A life raft's value is directly inverse to its place in many a boat owner's mind. Out of sight does not mean lacking in importance.
Who needs a life raft? Chances are, you do. A raft serves as a floating platform to keep passengers forced overboard as safe as possible. It’s imperative to get out of the water quickly, to prevent hypothermia, so a life raft is a must, and then occupants will want to have a canopy to guard against sun and heat stroke. Also, a brightly colored canopy makes a much more visible target than someone’s head in a life jacket in the water, so it increases the chances of rescue.
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?
Recreational life rafts generally have a four-, six- or eight-person capacity. They come packed in either a fiberglass canister that is mounted onto 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. Cost depends on size and type but usually ranges from $2,000 to $6,000. Weight is a key issue, especially for rafts that will have to be moved and thrown off the boat manually. Typically, valise-style rafts weigh from 30 to 80 pounds and canister versions can weigh upward of 170 pounds.
During the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, so many crews were forced to abandon ship due to a storm 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 basically be divided into two categories:
1. Inshore or coastal
2. 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. They generally have a single buoyancy tube, they may or may not have a canopy, and they come basically equipped: a floating knife to cut the tether and a few other pieces of gear. The single-tube version is usually lighter and less expensive.
SOLAS transoceanic life rafts are designed for more serious conditions and colder temperatures and are more ruggedly built, including additional and larger ballast bags below and self-righting inflating canopies above. Their extensive equipment list includes a drogue (sea anchor) to help with stability and to minimize drift away from one’s originally reported position. Double tubes provide better backrests and more buoyancy, in case one tube becomes compromised. But the taller the raft, the more difficult it is to board, even for people with good upper body strength, and they’re heavy and expensive. These rafts usually come with insulated inflatable floors for thermal protection and more comprehensive inspection ports, so occupants can spot a rescue vessel on the horizon.
Numerous manufacturers market a variety of levels of life rafts, from the entry level to the heavy-duty offshore kind. Companies such as Revere, Viking, Switlik, Plastimo, Winslow, Givens, Survitec, Elliot and Survival Technologies all tout their differentiating factors. Although most rafts are somewhat similar, differences abound, including the selection of onboard equipment, the seals/welds and material of the construction, the number and design of ballast bags, and even 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 rough on bare skin. Some rubber compounds have reportedly smelled so bad that testers couldn’t bear exposure for even a few hours without becoming ill.
Other differences include such things as the boarding straps’ and ladders’ ease of use, bailing system efficiency, number of air fill access points, zipper quality, overall raft shape (square, round, hexagonal) and number of entries, so multiple people can board simultaneously. There are individual preferences and tradeoffs to most points.
A life raft is not a “set it and forget it” proposition. “There is an associated cost of ownership with life rafts,” said Bruce Brown, a moderator for U.S. Sailing Safety at Sea and a consultant for Switlik.
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, the second after two and then annually. Proper care ensures the raft is always ready for use, and repacking a six-person life raft generally costs $500 to $900, including parts, fresh equipment, labor and testing, and rearming the CO2 canister. Recertification is also a good option for anyone who buys a pre-owned boat with an older life raft as part of the package. The new owner will want to know its condition and age, and it’s less expensive to recertify than to buy new.
It may be tempting to deploy a life raft as it nears an inspection date. After all, it needs to be repacked anyway, and seeing it in action can only be a bonus, right? Don’t do that.
“When a raft is inflated using CO2, it’s a cold gas and repeated inflations are hard on the fabric,” Brown said. “A raft is usually inflated with compressed shop air when tested, not a gas.”
During inspection, the CO2 canister must be hydrostatically tested (every three years). Also, any consumables packed inside the raft are refreshed at that time. Switlik is now experimenting with using normal compressed air (vs. a gas) in its canisters. The advantages are twofold: one, no harsh gas on the fabric; two, an owner can inspect a gauge (like on a dive tank) to make sure the pressure is good rather than having the tank hydrostatically tested. Switlik has an external pocket on valise models to hold consumables that can be swapped out without impacting the packed raft itself.
Owners who already have a means of secondary buoyancy in case of a disaster, such as a dinghy, for regular boating outings and only have a limited need for a life raft for a period of time should consider renting one. Depending on size, duration and rating, the cost to rent one is $500 to $1,000, and there are several reputable life raft service organizations, including Avalon Raft and Ocean West in California, that will provide a well-packed, certified raft for a run to Mexico or for an offshore race.
Another minimalist solution for coastal and inshore waters is one of the new portable mini-rafts. Revere’s Coastal Compact is a single-tube, open-top platform that comes with ballast pockets and a sea anchor and automatically deploys in 30 seconds. It weighs 16 pounds, measures 20 inches by 10 inches and costs around $1,000. It comes in a pouch, so owners can stow it anywhere, even on a center console fishing boat, for quick runs to Catalina. Another option is Switlik’s Marine Rescue Platform (MRP), which comes with a strobe light, 25 feet of line and an inflatable pylon for greater visibility. Neither of these is a substitute for an offshore life raft but either will get passengers out of the heat-robbing water and keep them floating in relative comfort in areas where rescue is imminent.
IT AIN’T EASY
I’ve only spent time in one life raft. It was a commercial type for about 20 people and it was in a swimming pool during my U.S. Coast Guard STCW training. I was not the first one inside, which was a blessing, because it’s difficult to climb up. After the first guy helped me up, I hoisted others in. We weren’t facing 10-foot waves or 30-knot winds, I wasn’t cold or exhausted and I wasn’t wearing heavy gear or sea boots filled with water, but it still wasn’t easy. I imagined conducting the same scenario with numb hands, a much smaller, less stable life raft (like one carried by a cruising yacht), and being on the brink of panic, and that made me think about the value of the last resort.
Because it’s not all umbrella drinks and sunsets out there. It’s critical to be prepared for the worst with both extensive knowledge and good gear. Unsexy or not, life rafts have a purpose and it’s right in their name — life — so get informed and trained and then just bite the bullet and break out that wallet.