'Abandon ship' -- via new marine safety gear

The company that pioneered the inflatable life raft, credited with saying the lives of thousands of airmen in World War II, and which further developed that system to save the lives of hundreds of fishermen since then, has come up with what may well be another breakthrough in safety at sea.

Earlier this year RFD Inflatables Ltd. of Survey, England, conducted sea trails of its new ship evacuation procedures in the ice-filled water of the Northumberland Strait, between the provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, Canada.

The procedure is to be used on a new CN Marine ferry, the Straitway, now under construction and scheduled to ply the strait's nine-mile crossing this fall. It will be the first time the evacuation system will be used in North America.Three English Channel ships are in the process of being equipped with RFD system.

The Straitway requires safety equipment to evacuate up to 1,000 people in case of emergency. The RFD system comprises the use of a 90-foot chute, a raftlike platform, and totally covered life rafts. Four of these systems can evacuate the Straitway in 35 minutes, according to RFD spokesmen.

Deceptively simple, it works this way. In the case of the Straitway, four emergency exits, similar to those used on aircraft, are placed on the upper dec. In an emergency the exits are opened and automatically trigger both the inflation of the double chute and the release of white plastic pods, each of which contains two, 42-person inflatable life rats. The chutes and rats are inflated and in place in a mater of 18 seconds by crew members, who have taken the initial 9-second slide when the chute is inflated.

Passengers slide down on a special nylon net material, which reduces friction and heat, to a plastic bubble-lined platform with ballonlike enclosures, where they are helped by the specially trained crew into the covered life rafts.

These rafts, which look like monstrous orange-topped pies, can be sealed off from the elements by closing the four oval entrances, thus making them secure against bad weather and heavy seas.

Canadian Coast Guard authorities who monitored the trials were enthusiastic about the system. And there were predictions from observers that once again RFD had pioneered yet another safety-at-sea success that could well make obsolete the traditional, and sometimes difficult to launch, lifeboat and and life-raft systems now in use.

The system for the Straitway is estimated to cost about $800,000 (Canadian).

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