3 mm different in size.

So far so good. In 2001 we had one of the automatic PFDs serviced by Sporting Lives Inc. - a friend had tried out the inflation of the device (at my suggestion) and had pulled the cord off when it didn't inflate. Totally my fault - I had unscrewed the gas bottle to prevent accidental inflation, and had forgotten to rearm it properly. Must be the drinking.

So the inflator was broken and the servicing company had replaced it and serviced the jacket for $40 US including shipping, which I consider to be reasonable.

We have used all the PFDs sporadically for the last few years, but have always taken care of them. Check them regularly and inflate & repack them annually.

We then bought a new boat in 2009 - on board was a non-automatic PFD identical to the ones we already had. It had no gas bottle or plastic retaining clip. So we started the search for our spares (somewhere in the basement) unsuccessfully. No worries, we thought...the product says "Sospenders by West Marine" on it. We'll just hie ourselves to the nearest West Marine and get the bits.

Not so fast, boater...West Marine no longer carry the compatible retaining clips for the brand of inflators that is in all these PFDs. The company that built the PFDs (and serviced them) used other suppliers' inflators and is no longer in business, having been bought out by Stearns in 2005.

Hours of fruitless searching for these tiny plastic clips on the web later...f*ck it, I thought, the only purpose of these clips is to add a bit of impedence to the pull cord so that the thing doesn't go off accidentally when one is moving around. I have experimented with a piece of stiff stainless wire formed into a clip and it works very nicely. I think we can save ourselves a lot of fooling around and just use this for the ones that don't have plastic clips, or to re-arm them in future if we use the PFDs in earnest (which destroys the plastic clips).

So, a pair of needle-nosed pliers (Leatherman Wave, always in my pocket) and some stiffish 1mm thick stainless wire. Cut the wire to 2.5 cm, shape a curl in each end and put the ends of the wire in the holes replacing the clip. About 10 mins of experimenting, including trying the destructive test of pulling the handle and voilĂ ! It is, in my eyes, a better design than the plastic clips, can be created by anyone, anywhere and reduces dependence on the manufacturers whims, design changes etc.

Of course the current generation of inflators has a tiny plastic peg in a hole, that will require some thinking to reproduce...if we ever get one of those.

One interesting thing: the professional servicing of these $150-$300 units seems to be non-existent now. I can't find anyone in North America who does this. Dozens of companies do this in the UK and Autralia, for example. Perhaps there is no market for this here. Perhaps in the UK, people are less ready to throw out an expensive item and take safety seriously so they have them serviced. Perhaps it's fear of litigation in NA...plenty of insurance companies will sue anyone they can think of if someone they insure is damaged by a defective PFD.

(We even heard of a Canadian marine surveyor who killed himself to save his family assets because he was being sued by a US insurance company. He had the misfortune to survey a boat that subsequently sank, killing a woman. However, I digress.)

Personally, having knowingly modified a PFD, I am willing to take the risk upon myself. So sue me :-)

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