Planning For the Worst

It was a run-for-your-life moment. A few years ago, a friend removed an old life raft from his boat and put it on the dock. It was 15 years out of certification, and he was buying a new one. Out of curiosity, he pulled the inflation line.

The hard canister burst, the raft inflated quickly—almost violently—and the raft wedged itself between power posts on both sides of the dock.

We ran fast enough that we weren’t pinned. And yet, to this day, that episode serves as a reminder for me about why it’s important not only to have a life raft on board, but also to have it mounted in the right place and to know how and where it can be deployed in an emergency.

Most of the common, hard-shell-container life rafts have two methods of deployment: manual and automatic. In most situations, you’ll want to launch and then inflate the raft manually, so you can control where the canister bursts open. Automatic deployment happens only when the canister’s hydrostatic release (HR) is triggered, which occurs when the canister—and your boat—are underwater. By that time, your guests will be in the water too, possibly in rough seas and cold water. If at all possible, in an emergency situation, it’s better to manually deploy the life raft and enter it directly from above the waterline.

This is a quick release pelican-type hook. It connects the life raft tie-down strap (on the left) with the strap end of the HR device. To manually release the tie-down strap, you slide the metal loop to the left, which allows the hook to open, bypassing the HR device. The raft would then sit loosely in the cradle, ready for launch. Note that this particular pelican hook has significant rust at the hinge, which may not permit the hook to open.

This is a quick release pelican-type hook. It connects the life raft tie-down strap (on the left) with the strap end of the HR device. To manually release the tie-down strap, you slide the metal loop to the left, which allows the hook to open, bypassing the HR device. The raft would then sit loosely in the cradle, ready for launch. Note that this particular pelican hook has significant rust at the hinge, which may not permit the hook to open.

Opening the quick-release hook or snap-shackle will unlock the raft from its cradle. You want to get the raft overboard before inflating it, to avoid a scene like the one I experienced on the dock.

A six- or eight-person raft canister can weigh 75 or 100 pounds, sometimes more, which means getting it overboard will require some muscle. Poor installations require the canister to be dragged or carried across a deck, or around various objects, or to be moved to a lower deck, all in an attempt to get it near enough to the water to launch. This is why choosing a smart mounting place is so important from the start.

Lightweight and easy for singlehanded deployment, a soft-case or valise-style raft may be the best option for cruising couples.

Lightweight and easy for singlehanded deployment, a soft-case or valise-style raft may be the best option for cruising couples.

The soft-case or valise-style portable raft is a lighter, easier-to-move alternative, one that may be the best option for cruising couples (only one person, in an emergency, may be available to move the life raft for deployment). Some soft-case rafts for four people can weigh less than 30 pounds. On the other hand, you may need to secure a soft-case life raft’s painter to the mothership before deploying this type of raft, while a canister raft usually has the painter automatically attached to the cradle on the mothership.

With either type of life raft, once it goes overboard, is inflated and has everyone in it, you will need to decide whether to cut the painter, freeing the raft from the boat. If there’s a fire, then the answer is probably yes. If the boat is partially sunken but stable, then the answer may be no, since the mothership makes an easier target for rescuers to find.

What you have at your disposal while waiting for the authorities is a matter of planning as well. Some rafts are designed for near-coastal conditions, and others for offshore use. Some are open, and some have canopies and ballast pockets to prevent the raft from turning upside down. The features, sizes and weights vary greatly, as does whatever you stock inside your abandon-ship kit (see sidebar).

This is just about the worst mounting location. The raft is fixed in its cradle, high in the air, at the fourth level of this boat. This is not a manufacturing defect of the boat, rather an extremely poor choice of location by the installer. Note that there are neither steps nor a fixed ladder to get up to the raft. If the boat is in heavy seas, the area where the life raft is mounted would be extraordinarily difficult to reach, and extremely unsafe. Freeing this raft would be similar to being on top of a metronome.

This is just about the worst mounting location. The raft is fixed in its cradle, high in the air, at the fourth level of this boat. This is not a manufacturing defect of the boat, rather an extremely poor choice of location by the installer. Note that there are neither steps nor a fixed ladder to get up to the raft. If the boat is in heavy seas, the area where the life raft is mounted would be extraordinarily difficult to reach, and extremely unsafe. Freeing this raft would be similar to being on top of a metronome.

Here’s a raft mounted on the roof of a smaller boat. This position is acceptable. Because of the boat’s design, the mounting location is not too high, and there is a decent ladder to reach it. Once it’s out of the cradle, it should not be too difficult to slide it laterally (to port or starboard), where it will go over the side.

Here’s a raft mounted on the roof of a smaller boat. This position is acceptable. Because of the boat’s design, the mounting location is not too high, and there is a decent ladder to reach it. Once it’s out of the cradle, it should not be too difficult to slide it laterally (to port or starboard), where it will go over the side.

A stern mounted cradle, such as the one shown on this sailboat, can be an excellent location. A number of power vessels might be able to use this option depending on the configuration of the stern.

A stern mounted cradle, such as the one shown on this sailboat, can be an excellent location. A number of power vessels might be able to use this option depending on the configuration of the stern.

A poor stowage location. Obstructed by a handrail with a crossbar, this hard-shell-container raft can’t be easily deployed in an emergency.

A poor stowage location. Obstructed by a handrail with a crossbar, this hard-shell-container raft can’t be easily deployed in an emergency.

Situated out of the way, yet easily accessible and with a clear path to the water, this raft has been stowed in a near-perfect location.

Situated out of the way, yet easily accessible and with a clear path to the water, this raft has been stowed in a near-perfect location.

While the inventory of most rafts includes a knife for the express purpose of cutting the painter free from the boat, we also carry this floating knife attached to our abandon ship kit. It has a rounded sheepsfoot tip, to help prevent accidentally puncturing the raft.

While the inventory of most rafts includes a knife for the express purpose of cutting the painter free from the boat, we also carry this floating knife attached to our abandon ship kit. It has a rounded sheepsfoot tip, to help prevent accidentally puncturing the raft.

A Hydrostatic Release partly consists of a strong line in an oblong circle. In this picture, it is the white line with black tracer. Instead of the life raft tie-down strap being connected directly to the cradle, it is connected instead to the loop of line at the yellow thimble at the top of the HR. The bottom of the HR device is attached to the cradle. Note the painter, which comes out of the raft at the large black rubber grommet at the right lower side; It is connected to a red “weak link” on the HR device. This particular raft has a separate white rope handle, for lifting the raft.

A Hydrostatic Release partly consists of a strong line in an oblong circle. In this picture, it is the white line with black tracer. Instead of the life raft tie-down strap being connected directly to the cradle, it is connected instead to the loop of line at the yellow thimble at the top of the HR. The bottom of the HR device is attached to the cradle. Note the painter, which comes out of the raft at the large black rubber grommet at the right lower side; It is connected to a red “weak link” on the HR device. This particular raft has a separate white rope handle, for lifting the raft.

If you are purchasing a new life raft, think about your cruising needs and expected conditions. And be sure you choose a model that you’ll be able to mount properly and deploy safely should the worst-case scenario ever happen while you’re out cruising.

Packing an Abandon-Ship Kit

The items that should be in your abandon-ship kit depend on your cruising area. An open-ocean voyage requires far different planning than a cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Basics that should be in every abandon-ship kit include:

An EPIRB. Self-deploying EPIRBs have the same type of hydrostatic device that life rafts have, which means that the EPIRB won’t self-release from the boat and activate until the boat sinks. Better to take the EPIRB with you in your ditch bag, so you can activate it manually.

A waterproof, handheld VHF radio. You’ll also want spare batteries, and a satellite phone if possible.

An electronic SOS strobe light. Several good ones are available for less than $100, and they qualify as nighttime flares. The light never expires as long as you keep fresh batteries in it. Regular handheld and aerial flares are a valuable addition to a ditch bag, too.

A waterproof case for paperwork. Ours holds wallets, IDs, cash, credit cards, cell phones, passports and medications.

For a more comprehensive list of what you might want to put into your abandon-ship kit, depending on where and how you cruise, visit www.passagemaker.com/lifestyle/survival-checklist

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