Life-Raft Essentials

In June of 2001, Rick and Linda Porter, sailing their 32-foot cutter Leviathan, were in the midst of crossing a remote section of the western Indian Ocean. No one knows for sure, but at some point, it seems the crew got into trouble, probably due to weather. Their final single-sideband communication indicated that they were making way through heavy seas and high winds but were not in need of assistance. Seven hours later, several RCCs (rescue coordination centers) recorded a signal broadcast from Leviathan’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), a category I 406 unit equipped with hydrostatic release. The remainder of the story is a muddled mix of bureaucratic mix-ups and poor communication between those who knew about the distress signal and those who could actually go out and search. Leviathan’s EPIRB signal was received for a mere six hours before ceasing. Neither Leviathan nor the crew have been heard from since, no wreckage, debris or flotsam has been found that can be connected with the either the Porters or their boat. Leviathan had an inflatable dinghy but no life raft.

Before entering into a discussion about life rafts, their construction and use, some comment on search and rescue is in order. The primary acronyms in the search-and-rescue field are SARSAT/Cospas (Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking/Cosmicheskaya Systyema Poiska Avariynich Sudov, which translates as Space System for the Search of Vessels in Distress) and the AMVER (Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Response) system. The former comprises the electronic assets that listen for EPIRB signals, and the latter are the vessels that might actually pop over the horizon and come to your aid.

AMVER is administered by the U.S. Coast Guard and is tantamount to the volunteer fire brigade. Commercial, government and military vessels that go about their business on the high seas every day have agreed to tell the AMVER coordination center where they will be if needed. When you call for help, chances are good — particularly when well offshore — that a freighter, tanker, war or cruise ship will come to your aid rather than a dedicated SAR craft, and it will probably happen a lot more quickly.

Keep in mind, however, that the AMVER system far from guarantees your rescue. There may be no cooperating vessels in your area; their communication gear may be malfunctioning; or they may be unable to find you in poor visibility. Remember, these are volunteers, and unless it’s a military vessel, the crews are not professional SAR folks, and they are under no obligation to risk their lives to save you.

Although you may feel less than lucky at the time, it is also important to remember that if you find yourself in extremis within 300 nm of the coast of the continental United States, you are fortunate indeed. Between Coast Guard, Air National Guard, Navy and other military organizations, not to mention the volume of commercial traffic, North America is among the best locations for SAR assets.

It is equally important to note that if you intend to cruise beyond this “backyard” safety net, you are farther from organized, efficient and well-equipped assistance, as the Leviathan’s crew was unfortunate enough to discover. Self-reliance will play a much larger, perhaps even dominant, role in your survival. The watchwords are: Choose your gear accordingly. Within the 300-nm limit, short-term survival duration, while not assured, is much more likely. This is where people, planes and ships are plentiful, as opposed to trackless stretches of the Indian, Pacific or Southern oceans. When cruising in these less populated regions (which is why they are among the best cruising grounds), that may be remote from SAR assets, it is more likely that life-raft stays could be measured in weeks rather than days or hours.

Life-raft history

Many folks have been fortunate to survive extended stays in inflatable life rafts. History has shown us that it is possible to exist under less than ideal conditions while floating on the sea in little more than an airtight (for the most part) rubber bag.

During World War II, the Goodyear Rubber Co. supplied thousands of life rafts to the military for use by aviators who were forced to ditch at sea. Eddie Rickenbacker and the seven-man crew of a B-17, in which he was a passenger, survived for 21 days in three small rafts, with only one fatality. Chief Petty Officer Harold Dixon and his two-man U.S. Navy patrol aircraft crew survived 34 days in a single 8-foot raft (this raft can be seen at the Pensacola Naval Air Museum).

More recently, Dougal Robertson’s family and the crew of Lucette, six in all, survived for 37 days in a ten-person raft after being attacked by a pod of orcas. Notably, however, the raft disintegrated after 17 days, and they were all forced to move to a 9-foot fiberglass dinghy. The Butlers, a couple, spent 66 days in a four-person coastal raft, and Steve Callahan, sailing alone from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, sank while approximately 1,800 miles from landfall. He endured an astounding 2 1/2 months in a six-person raft.

The final and perhaps most amazing entry in this hit parade of raft survivors is that of Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, again two in a four-person raft, who survived 117 days (a record) after also being attacked by orcas. The Baileys were fortunate to have with them, in addition to their life raft, a 9-foot Zodiac-type inflatable, which they put to good use, as did the Robertsons, as an abattoir.

This list of life-raft survivors is by no means complete; there have been others. It does, however, make two points amply clear. One, if properly equipped, both physically (body and equipment) and emotionally, occupants may be able to survive long-term life-raft events. Two, we cannot benefit from the experiences of those who did not survive. There’s no way to know what they did wrong or what ultimately led to their demise, we only know what the survivors did to sustain themselves.

Raft guidelines

A dizzying array of organizations weigh in with guidelines and requirements for life-raft applications, construction and deployment: the Coast Guard, SOLAS (The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) and ISAF (International Sailing Federation) and ORC (Offshore Racing Council), to name a few. It is vitally important to note, however, that non-inspected vessels, essentially those that are not commercial in nature, are completely unregulated where life rafts are concerned. Into this category fall cruising power and sail vessels. There are essentially no mandatory guidelines governing the construction or use of life rafts for cruisers. The manner in which the raft is fabricated, the materials used, space per occupant, contents, etc., are entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer, where non-inspected vessels are concerned.

Image Credit: Photos by Steve C. D’Antonio
This well-built offshore life raft has features to make boarding and operation of the raft easier. The inflatable boarding ramp is particularly helpful for cold or injured survivors.

This cloud is not entirely without a silver lining. ISAF and the Coast Guard do provide voluminous details and recommendations for construction of “yachtsman’s” life rafts; i.e., those that will be used on non-inspected vessels. Racing organizations, such as ISAF, usually mandate specific raft features and deployment capabilities as a prerequisite for participation in certain offshore and ocean races. As a result, even the humble cruiser is capable of ascertaining which raft is right for its intended use.

SOLAS-approved life rafts are often considered the cr�me de la cr�me. These rafts are destined for commercial use on merchant ships and passenger vessels or must meet the exacting standards for this type of use. There is little room for interpretation by their manufacturers; their size, construction and contents are rigidly prescribed. This is particularly true for the “contents,” or survival package.

A six-person SOLAS-approved raft must, for example, carry four parachute rocket signals, six hand flares, two smoke signals, a signal mirror and 9.5 liters of drinking water, among many other items. A randomly selected, leading-brand “offshore” 6-person raft, conversely, includes three hand flares, no signal mirror and no water. As this example illustrates, the buyer-beware axiom truly applies to life-raft selection.

While some life rafts come with patches and glue for repairing damage to a raft, others offer the better solution of a plug-based repair. The most effective type of repair approach is the use of clamps, as seen at left. These are placed on the inside and outside of the hole and tightened. The rubber gasket is designed to prevent further leaks.

The primary caveat in selecting a SOLAS-approved raft is bulk. In order to meet all of the guidelines and standards, they are often large and heavy. As might be expected, they are usually more expensive than their non-SOLAS-approved brethren.

As the air inside a raft heats and cools, its density changes and the raft may need more air from a hand pump. Not all pumps work equally well: check the one in your raft for ease of use.

Does this mean all non-SOLAS-compliant rafts are inadequate? The answer to that question must be a resounding NO. Several manufacturers offer excellent rafts that do not meet all of the SOLAS guidelines. They are invariably smaller, lighter and less expensive than SOLAS rafts. A primary obstacle to SOLAS approval is capacity. SOLAS-compliant rafts may accommodate no fewer than six persons. Therefore, a four-person raft may be SOLAS compliant in all respects save this one.

Life rafts are rated for the number of occupants, like the six-person raft above. However, the ratings are based on an area of four square feet for each occupant. This is not a great deal of space should you be forced to spend more than a few hours in the raft awaiting rescue.

Coast Guard-approved rafts are designed to meet regulations and laws that specifically apply to U.S.-flagged commercial and passenger-carrying vessels. Coast Guard-approved rafts are similar to SOLAS rafts; however, there may be subtle differences between the two. Most SOLAS rafts are also Coast Guard-approved, while many Coast Guard-approved rafts are not SOLAS compliant.

Beware of the occasional life-raft advertisement that uses words like, “equipped with SOLAS-approved parachute flares” or “SOLAS-approved double buoyancy tubes.” These rafts may not, and probably are not, fully SOLAS compliant. Various components and features may fall within the SOLAS approval guidelines, but the entire raft may not meet all the requirements needed for SOLAS compliance. It does not necessarily mean that these rafts are defective or inferior. It simply means that, as a whole, the raft does not meet the stringent standards set forth by the SOLAS convention.

Life-raft designation

In order to ensure that life rafts are used for the appropriate purposes, their use has been segregated into three basic categories: coastal, offshore and ocean. Not exceeding the life raft’s design parameters is a critical component in ensuring proper raft performance and longevity. Coastal rafts are designed for extremely short-duration stays, from a few hours to a day or two. Offshore rafts are usually designed for four- to five-day “trips,” while ocean-category rafts signify long-duration survival situations, lasting up to 30 days. Fortunately, some raft manufacturers do not take these duration guidelines literally and opt to err conservatively. The aforementioned Butler couple survived for 66 days in a Switlik raft designated for coastal use. Fortunately for them, the manufacturer over-engineered this raft, which enabled it to outlive its design duration by a considerable margin.

The importance of selecting the right raft for the conditions under which it will be used cannot be underestimated. First, determine what your cruising grounds are and will be. Will you venture beyond the backyard SAR umbrella? If you are sailing within this, “high-probability of quick rescue” region, you may opt for a coastal or offshore raft rather than an ocean model, and use the money you’ve saved to purchase a second EPIRB and anti-exposure suit (the latter may be invaluable when sailing in cooler waters). The standard EPIRB battery is designed to allow the transmitter to operate for 48 hours (there is no guarantee the unit will operate for a full 48 hours, as the Leviathan episode illustrated). A second EPIRB will offer redundancy, in the event the first EPIRB fails to function or is lost. A second EPIRB will also double transmit time (provided they are used consecutively); allowing rescuers to zero in on your location, particularly in less than ideal weather conditions, when SAR assets may be limited in their ability to travel.

Image Credit: Alison Langley
A valise-packed raft can be kept in a cockpit locker like this one. The valise approach keeps the raft out of the elements and reduces water intrusion, but this method of storage can make the raft harder to deploy in an emergency.

What type of weather conditions will you experience during all phases of your passage(s)? All of the previously mentioned survivors met with disaster in tropical or subtropical latitudes. Hypothermia, while experienced to some degree by nearly all life-raft survivors, was not a major factor in their survival. If you are cruising in higher latitudes, then your raft may differ from one used in more temperate regions.

Your primary concerns, as the survivor of a vessel that has sunk, are to get out of the water, get warm and obtain fresh drinking water. Achieving these goals will sustain you for several days, perhaps weeks, depending on your condition and the weather. For long-term survival, you will need to add food to this equation, which will extend your survival period for many weeks and perhaps months. Your raft of choice should not impede any of these conditions if your goal is long-term survival. If you are willing to put your life in the hands of SARSAT personnel, then you may change your raft requirements from long-term to short-term survival.

Raft features

Should the boat sink before the raft can be deployed, a hydrostatic release unit like this is designed to free the raft from its cradle automatically when it reaches a certain depth. While a hydrostatic release can serve as a backup, the best approach is to deploy the raft manually.

The only factor that separates one life raft from another is its features: how it’s designed, constructed and equipped. There are hosts of details that can be considered critically important, such as stability, boarding ladders and canopies. Less important details might include interior color and the number of viewing ports.

Clearly, stability is a key factor in keeping life-raft occupants alive and uninjured. The accepted standard among most manufacturers is to provide stability &mdash essentially anti-capsize protection &mdash by using ballast bags. These large bags are attached to the bottom of the raft. They fill with water, which makes the raft much more stable than it would be without the benefit of ballast. The shape and size of these bags varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some are weighted, which decreases the time it takes for them to fill with water and deploy. This may seem inconsequential; however, it is likely that the raft will be deployed in less than ideal conditions. The quicker the raft becomes a stable platform, the quicker survivors can enter and remain relatively confident that the raft will not capsize.

Sometimes ballast bags can be a liability. In calmer conditions or gentle swells, the motion imparted to the raft by the oversized ballast may actually promote seasickness. Additionally, if the raft’s occupants wish to take advantage of a favorable wind to carry the raft nearer to land or shipping lanes, the ballast bags will hinder this progress. For these reasons, some raft manufacturers have incorporated ballast-bag retraction systems that the occupants can use when ballast is undesirable.

Beware! Rafts that have had their manufacturer’s plate removed have been condemned by an inspection facility.

Linked with the ballast bags for stability is the drogue. Deployed on the windward side of the raft, it will keep the door downwind while preventing the raft from lifting and catching air. If this does occur, the raft is almost certain to capsize. The drogue must possess certain features to operate most effectively. Primarily, it must be strong enough to not be lost in heavy weather. It should also be attached to the raft via a rode that is a minimum of 80 feet in length (short drogue rodes are ineffective on rafts for the same reason they are ineffective on large vessels). Additionally, the drogue should be equipped with a swivel to prevent entanglement and the resultant tripping. Some rafts employ dual entry points, one of which can be used to adjust and monitor the drogue (chafe is an ever-present danger on life rafts, particularly at the drogue-rode attachment point) as well as providing for cross ventilation in warm, humid conditions. Ideally, the drogue should self-deploy. It is possible for survivors to be unaware of its existence or forget to deploy it because of exhaustion, hypothermia or shock.

A proper offshore or ocean life raft must be equipped with a self-erecting canopy that will protect the occupants from the elements. Some raft manufacturers rely on the occupant’s heads to support this canopy. This is better than no protection at all, but it is hardly adequate and should never be considered for anything but extremely short-term survival scenarios. Additionally, the canopy should be capable of catching and channeling rain to a collection point within the raft’s interior. The ideal canopy will be made up of two layers of material, brightly colored on the outside and light blue on the inside (light blue has been identified as a soothing color that is less conducive to sea sickness than orange or red). Some raft manufacturers provide integral radar-reflective capabilities within the canopy (a SOLAS requirement) and raft bottom. Finally, the canopy should be equipped with water-activated lights, one on the outside to help survivors find the raft more easily in darkness, and one on the inside so that occupants can orient themselves and unpack and use survival gear.


Virtually all life rafts employ auto-inflation (an essential feature), utilizing a painter that doubles as a trigger. The painter is pulled out of the raft canister or valise until it reaches the inflation trigger, at which point a bottle of compressed gas, usually CO2, is opened, filling the raft. Once the raft has inflated, the painter should keep it attached to the vessel until the survivors elect to abandon ship. In anything other than moderate conditions, life rafts and cruising vessels, particularly if they are sinking or burning, should not remain tethered to each other. It is likely that they will have considerably different motion and rates of drift, which may lead to raft damage.

Other necessary and desirable attributes for quality life rafts include lifelines that surround the raft’s perimeter (inside and out), clearly labeled placards indicating the entry point or points, and an easy-to-use ladder that has a deep, weighted step (some rafts have an inflated boarding ramp, which is particularly useful if survivors are injured or hypothermic). Few life rafts are guaranteed to inflate in the upright position, and thus the raft must also be easily righted by one person.

All offshore and ocean rafts must be constructed with the double-buoyancy-tube design, which ensures redundancy in the event that one chamber is holed. The raft should be able to support the entire complement of survivors in the event that one tube deflates. Compartmentalization is critical for life-raft design and durability, and different manufacturers take different approaches to this problem. Some employ check valves to prevent a puncture in one compartment deflating its neighbor, while others use an interior self-repairing “sock” that is drawn into the deflating tube. Whichever system is used, a critical component in leak mitigation is the raft’s onboard pump. All rafts must include a hand-operated pump. (Foot-operated pumps are difficult if not impossible to use in life rafts.) This pump should be fully assembled, easy and ready to operate, particularly in low-light conditions, by people whose hands are cold and numb. Because of normal heating and cooling cycles and the consequent venting through overpressure relief ports, the survivors may have to add air to the life raft several times a day, even if there are no leaks. Thus, the pump must be durable and efficient.

A feature that is often overlooked during life-raft selection is the design of the floor. Ideally, the floor should be double-layered and inflatable. This will provide critical insulation for the survivors, particularly when the seawater is cold. Do not underestimate the ability of cold seawater to draw heat from occupant’s bodies. Additionally, an insulated double floor provides redundancy in the event one layer is holed, and it will offer some protection against “bumping” sea creatures. Nearly every life-raft survivor has related the anxiety caused by probing sharks, dorado, turtles, etc.

While on the subject of floors, it is worth mentioning that floor space per survivor is regulated in SOLAS and Coast Guard rafts at 4 square feet per person. If you draw an imaginary 2-by-2-foot box on your living room floor, you will quickly realize that this space is quite cramped. Some rafts provide more than the minimum 4 square feet per person, and if this is important to you, or if you intend to sail with a crew that matches your raft’s capacity, you may consider over-sizing (an eight-person raft for a six-person crew, for instance) or opting for a raft that provides additional space.

Finally, in order to preserve the integrity and security of your raft so it is fully operational when you need it, it must be contained in a strong, water-resistant (this does not mean submersible) container or valise. The debate over rigid container vs. soft valise has been around for quite some time. Hard containers offer maximum durability, protection and ease of deployment (at higher expense); while valises provide ease of storage (beyond the reach of thieves) along with a reduction in weight. The valise is also less expensive than the rigid container. However, the raft is only as good as your ability to deploy it. If you cannot get it out of the sail locker or lazarette because it’s buried under gear, then it’s of little value.

Alternatively, if your deck-mounted canister is stolen while in port, it too will be of little use to you in an abandon-ship scenario. When mounting options and deck space permit, my preference is for the hard-mounted canister. Bear in mind, neither of these containment systems is waterproof. I have observed water damage to both canister- and valise-packed rafts.


An entire article could be written on this subject alone, which is indicative of its importance. In nearly every account of life-raft survival, a reoccurring theme is the astonishment and disappointment survivors experienced when they discovered the inadequacy of the raft survival package.

The Coast Guard and SOLAS requirements are very specific about what must be packed in the raft. These items range from a given number of SOLAS-approved parachute flares and smoke signals, to quantities of drinking water, as well as sponges, fishing kits and seasickness bags. It is important to remember that even if a raft is not fully SOLAS-compliant, for one reason or another, its survival package may indeed meet all of the guidelines.

The caveats for raft contents are twofold. One, don’t expect too much as far as the survival pack goes, particularly from coastal rafts. These rafts will almost certainly require supplemental equipment, which should be stored in a ditch bag. Even the most comprehensive survival packs may require additional quantities of certain items, such as water. Second, even though the contents may meet a given standard, such as SOLAS, you may still consider them inadequate.

If there is one feature of a life raft you already own or intend to purchase that you should inspect, touch and hold, it is the contents of the survival pack. While inspecting various kits at a local life-raft repacking facility, I was amazed at the range of quality in the individual components, particularly for non-SOLAS/Coast Guard-approved kits. Perhaps the most troubling disparity is in repair kits. If you are in a life raft long enough, chances are that it will develop a leak. Imagine attempting to repair a leak below the waterline with a patch and liquid glue?

Conversely, high-quality raft manufacturers provide repair kits that require neither glue nor dry surfaces but instead have purpose-made clamps and plugs. Once again, make the effort to inspect these items, whether you intend to purchase or already own the raft. In the latter case, it’s never too late to replace or supplement these items.

Some life-raft manufacturers take their raft’s contents very seriously, including a 406 EPIRB and reverse-osmosis watermaker. Sound reasoning dictates that the less you have to remember to bring with you when abandoning ship, the less you can forget. If the impetus for abandoning ship necessitates a hasty departure, there is a good chance that critical items, such as a portable desalinator and EPIRB, may be left behind. It should come as no surprise that well-equipped rafts are usually more expensive and often (but not always) heavier than competitors’ rafts.


No discussion on life rafts would be complete without some discussion as to their proper security, installation and deployment. There are pros and cons to canisters and valises. If you opt for the former, keep the following guidelines in mind. The life-raft chapter of the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations, available from ISAF at or from U.S. Sailing ( recommends that, “Each raft shall be capable of being got to the lifelines or into the water within 15 seconds.” How or wherever you opt to store your raft, on deck or below, ensure that it meets this minimum recommendation. Clearly, most on-deck canister installations will meet this standard. Valises that are stored below must be easily accessible at all times throughout your passage. If gear, food or tools slowly bury them, you may not be able to get to them within the prescribed time.

For canister-type, on-deck installations, security is critically important. Ideally, the canister cradle is mounted aft, where it is easily accessible from the cockpit. This allows the crew to access the raft without going forward, which might be undesirable in rough weather. Additionally, the raft is better protected in this location from seas breaking over the bow, and it is less likely to become entangled in rigging in the event the vessel sinks before deployment.

The one feature of canister and cradle installation that is not optional or open to discretion is its fastenings. The cradle must be either substantially through-bolted &mdash utilizing proper backing plates or welded, in the case of aluminum or steel vessels &mdash to the deck. Any other type of fastening creates the potential for your raft being swept away by boarding seas, perhaps when you need it most.

Hydrostatic releases

Canister-type rafts may have a device commonly known as a hydrostatic release mechanism. When submerged to a predetermined depth (approximately 4 meters), the mechanism will release the raft. Once the canister is released from its cradle, it will float with enough buoyancy to pull the painter out of the canister. As previously mentioned, once the painter has been fully deployed, it will trigger the C02 canister, inflating the raft.

Some hydrostatic release mechanisms also incorporate a “weak-link” device in the painter line, which is designed to break when a specified force is applied (for the most common hydrostatic release, the Hammar H20, this is either 500 lbs, which is signified by a red weak link, or 270 lbs, which is signified by a green weak link). This weak link will prevent the raft from being pulled under or damaged when the vessel sinks.

Like all automatic devices, hydrostatic releases are not absolutely reliable. They may fail in one of two ways: either not releasing when they should or releasing when they shouldn’t. I have personally experienced the latter scenario, where a canister-type raft was installed on the cabin top of a 30-foot trawler, approximately 10 feet above the waterline. During moderately rough weather, where seas were approximately 10 to 15 feet, the vessel was struck by a wave that caused the hydrostatic release to deploy the raft. The raft fell overboard, the painter paid out, triggering inflation. It worked perfectly, except the raft wasn’t needed, then, or later, thankfully. An hour later, the raft, after being bailed out and partially deflated, was secured in the cockpit. The raft was inadvertently towed for a short distance, imparting enough drag, thanks to ballast bags and drogue, to distort the through-bolted aluminum cradle. Notably, the weak link did not part.

Most hydrostatic release mechanisms are not serviceable; they simply expire. The aforementioned Hammar brand may be used within its manufacturer’s guidelines for two years, after which time it should be replaced. Check the expiration decal to determine when the unit will require replacement.

It may be a worn out expression, but I would be remiss if I did not repeat it when discussing abandoning ship. Don’t get off the mother ship until you have to step up into the life raft or the flames are licking at your heels. Your chances of survival and rescue are frequently much better aboard the larger vessel. Staying aboard will also afford you the time required to collect essential items, such as food and water (water jugs should be stored with an air space of 25 or 30 percent to ensure they will float high) before stepping off the deck for the last time.

Raft service

Getting your life raft serviced regularly is like going to the doctor for a checkup when you feel fine. It’s easy to talk yourself out of the trip, but you shouldn’t. Most raft manufacturers specify recommended service intervals. For inspected commercial vessels, this is usually an annual event. For non-inspected vessels &mdash we cruisers &mdash there is no mandatory inspection period. All raft manufacturers, however, strongly recommend a voluntary inspection interval of anywhere between one and three years, depending on the raft and how it is packed.

Vacuum packing has enabled some manufacturers to stretch the first interval to three years, with succeeding intervals at two years and then one year, but this does vary with manufacturer, so check with yours before creating an inspection schedule.

Providing your raft with regular service is of little value if the service facility you are taking it to is not qualified to do the job. The life-raft service station you choose must have personnel who are trained and experienced in servicing your particular make and model of raft, and their training must be current. Most service certificates are only valid for three years, and most service facilities proudly display these documents. Furthermore, if your raft is Coast Guard approved, the facility must have Coast Guard approval for servicing that make and model of raft.

The most reliable approach for determining if your life-raft service facility possesses the necessary qualifications to work with your raft is to call or email the manufacturer of your raft. Raft manufacturers will usually provide this information without hesitation. Additionally, you may go to the website of the United States Marine Safety Association ( This is an organization whose members include most life-raft service facilities. Their website contains a database of most life-raft manufacturers and their qualified (and USMSA-member) service facilities. Membership in this organization is not a guarantor of excellence or competence; however, it is an indication that the participating service facility is proactive in the industry.

Once at the facility, your raft will be inflated with compressed air (Coast Guard/SOLAS rafts must undergo an operational inflation, using the raft’s own CO2 canister, every 10 years) in order to undergo the prescribed battery of tests for leaks. Additionally, the raft will be checked for deterioration of the fabric and metal components. Rafts that have gotten wet in their valises and canisters frequently suffer some damage, sometimes irreparable. Perishable items &mdash such as flares (three years), batteries (one year), food (five years) and water (five years) &mdash should be replaced. CO2 bottles must be hydrostatically tested every five years.

Most life-raft service facilities will allow you to make an appointment to see your raft while it is inflated. This will afford you the opportunity to see and analyze the contents of the survival pack (and add a few personal items, such as eye glasses and prescription meds), as well as assessing the size and features of your raft. Keep in mind, however, that life-raft service facilities are for-profit businesses, and as such, their time and the time of their employees is valuable. The management would doubtfully welcome an all-day visit. Twenty minutes or half an hour is all you should need to inspect and familiarize yourself with the above-mentioned items.

Once you are in a raft, your fate is in the hands of the folks who listen for EPIRB signals, if you are fortunate. However, the notion of self-reliance is valid and can be carried with you into the life raft. The best survival tool you possess is your intellect and experience. Learn about your raft, know it, its equipment and how it all works, or doesn’t work, before you really need it. n

Contributing Editor Steve D’Antonio is a freelance writer and the boatyard manager at Zimmerman Marine in Cardinal, Va.

By Ocean Navigator