By Tom Burden
Modern boats are wonders of reliability. They seldom sink or catch fire. When they do, the ocean (or even your local inland lake) is an inhospitable environment to be thrown into. You need the protection supplied by a life raft. A life raft is designed to keep the crew of a sunk, capsized, burned or otherwise uninhabitable boat alive until they can be rescued. It’s the most important piece of equipment on your boat that you hope you’ll never use. Life rafts provide minimal environmental protection and create a larger visual and radar target for rescuers.
Life rafts are inflated by compressed gas, usually nitrogen and CO2, stored in a high-pressure cylinder. When the inflation lanyard is pulled, a valve releases the gas into the inflatable chamber(s). The resulting inflated shape may be square, pentagonal, hexagonal, octagonal, elongated octagonal, etc. Most have a protective canopy supported by one or more inflatable tubes. Doors or openings allow occupants to board and to alter the amount of ventilation and storm protection according to the conditions.
The floor of the raft may be a single layer of fabric, a double layer inflated with air to provide insulation, a three-tiered laminate or a separate inflatable floor tied in place. Insulated floors greatly reduce heat loss and hypothermia, making the “raft experience” a little less grim.
Many experts believe that an onboard fire (started by a short in the electrical system or flammables or explosive materials in the engine room) or a collision with a floating object (such as a shipping cargo container or large marine mammal) are the most likely scenarios where you’ll need to rapidly get off your boat.
Prudent offshore boaters prepare for these types of worst-case situations and create Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs, to overcome emergencies. These plans include, when all efforts have failed, gathering crewmembers together and deploying the life raft. Abandoning ship into the raft should always be the choice of last resort, hence the axiom that you should always STEP UP from the boat into the raft. There are tragic accounts of boaters who perished in their relatively tiny and unsheltered rafts, after abandoning damaged vessels that were later found adrift, afloat and uninhabited. Board your raft only when all other options have vanished.
Do you need a life raft, and if you do, what type should you purchase? To help you choose the best style for where and how you use your boat, consider some factors that might impact your safe recovery: Cold water will place you at risk of hypothermia. A remote location will delay the arrival of rescuers. Rough water and changeable weather patterns will require your crew to take shelter. If you conclude that you do need a raft (or are required to have one) we have grouped our selection into four categories. We also are including for reference the internationally-recognized standards that apply to sub-categories of each type, so you will know what these mean when you read them.
Including locations up to 15 miles from shore, in all types of waterways, within VHF radio or cell phone range, and in close proximity to Search and Rescue (SAR) assets from the Coast Guard or other agencies. In warm-water environments, you may not need a raft, but you might consider having an inflatable or rigid dinghy available for rapid deployment. With colder climates—the Northeast, Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest, Northern California, for example—you should strongly consider carrying a near-shore or coastal raft to keep you and your crew out of the water when operating in frigid temperatures. Hypothermia can kill anyone immersed in 50° water in just two hours, and will quickly render you unable to function.
Including locations up to 50 miles from shore, in areas where large amounts of shipping traffic are present, with SAR coverage rapidly deployable. One of the myths about boating is that coastal waters are somehow less threatening and require less rigorous safety gear than the open ocean. While it is true that your proximity to the coast may allow you to get to shelter before a storm or to get assistance more quickly than if you were further offshore, coastal sea conditions are frequently worse than those offshore, especially near points of land.
Chances are you’ll spend less time in a raft—hours rather than days—when close to shore because you’ll wash ashore or be found sooner. Rafts used for coastal boating need to be seaworthy, but can include less gear for long-term survival than offshore rafts.
Non-ISO-rated Coastal life rafts: Most rafts have a single buoyancy tube and either a manually- or automatically-erected canopy. Ballast systems vary, ranging from a single ballast bag about the size of a loaf of bread to the four large bags included on the better Coastal models.
Coastal ISO 9650-2 life rafts: Coastal rafts are rated for locations where moderate conditions may be met, in areas such as coastal waters, large bays, estuaries, lakes and rivers. They are required to have two independent tubes, self-erecting canopies and larger ballast bags.
Including locations in areas where reliable search and rescue assets are available and COSPAS/SARSAT coverage is present (in the event you need to activate an EPIRB emergency beacon). Far from land, rescue agencies and safe harbors, you must have a raft in which you can survive for a week or more. Rafts for offshore use should be more commodious, and should have greater stability to survive storms at sea.
Offshore ISO 9650-1 and ISAF-Approved life rafts: Rafts made to these specs are the most appropriate for boats encountering real offshore conditions for relatively short duration, but not taking a transoceanic voyage. These more stringent requirements are recognized by governments around the world as ISO 9650-1. Two independent, stacked tubes provide redundant flotation should one chamber become damaged. The stacked tube design also provides more freeboard. Many have two entrances, and all have self-erecting canopies. Most will have deep triangular or rectangular ballast bags and a large drogue for stability. If you’re competing in an ocean race like the TransPac or the Bermuda Race, there will be requirements for approval by ISAF (the International Sailing Federation). Check the Offshore Special Regulations for the complete list of requirements, and consider attending one of the Safety-at-Sea Seminars held in advance of these races.
SOLAS Transoceanic life rafts: Intended for the toughest conditions, with water temperatures below 41°F, these rafts include the most extensive list of equipment, and are the most heavily built, to allow self-sufficient survival for extended periods of time. SOLAS rafts are carried onboard boats in round-the-world races like the Volvo Ocean Race.
Life rafts for commercial vessels have their own set of requirements, concerning carriage of SOLAS A or SOLAS B accessory packs, among other unique specifications.
Insulated floors are desirable in all rafts, even in warm water, due to the discomfort that comes from sitting on sub-body temperature surfaces. Although many record-breaking life raft survival episodes have occurred in single floor rafts, all survivors wished they had an insulated raft floor. If you use your boat in waters colder than 65–70°, we strongly recommend this option.
Valise or canister storage options: If you are going to store your raft on deck, your raft must be enclosed in a canister. We recommend that you also use a hydrostatic release, which will release your raft from its cradle and allow it to float to the surface if you can’t get to it before the boat sinks. If you store the raft below decks, make sure you can launch it in 15 seconds or less, and get a raft packed in a valise. It will be lighter, somewhat cheaper, but much less waterproof than the canister model. For offshore racers, rafts stowed below cannot be heavier than 88lb. (40kg.)
Canopy design: We strongly believe that self-erecting canopies are a necessity, not an option. This requires that some of the inflation gas be directed through a one-way valve to the arch tube(s). This is more expensive and more complicated than some of the other (bogus!) ways of doing it like using two paddles end to end as a tent pole, or using the heads of the occupants as the support.
Ballast bags keep the raft from blowing over before you board it, and keep the raft from being capsized by unruly waves. More ballast (more water volume) is generally better, especially when it is located along the perimeter of the buoyancy tubes. Interestingly, the drogue included with most rafts is critical in keeping the windward edge of the raft down on the water so that wind cannot get under the raft and blow it over. All drogues should be attached with large line, and should have a swivel.
Ease of boarding: Rafts are devilishly hard to board from the water, especially when cold and wearing soaked clothing. Most rafts have either one or two webbing ladders, which are difficult to climb. Other models may have a stirrup, while the best will have a boarding ramp. Ask yourself whether you could pull yourself up out of the cold water and into the relative security of the raft using the boarding methods provided. ISO rafts feature boarding ladders rated so a person wearing an inflated life jacket and heavy clothing can climb inside.
Rafts do not come with lots of survival gear for economic and volumetric reasons. It is up to you to supply an EPIRB, watermaker, extra flares, prescription medicine, radar reflector, handheld VHF radio, etc. Raft manufacturers work at keeping the purchase price of rafts low, but they also realize that you will want to augment basic inventories with your own gear. An Abandon Ship Bag is vital to your survival. Standard raft equipment inventories generally include only those products that pertain to repairing the raft, while ISAF specification rafts may contain those items required for sailboat ocean racing like flares, paddles, bailers and a flashlight. Regardless of the make or model, you will need to augment the standard inventory with your own gear.