Demystifying your life raft — or, getting to know it step by step

Life Raft

Editor’s note: In a recent issue of Ocean Navigator we ran an article by Michelle Elvy and Behan Gifford on the challenges faced by voyagers in getting their life rafts properly inspected and repacked when they are outside of North America. Here is more info on life rafts derived from interviews with ocean voyagers in the Pacific: 

Jim Wilson, Ceol Mor: See it with your own eyes. “When we serviced the raft in New Zealand, we were present for the inflation (which was done in a shop facility). The raft performed flawlessly and we were able to see how everything was packed and how everything functioned. This was the first time we had actually seen our raft — or one similar. This particular facility was clearly equipped to handle servicing, and we were able to see many different things that could be done to refurbish or repair rafts. We also got good advice from the person who supervised the process.”

Nadine Slavinski, Namani: Know how it deploys — and practicing entering. “We're glad we did, because several things were not as expected. Righting the raft was easier than I expected, but the boarding ladder swung under the raft as we climbed, so the extra grip afforded by the hand-ladder inside the raft was essential. The strongest person should enter first and stay at the entrance to help everybody else. The rest of the crew should distribute themselves around the raft to balance it, because it lurches as each person enters. Meanwhile, separating from the mother ship was much harder than expected. The blade to cut the painter was easy to locate but hard to pull free. The painter is attached to the windward side of the life raft, while the main entry is on the lee side (the raft being kept in that position by the drogue). Only by doing our simulation did we learn that the painter can be accessed through a small lookout hatch on the windward side of the raft — an incredibly important detail that made us realize the value of going over our life raft step by step.”

Gina Rae, Solace: Check the inside, too. “We got to resupply [our raft] both times [we serviced it]. We got to keep the outdated supplies. We have tailored the supplies inside to meet CAT 1 and our needs. We also placed a small PLB inside in the event we have a rapid sinking. This is in addition to the EPIRBS on the boat (we carry 2).”

Mark Morwood, Por Dos: Lighten your load. “I think stowage and weight of life rafts is often overlooked as a really important consideration. In my opinion, a 100lb life raft that can survive 20 days at sea with lots of supplies that is difficult to launch is not nearly as useful as a lighter life raft with a PLB or EPIRB packed inside it. In the day and age of GPS EPIRBS, you are very unlikely to spend more than a day or two in a life raft if the worst happens. [The Winslow’s] key feature for me was its light weight. My number one recommendation these days on life rafts, is get something light enough to be launched quickly single-handed, and pack a PLB or EPIRB in the raft.”

Joe McKeown, Shanachie: The devil’s in the details. “Explore the servicing premise to see if they have the correct gear for repair and servicing. For example, if it’s in the tropics, do they have a low-humidity room for repair and/or addition of new attachments? Most glues used for repair have to be used in this type of environment. Do they also certify large ships? This is an indication of longevity in the business, and reputation.”

Jordan Mills, Sea Turtle: DIY — it’s not rocket science. “I deployed [my RFD life raft] in my driveway with camera running. It deployed fine. I found that the cylinder and high pressure connecting hose were rusty but all else seemed in good condition. So I took the cylinder to a commercial fire extinguisher company and had them hydra test and recharge it with CO2. I had the tank lightly sandblasted and I repainted it. We repacked the raft, complete with our own specific supplies in the supply bag. When folding the raft we used talcum powder as a chafe protector. Then wrapped it all in a thick plastic and fitted in the life raft container. I made my own detail sticker. Incidentally, from the time I recharged the cylinder and repacked it, it was one year. In that time, I weighed the cylinder about four different times and recorded the weight, knowing what a full charge should be. I noticed at first it dropped slightly but stabilized.”

Mark Morwood, Por Dos: Location, location, location. “Servicing is important, but even more important is accessibility of life raft for deployment. This is our third boat and third life raft. First life raft was too heavy and stored below, so was probably not very useful. Second was Winslow and stored right at the companionway and could be launched single-handed. Current one is in canister in cradle on stern of our catamaran and can be launched with boat either way up by releasing one clip.”

Jordan and Judy Mills, Sea Turtle: Avoiding entanglements. “If possible, I would suggest mounting your life raft on the stern, outside of the pushpit so that it could be simply dropped into the water instead of manhandled off the foredeck past possible entanglements.”

Gina Rae, Solace: Relocating raft. “We may consider relocating the life raft in the future for easier deployment. Ours is on the foredeck just behind the mast and we see that as an issue if things really fell apart quickly. It is okay for a ‘slow’ emergency.”

Doug Scott, Moondance: Contents and deployment. “A PLB would be something that I would consider packing in the raft. In choosing a raft, examine the boarding system. If you ever do need to deploy the raft, the water isn't going to look like it does in the life raft promotional videos.”

Jim Wilson, Ceol Mor: Customize the gear. “When the raft was repacked in New Zealand, I availed myself of the opportunity to customize the emergency gear. For example, I included a pair of my eyeglasses.”

Joe McKeown, Shanachie: Climb around in it. “It’s very, very important that you become familiar with the actual physical raft and have an opportunity to blow it up, climb around, ascertain what additional survival paraphernalia is enclosed and what additional items you will need in your own BOB (Bail Out Bag).”

Nadine Slavinski, Namani: Go over the raft step by step: “Several awkward attempts to reach the painter taught us that it is attached to the windward side of the life raft, while the main entry is on the lee side (the raft is kept in that position by the drogue). Only by doing our simulation did we learn that the painter can be accessed through a small lookout hatch on the windward side of the raft — an incredibly important detail that made us realize the value of going over our life raft step by step.”

David Cowper, Polar Bound: A chancy business. “I think it’s best to hope that you never have to use your life raft as there are many stories of life rafts not inflating, becoming torn and ripping apart. It is a chancy business and the old adage is: never take to the life raft while your own boat is still floating as that is your best chance of survival.”

Bill Babington, Solstice: Pay attention to service centers. “Knowing what I know now with the difficulties involved in finding a service facility globally, if I could do it again, I would pay more attention to where I could get it serviced around the world and find out what the cost of that service would be.”

Jim Wilson, Ceol Mor: Finding service centers. “If I were to do another circumnavigation, I would make more of an effort to determine where competent — and reasonable — servicing ports could be found. I think we were lucky that we were in New Zealand and that Wellington had a good facility.”


Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor, and manuscript assessor originally from the Chesapeake, now based in New Zealand and currently exploring SE Asia. She has been living aboard and sailing with her husband and children for 12 years. Behan Gifford is a freelance writer and photographer with a focus on travel writing and the boating industry. For the last six years, she’s lived on her 1982 Stevens 47 sailboat Totem with her husband and three children.

By Ocean Navigator