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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.

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Safety Preparation: 6 areas to inspect before setting off on a voyage

The best prevention is preparation. Keeping your boat’s equipment in good working order may stave off catastrophe as well as discomfort. Annual or pre-departure inspections of certain areas and systems will save money and headaches.

Ground tackle

Spend some time on the bow and inspect what could be your cheapest insurance – your ground tackle and windlass. Look at the top and bottom of your bow roller(s). Do they turn? Are there any cracks in the surrounding structure? Check the anchor shackle to see if it’s still wired shut and inspect the swivel to make sure it turns freely. Test the windlass: take off the cover, check the pawls, lubricate necessary points and lay eyes on the wire connections. Inspect the chain and its connection to the boat. If the end of the chain that’s exposed on deck looks sketchy, consider cutting off a few feet. If you carry a stern anchor, dig it out of the lazarette and check it as well.

Steering system

There aren’t many easy fixes for a steering failure so prevention is key. Inspect the condition of steering cables and their connections. Top up steering/hydraulic fluids. Take a look at the rudder(s) and their post(s) if hauled out. If you have pod drives, get a professional review before a long trip. Sailboats have manual emergency tillers that can be used in case of cable failure but few mechanical jury rigs can handle the torque on large powerboats. The autopilot may be the only way to steer in case of cable failure so be sure to test it as well.

Bilge pumps

A boat is built of pumps: fresh water, saltwater, engine, A/C and others but none are more critical than bilge pumps. Check to make sure your bilge pumps are clean, operating well and have working alarm circuits. Trace the wiring, test the float switches and carry a couple of spare pumps and switches. European boats are spec’d with manual bilge pumps but that’s a rarity on powerboats built elsewhere so carry a portable manual pump or have plenty of buckets.

Engine room

The engine room will take the longest to inspect because there are so many systems to review. Start with hoses, which should be double-clamped. Wipe them and smell the rag to check for leaks (good fire prevention). Test the tension on the belts, the condition of the diesel fuel (add fuel conditioner to the tank if necessary) and look for loose or corroded wire connections. Test alarm and shut down systems on the genset and the engines. Check the condition of the raw water strainer, baskets and gaskets. Make a list of all the fluids you need including steering, transmission, stabilizer, engine oil, coolant, and refrigerant. Flush the cooling system and inspect or preventively replace all impellers. Inspect batteries and switches and clean terminals and posts if there’s sign of corrosion. Make sure the batteries are secured and can’t move. Top up with distilled water if they are wet cells. Check the shore power cord and inlet and all wiring for chafe. Make sure you have a supply of spare fuses.

Fire suppression equipment

In reviewing your fire plan, learn how many and what kind of fire extinguishers are required by the Coast Guard for your class of vessel, and then double their number. Check the extinguisher expiry dates and pressures annually. Instruct all crew in their use – pull the pin and aim at the base of the flames. Keep automatic engine room suppression systems in good working order. A fire blanket near the galley may help as will baking soda for small fires. Put fresh batteries in smoke detectors.

Thru-hulls

Finally, you already have large holes in the boat that need inspecting – they’re called thru-hulls. Failed thru-hull fittings can spell disaster so checking and/or replacing them on your next haulout is good preventive maintenance. Check for cracks, leaks and corrosion. Work the handles on the valves to make sure they don’t stick. Keep an appropriately sized wooden plug tethered to each handle and a mallet nearby to drive the plug into the hole in case a seacock fails. Forespar sells small foam cones that may be used instead of wood and can plug an irregularly shaped hole. Make a drawing or list of where all the thru hulls are located including ones used for the engines, heads, refrigeration, A/C units and more.

Filing a float plan

Another thing to do prior to setting sail is to file a float plan. Much like an aviation flight plan, boaters can file a float plan, which is an overview of a boat excursion that gives authorities a head start in looking for a boater if he or she fails to reach his or her destination. File a float plan with a friend, relative, marina dock master, an on-water assistance service like Tow Boat US, or anyone you trust to contact the Coast Guard in case of an emergency. Don’t file a float plan directly with the US Coast Guard. Include name and type of vessel, point of departure and destination, time of departure and of expected arrival, number of people aboard and their names and ages. A float plan comes with responsibilities. You must update your contact person with key info like when you depart/arrive or if plans change and you don’t leave at all. Close out a float plan when you’re done with your voyage by notifying your contact that your outing is complete and that you’re safe. Never leave a float plan open. You can download a float plan form and also get an 86-page Federal Requirements Brochure, an accident reporting form and general survival tips from the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary.

6 categories of must-have boating safety items

A pre-voyage packing list can get long but a comprehensive inventory of onboard safety items is key. Most critical items will be dictated by Coast Guard rules, but besides the mandatory fire extinguishers, life jackets, flares and VHF radio, here’s the safety equipment you’ll want aboard.

Inflatable PFDs and Harnesses

The Coast Guard specs the minimum number of lifejackets or personal floatation devices (PFDs) for your vessel. However, the standard versions are often bulky and uncomfortable. Inflatable PFDs can be worn for longer periods and with less hassle because they stay compact until they deploy. Check the expiry date on the CO2 cylinder that inflates the vest and have a re-arming kit handy. Consider adding a whistle, light or strobe, highly reflective SOLAS tape, a tether and a registered PLB to each PFD.

Medical kit

Every vessel needs comprehensive and easy-to-use medical supplies that come with a well-organized manual for step-by-step directions and there are numerous off-the-shelf kits available. Sizing and pricing are by number of crew rather than level of care so read the contents list of the pack before springing for a larger, more expensive kit. For longer voyages, your doctor may put together a customized kit including your personal meds that should be packed with their original prescriptions, especially if you’re crossing borders. If you or one of the crew has a tricky ticker, consider adding an automated external defibrillator (AED). Most models now are under $1,000 and require little training to use.

Handheld VHF and GPS units

In case of onboard electrical failure or if you have to abandon ship, handheld communication and navigation equipment will be needed. Portable VHF radios and GPS units are affordable and are easily stowed so have at least a couple of each as backups. Some units are waterproof and float. Also, have a variety of batteries of various sizes for these items (VHFs may have proprietary types).

EPIRBs and PLBs

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) help locate a vessel or crewmember in distress. These devices interface with the worldwide service of COSPASS-SARSAT, the international satellite system for search and rescue (SAR). Registration is free and there is no subscription or annual fee for either. EPIRBs operate on 406 MHz, are waterproof, float and some have a built in GPS, making them GEPIRBs. They’re registered to the vessel. PLBs on the other hand, are registered to a person. They function much like EPIRBs but are about the size of a smartphone and are usually attached to lifejackets for when people fall overboard or need to abandon ship.

Signaling equipment

The Coast Guard has guidelines about the kinds and number of pyrotechnics or flares a vessel of a certain type must carry so these are a given, but you can also supplement your light signaling equipment. Add a metal signaling “mirror” and a gun to shoot aerial flares. Add a strobe light, foghorn and a powerful laser pointer. Lasers can be better directed than flares at ships at night, and they have a longer range. They cost around $100.

Life raft and/or dinghy

For offshore or long coastal voyages, carry a life raft. Many brands are available but be sure to spec the size (depending on the number of crew – bigger is not always better) and the type (offshore or coastal – they’re different in design and construction). You can choose an automatically deployed system mounted on deck in a hard case and cradle, or a portable version in a soft-sided valise. Although it’s an item you pay for dearly but hope to never use, don’t skimp. A dinghy is not a substitute for a life raft but it’s a way to stay dry and floating if the ship goes down and there is no life raft. Make sure your tender is inflated and has the plug in before each departure because you may need it in a hurry.

4 emergency procedures to practice

In the event of a true emergency, calmer heads will prevail and following a practiced course of action will make all the difference. Have a plan for various scenarios prior to departure and discuss it with all aboard. Once you’ve practiced, it will be easier to take the right steps in an emergency.

Emergency communications protocol

Getting help is a matter of communicating. Train everyone aboard in the use of the vessel’s communications equipment including VHF and SSB radios and possibly a satellite phone. If a problem develops in near coastal waters, call on VHF channel 16. Speak slowly and clearly. Remember the 4 Ps of information to convey: Problem (the nature of the distress), Position (GPS coordinates or location description), People (number, ages, health issues), PFDs (put them on). If panic sets in, people can forget to provide a good location or misread their GPS position so teach everyone which are the key numbers to repeat. If the situation is dire, call May Day three times, wait 10 seconds and repeat. Have written instructions near the radio on how to call for help in case the one calling is not trained. A common mistake is waiting too long before contacting the Coast Guard, so if in doubt, make the call. A Digital Selective Calling or DSC-enabled VHF radio is important to have. If you can’t make a call, push the DSC button on the VHF to start a relay from vessel to vessel to land unit until it reaches the Coast Guard. Get a nine-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number used to identify ships. This will tell the USCG which boat is broadcasting and whom to reach.

Crew overboard drills

Crew or man overboard (MOB) is a frequently discussed emergency procedure and the key is to make sure everyone aboard knows the steps to recovering crew because it may be the captain who falls off. First, shout “man overboard” to alert all crew. Stop the boat to prevent getting any further from the victim and toss a life buoy or PFDs in their direction. Press the MOB button on the GPS or VHF radio to mark the position and designate someone to point at the person and count, never taking their eyes off the victim. The counting helps you keep track of roughly how much time has elapsed since the event and how far away you may have gotten from the victim. If this happens at night or you lose sight of the person, send a DSC distress alert and a May Day. Use the track on your GPS to double back or learn the Williamson turn if the track is not available.

Recovery procedures

Recovery procedures depend on whether the victim is conscious and moving or is somehow incapacitated. Attitudes differ on whether you should approach the person in the water from windward or leeward: From windward, you can drift down on them and block the effect of wind and waves with the boat, making a calmer environment. However, the boat could roll down onto the person so the approach may be better from leeward. The procedure will be dictated by the conditions and the crew that is available to assist. Form a plan to hoist the victim onto the swim platform or deck in case they can’t use the ladder.

Fire suppression tactics

Fire aboard can spread quickly and become devastating within minutes. Roughly 40% of fires are related to AC and DC electrical systems, 12% to engine and fuel systems, and 20% are in the “other” category, which includes galley fires. Starve the fire of fuel or oxygen: Know where the engine fuel shut-off and propane tanks are. Close access doors and hatches to cut off the air. Turn off batteries, unplug from shore power and turn off the main AC and DC panels. Throw burning cushions overboard before the fire spreads and watch for re-flash even after the fire seems to be managed.

5 supplementary training and packing tips

If you’re going the extra mile (both in distance traveled and effort expended) consider these five actions to enhance your safety and give you greater peace of mind.

Get training in basic medical care

All crew should have basic medical training. You can opt for one-day classes in CPR and First Aid from the American Red Cross or the America Heart Association as well as from a slew of independent providers. However, be mindful of the fact that these classes are geared toward urban environments where emergency medical services (EMS) are expected to arrive within 10 minutes, which is not the case on a vessel at sea.

Basic survival training

For long distance voyages, all crew (usually both parties of a couple) should consider taking a wilderness survival course. This training is significantly more expensive and may require a week of time. Ask about classes that focus specifically on survival at sea because you may need to be your own paramedic out there.

Carry additional tracking and communications equipment

GPS-enabled tracking devices like SPOT or Garmin’s inReach are affordable position locating and basic communication devices for casual check-ins or SOS messaging. You can send canned messages on SPOT and two-way texts on inReach but monthly charges apply for both. These devices are more affordable than satellite phones and EPIRBs, but they’re not a substitute for either.

Pack a comprehensive abandon ship bag

You can Google abandon ship bag contents to get started. However, restraint is key when packing a ditch bag because you must consider where will you store it aboard, the room it will take up in a life raft, and its weight and your crew’s ability to get it on deck. For short coastal voyages, if it’s time to abandon, plan to grab at least the VHF and cellphone in a dry bag, PFDs, flares, a waterproof flashlight, and your personal and ship’s documents.

Prepare paperwork

Speaking of documents, having your paperwork in order and easily accessible is key to a quick or unplanned departure or for being boarded by authorities. Keep the following at hand in one dry bag: vessel documentation/registration, insurance, cruising and fishing permits, and any necessary entry documents for foreign countries. In another dry bag, keep passports, credit cards and crew information including medical needs.

Final thoughts

A vessel at sea is a self-contained city. It must carry all the food, fuel, water, safety and medical equipment and expertise that it takes to keep the crew safe. Consider the tips above as a starting point and expand from there.

Additional resources

NavCen.USCG.gov MMSI numbers/DSC registration, list navigation rules, Rule 37 USCG COLREGS 72 -16 basic distress signals USCGboating.org Download a float plan form, download the 86-page Federal Requirements Brochure, download accident reporting form, general survival tips beaconregistration.noaa.gov Register your EPIRBs and PLBs/>
Yacht Safety: A Guide To Safe Boating
Category: Features
A comprehensive overview of safety equipment and procedures for yachting and boating.

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