Small Boats For Big Emergencies

The most important consideration for storing a valise-type life raft is whether you have enough space to put the raft in a locker or belowdecks. A valise-packed raft is much more prone to water damage and chafe, so its storage location is a serious consideration. Many smaller vessels opt for a canister simply because they cannot accommodate storing a life raft down below. A dedicated locker in the cockpit would be the ideal spot for a valise, but only if you can guarantee the locker is free of leaks and sharp edges and is always accessible underway. If you store a raft in a locker it must be made clear to all crewmembers that nothing is to be placed on top of or around the raft that might hinder extracting it during an emergency. The minutes that you spend digging your way to the escape craft might just cost you your life.

A couple of the yachts whose owners I interviewed that carried valise-packed rafts stored them in the cabin while anchorage hopping, but the rafts were moved on deck while on passage. Both vessels had Sunbrella covers made, which provide excellent UV protection but only moderate defense against water. This system works in theory because most life rafts, both valise and canister models, are now vacuum-packed in heavy metallic bags to prevent water ingress, but it is not recommended.

On board Kate, our Newport 41, we store our life raft down below, just to starboard of the companionway, behind the nav table in a little nook that the designers considered a sea berth. From there, it is an easy grab and hoist up the stairs into the cockpit. Located nearby is our ditch bag, a Pelican case with boat documents and passports, the satellite phone and an empty extra-large dry bag. It’s one-stop shopping in case of emergency. I admit that I feel a bit like a Scotsman at a caber toss when maneuvering the beast up the companionway stairs, but I can do it without assistance or adrenaline.

What is often overlooked — and is of the utmost importance — is serviceability. After all, what good is carrying a life raft aboard if you cannot get regular safety checks and maintenance done on it?

Most manufacturers recommend having a life raft serviced every three years. Inspection should always be done by a certified service agent endorsed by your raft’s manufacturer. Each brand has specific packing techniques, test points and perishables on board that need to be examined and possibly replaced. If an unauthorized person services your life raft, the manufacturer is likely to void any warranty or responsibility if there are defects with the product or you experience an equipment failure. So where you are sailing and how long you’re gone should heavily influence which brand of life raft you buy.

In 2008, when we were fitting out Kate, we decided to carry a RescYou life raft made by Viking. Our initial plan was to sail from the United States to Australia, with a later possibility of continuing on to a circumnavigation. We looked at a number of manufacturers and, in the end, went with Viking because its life rafts are carried on cruise ships and container ships; it’s also the brand often used on gas platforms and oil rigs throughout the world. Worldwide sales means worldwide service. Although, as we found out, there are few service agents in the smaller islands of the South Pacific.

Many service centers will let you watch the inflation and inspection of your life raft, and I highly recommend taking them up on it. One couple from Washington that I spoke with reported they were even able to arrange a visit to the service center while shopping for a life raft so they could inspect the raft and all of its components before purchase. Getting to witness the mechanics of how a life raft is deployed and inflated means you will know what to expect when and if you need to do it yourself. Familiarizing yourself with the look and feel of the raft means there will be fewer surprises when you’re ready to crawl inside.

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