Rant: Re-arming inflatable life vests

I’ve been struggling a lot recently with researching a large number of issues related to getting Dream SeQueL into (and keeping her in) top condition. And many of the items I discover that require work first require research — if not for “how to”, then at least “where to buy”. I suspect there are going to be a number of postings in this blog in the near future that begin with “Rant:” :)

This rant is about the cost of re-arming an inflatable life vest…particularly when the life vest did not actually inflate. Shortly after we purchased Dream SeQueL, Barbara and I purchased a pair of then-top-of-the-line West Marine 4000 inflatable life vests. We didn’t have enough experience at the time to understand the variety of inflator mechanisms on the market, and we might not have done anything differently even if we had understood that. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular vest, it uses a Secumar 4001 inflation mechanism (which some people unaccountably call a “Stearns” inflator mechanism). The Secumar 4001 comprises a 33g CO2 cartridge that inflates the vest when triggered either by pulling on the manual inflator cord or because a “pill” of some soluble material contained in a “bobbin” or “cage” got wet and crumbled. Fairly reasonable and fairly reliable. The problem is, as many people have discovered, that the pill can get wet in other ways than the vest wearer falling overboard.

In one of the sailing magazines to which we subscribe, I recently read an article that suggested boaters should service their inflatable life vests at least annually (inspections, of course, should be performed every time one plans to leave the dock or anchorage). So, while I was moving the boat from her home dock to Snead Island Boat Works for her bottom job, I decided to take the time to “service” our inflatable vests. I discovered (to my chagrin!) that the pill in my vest’s inflation mechanism was crumbled, meaning that it had gotten wet.

A little thought brought up the memory of our December 2009 attempt to go to the Dry Tortugas, particularly the situation where I was on the foredeck securing our inflatable dinghy and we buried the bow into an approaching wave — I found myself sitting under about 3′ of water for a couple of seconds and, naturally, got completely drenched. It is obvious in hindsight that my life vest’s pill also got wet and crumbled the way it was supposed to. The thing is, I did not have the vest armed (a deliberate choice at the time), so it didn’t inflate…and I was thus unaware at the time that the pill had gotten wet and crumbled. My bad, obviously, and it’s made worse by the fact that I only discovered it a year and a half later.

But that’s not what this rant is about.

I’ve looked, diligently, for a place to purchase replacement pills for Secumar 4001 inflator mechanisms, without success. Everybody wants to sell me a complete re-arming kit, including a replacement CO2 cartridge, for too much money (upwards of $25). I don’t need a replacement cartridge! I need a pill (and, understandably, bobbin/cage). It turns out that none of the marine outlets of which I’m aware stock anything other than complete re-arming kits. After a lot of web research, I’ve finally found a place in the UK that has the pills (in their bobbins/cages) for sale without accompanying CO2 cartridges. They’re too expensive (of course) for what they actually are — £10.10 plus international shipping for four pills — but at least they’re available there. Why aren’t they available in North America?

Grrr…

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