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Lifeboat and Life Raft Basics

Buying a life raft is a little like shopping for insurance. You hope you won’t need it, you don’t want to spend much money on it, and it generally feels like an unsexy exercise for the fairly pessimistic. You’re tempted to go cheap – bare bones – until you think about what having to deploy one really means. So, how much is your life worth?

Types and uses

Who needs a life raft? Chances are you do if you’re doing coastal or offshore cruising or racing. A raft serves as a floating platform to keep you dry and floating in case of an extreme emergency such as sinking or in the instance of abandoning ship due to fire. You need to get out of the water quickly to prevent hypothermia and to have protection overhead in order to guard against sun and heat stroke once you’re dry. Being clearly visible to rescuers is also important and a large brightly colored canopy makes you a better target than a small lifejacket.

Recreational life rafts generally have a four, six or eight-person capacity. They come packed in either a fiberglass canister that is mounted on a cradle on deck or in a soft-sided valise that can be stored in a locker. Rafts are automatically deployed with a compressed gas (nitrogen and CO2) cylinder. Raft prices depend on the size and type but usually range $2,000-$6,000. Weight (typically 30-80 pounds for a valise and upwards of 170 pounds for canister versions) is a key consideration especially for rafts that will have to be moved out of a locker and thrown off the boat manually. A life raft should always be readily accessible and not tucked away in a packed locker.

In 1998, the Sydney to Hobart sailboat race had such disastrous results due to a storm that forced many abandon ship incidents that new rules were put in place in 2005 regarding offshore safety standards. Now, these ISO 9650 guidelines play a role in the rating system for life rafts.

Life rafts can be divided into two basic categories: inshore or coastal and offshore or ocean-crossing. ISO 9650 Type-2 rafts are designed for navigating in coastal and inshore waters where rescue is likely within 24 hours. These generally have a single buoyancy tube and they may or may not have a canopy. The single tube version is usually lighter and less expensive.

SOLAS-rated transoceanic life rafts are designed for more serious conditions and colder temperatures and they’re more ruggedly built. They have additional, larger ballast bags below and self-righting inflating canopies above. These rafts have an extensive equipment list including a drogue (sea anchor) to help with stability and to minimize drifting away from your originally reported position. Double tubes provide better backrests and more buoyancy should a tube become compromised but they also make the raft heavy and expensive. Also, the taller the raft, the more difficult it is to board from the water even with good upper body strength. The advanced model rafts usually come with insulated inflatable floors for thermal protection and more comprehensive inspection ports so you can spot a rescue vessel or airplane on the horizon.

Raft manufacturers market a variety of life rafts from the entry level to the heavy-duty offshore kind. Companies such as Revere, Viking, Switlik, Plastimo, Winslow, Givens, Survivetec, Elliot and Survival Technologies all tout their differentiating factors. Although most rafts are somewhat similar, there are subtle differences: There is usually a variety of included onboard equipment, the seals/welds and materials vary, and the number and design of ballast bags differs. There’s even a difference in the feel and smell of the fabric used. Testers have reported certain rubber surfaces being fairly aggressive so they’re less slippery when boarding but then they’re rough on bare skin. Some rubber compounds have reportedly smelled so bad, testers couldn’t bare exposure for even a few hours without becoming ill.

Other raft differences include such things as ease-of-use of the integrated boarding straps and ladders, the efficiency of the self-bailing system, the number of air fill access points, the quality of zippers, the overall raft shape (square, round, hexagonal) and the number of entry points so multiple people can board simultaneously. Individual preferences for the above points abound.

Life raft inspection and maintenance

Although life rafts will happily live on deck or below without much care, they do require periodic inspection and re-certification, usually every three years or per manufacturer recommendations. Typically, the first certification is after three years, then two and then the process is annual as the raft gets older. Proper care ensures the raft is always ready for use and repacking a six-person life raft generally costs $500-$900 including parts, labor, fresh equipment, and the re-arming CO2 canister. Recertification is also a good option if you buy a pre-owned life raft. You’ll want to know its condition and age. It’s cheaper to recertify than to buy new so this may be good deal but be sure to have the raft inspected thoroughly and repacked professionally.

It may be tempting to deploy your life raft as it nears an inspection date. After all, you’ll get to see it in action and it will have to be repacked anyway. However, that may not be a good idea. When a raft is inflated using CO2, it’s a cold gas and repeated inflations are hard on the fabric. When tested and repacked by a dealer or manufacturer, a raft is usually inflated with compressed shop air not gas so it’s easier on the fabric.

During inspection, the CO2 canister must be hydrostatically tested (every 3 years). This is also the time to refresh any consumables such as water packed inside the raft. Some manufacturers have added an external pocket on valise models to hold consumables that can be swapped out without impacting the packed raft itself.

Life raft rental

If you already have a means of secondary buoyancy in case of a disaster (like a dinghy) for your regular boating outings and only have a limited need for a life raft for a period of time, consider renting one. Depending on size, duration and rating, the cost to rent one ranges $500-$1000 and there are several reputable life raft service organizations that will provide you a well-packed, certified raft for a vessel delivery or an offshore race.

Life raft dos and don’ts

When deploying, boarding, storing and preparing a life raft, there are a few things to know.

Do this with a life raft

Familiarize yourself with your raft functions and features. Learn everything about it when it comes aboard, train your crew on its use, and inspect the cradle periodically if it’s mounted on deck. Buying a life raft and knowing how to use and/or board one are two vastly different things. Work with a life raft service station to understand all that’s included, what it looks like when deployed and how to manage the process of boarding and living in the raft.

Do take advantage of recertification times by asking to practice getting into it. It’s not easy boarding a life raft, especially if you’re wearing foul weather gear with heavy sea boots full of water, have cold and numb hands, or are exhausted and panicked. Try getting into your life raft when deployed in a pool. Then imagine doing so in 10-foot waves or 30-knot winds.

Don’t do this with a life raft

Don’t board a life raft prematurely – that is before your primary vessel either burns or sinks. There have been countless times when a party abandoned ship into a life raft only to have the primary vessel found later – still floating. Your best bet of being seen is staying on the larger target where you’re also likely to have more provisions and space. And even if you normally don’t get seasick, mal de mer is almost a given in a life raft so delay boarding if you can. Remember the old adage – “step up into the life raft.”

Don’t deploy the life raft prematurely – that is before you need it. Life rafts are durable but they can be vulnerable when tied to a larger vessel. They can get punctured by an appendage poking out form your hull, become entangled if on a long painter or catch fire if the main vessel is aflame. Without any weight in it, a life raft can also capsize so launching the raft “just in case” while you’re still aboard your boat is not a good idea.

Don’t launch the raft to windward. Beware your changing conditions and know that a raft should float free of the boat until you’re ready to reel it in on its painter and board. Don’t forget to tie it on securely – preferably onto a cleat.

Don’t store the life raft where it can’t be reached quickly and easily. If it’s buried in the lazarette or is too heavy for your smallest crew member to haul up on deck, it’s fairly useless.

Don’t try to pack the raft with every last thing from gloves to candy. That’s what your ditch bag is for. When abandoning ship, at a minimum be sure to grab a VHF radio, an EPIRB or PLB, personal medications and glasses, a flashlight, extra batteries, water, and visual signaling devices including flares.

Don’t oversize. If you normally boat as a couple with occasional guests, get a four-person raft – because size matters. USCG-approved rafts should have a minimum of four square feet per person, which isn’t much. Although it’s true that life raft livability is directly tied to survival rates because tempers flare when you can’t stretch out and get rest, bigger isn’t always better. You want to have a good weight/square foot ratio to keep the raft from capsizing in high winds and waves. Also, a tight fit ensures the preservation of body heat.

Do your research and spend wisely

It’s critical to be prepared for the worst with both extensive knowledge of what to do and the right gear. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be in the event you actually have to get into and spend time in a life raft.

Unsexy or not, life rafts serve a purpose and their value is right in their name – life – so get informed and trained and then just bite the bullet and break out the wallet.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a lifeboat used for?

A lifeboat, or life raft, is a small but durable, life-saving vessel carried aboard a larger ship designed to be used for emergency evacuations during a disaster. Lifeboats are built to be tough and can be rigid hulls or inflatable hulls. They are extremely seaworthy with high-levels of buoyancy and are made of heavy-duty, impact-resistant materials. Sometimes a yacht’s tender may double as its lifeboat.

What is the difference between a life raft and a lifeboat?

Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, lifeboats are generally more versatile and substantial than life rafts and are usually made of rigid inflatable hulls, as opposed to fully inflatable rafts that are designed to be stowed away onboard for use only in an emergency. Life rafts often come in compact packages with fast-acting, auto-inflation features that allow them to be opened and deployed quickly in the event of an emergency. Lifeboats can be used as tenders and mounted to the stern of a private yacht, raised and lowered by a crane-like device known in boating terms as a davit.

Can a life raft sink?

Lifeboats are extremely hard to sink in normal circumstances and many builders of lifeboats and life rafts tout their vessels as unsinkable and indestructible. That said, while they are indeed sturdy boats by design, no watercraft can ever be considered truly unsinkable since there may always be extreme, unforeseen conditions out at sea. Although it is worth noting that the weight of a lifeboat is specifically designed to weigh less than the weight of the seawater it displaces, making it very difficult for it to sink.

Written by Zuzana Prochazka

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka

Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to Boats.com and YachtWorld.com, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site, TalkoftheDock.com.

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