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Life Raft Selection
Selecting a Life Raft
Do you need a life raft?
Do you need a life raft, and if you do, what type
should you purchase? To help you choose the
best style for where and how you use your boat,
consider some factors that might impact your safe
recovery: Cold water will place you at risk of hy-
pothermia. A remote location will delay the arrival
of rescuers. Rough water and changeable weather
patterns will require your crew to take shelter. If you
conclude that you do need a raft (or are required to
have one), we have grouped our selection into four
categories. We also are including for reference the
internationally-recognized standards that apply to
sub-categories of each type, so you will know what
these mean when you read them.
What type? Life rafts matched with
I. Near-shore boating
Including locations up to 15 miles from shore, in all
types of waterways, within VHF radio or cell phone
range, and in close proximity to Search and Rescue
(SAR) assets from the Coast Guard or other agencies.
In warm-water environments, you may not need a raft,
but you might consider having an inflatable or rigid
dinghy available for rapid deployment. With colder cli-
mates (the Northeast, Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest,
Northern California, for example), you should strongly
consider carrying a near-shore or coastal raft to keep
you and your crew out of the water when operating in
frigid temperatures. Hypothermia can kill anyone im-
mersed in 50 water in just two hours, and will quickly
render you unable to function. (A VHF radio is a critical
safety item just about anywhere.)
II. Coastal boating
Including locations up to 50 miles from shore, in
areas where large amounts of shipping traffic are
present, within easy reach of Coast Guard assets.
One of the myths about boating is that coastal wa-
ters are somehow less threatening and require less
rigorous safety gear than the open ocean. While it
is true that your proximity to the coast may allow
you to get to shelter before a storm or to get as-
sistance more quickly than if you were further off-
shore, coastal sea conditions are frequently worse
than those offshore, especially near points of land.
Chances are you'll spend less time in a raft-hours
rather than days-when close to shore, because you'll
wash ashore or be found sooner. Rafts used for coastal
boating need to be seaworthy, but can include less
gear for long-term survival than offshore rafts.
Non-ISO-rated Coastal life rafts:
Most rafts have
a single buoyancy tube and either a manually- or
automatically-erected canopy. Ballast systems vary,
ranging from a single ballast bag about the size of a
loaf of bread, to the four large bags included on the
better Coastal models.
Coastal ISO 9650-2 life rafts:
Coastal rafts are
rated for locations where moderate conditions may
be met, in areas such as coastal waters, large bays,
estuaries, lakes and rivers. They are required to
have two independent tubes, self-erecting canopies
and larger ballast bags.
III. Offshore boating
Including locations in areas where reliable search and
rescue assets are available and COSPAS/SARSAT
coverage is present (in the event you need to activate
an EPIRB emergency beacon). Far from land, rescue
agencies and safe harbors, you must have a raft in
which you can survive for a week or more. Rafts for
offshore use should be more commodious, and should
have greater stability to survive storms at sea.
Offshore ISO 9650-1 and ISAF-approved life
Rafts made to these specs are designed for
extended offshore or trans-oceanic voyages, where
strong wind and significant wave heights may be
experienced, but excluding abnormal atmospheric
conditions such as hurricanes. These more strin-
gent requirements are recognized by governments
around the world as ISO 9650-1. Two independent,
stacked tubes provide redundant flotation should
one chamber become damaged. The stacked tube
design also provides more freeboard. Many have
two entrances, and all have self-erecting canopies.
Most will have deep triangular or rectangular bal-
last bags and a large drogue for stability. If you're
competing in an ocean race like the Transpac or
the Bermuda Race, there will be requirements for
approval by ISAF (the International Sailing Federa-
tion). Check the Offshore Special Regulations for
the complete list of requirements, and consider at-
tending one of the Safety-at-Sea seminars held in
advance of these races.
SOLAS Trans-oceanic life rafts:
Intended for the
toughest conditions, with water temperatures below
41F, these rafts include the most extensive list of
equipment, and are the most heavily built, to allow
self-sufficient survival for extended periods of time.
Used primarily on vessels larger than a typical cruis-
ing boat, SOLAS rafts are carried onboard boats in
round-the-world races like the Volvo Ocean Race.
IV. Commercial applications
Life rafts for commercial vessels have their own set
of requirements, concerning carriage of SOLAS A
or SOLAS B accessory packs, among other unique
Do you need an insulated floor?
Insulated floors are desirable in all rafts, even in
warm water, due to the discomfort that comes from
sitting on sub-body temperature surfaces. Although
many record-breaking life raft survival episodes
have occurred in single floor
rafts, all survivors wished they
had an insulated raft floor. If you
use your boat in waters colder
than 65-70, we strongly recom-
mend this option.
Valise or canister
If you are going to store your
raft on deck, your raft must be
Valise or canister storage?
Modern boats are wonders of reliability. They sel-
dom sink or catch fire. When they do, the ocean
(or even your local inland lake) is an inhospitable
environment to be thrown into. You need the
protection supplied by a life raft. Many experts
believe that an onboard fire (started by a short
in the electrical system or flammables or explo-
sive materials in the engine room) or a collision
with a floating object (such as a shipping cargo
container or large marine mammal) are the most
likely scenarios where you'll need to rapidly get
off your boat.
Prudent offshore boaters prepare for these types
of worst-case situations and create Standard Op-
erating Procedures, or SOPs, to overcome emer-
gencies. An SOP for abandoning ship should be
one of these, describing an organized method of
assembling the crew and departing the sinking
vessel. Abandoning ship into the raft should al-
ways be the choice of last resort, hence the axiom
that you should always STEP UP from the boat
into the raft. There are tragic accounts of boaters
who perished in their relatively tiny and unshel-
tered rafts, after abandoning damaged vessels
that were later found adrift, afloat and uninhab-
ited. Board your raft only when all other options
Do you need a life raft?
Viking RescYou Pro is a natural rubber raft (with a
rubbery smell not found in some other fabrics). Blue
inner lining to minimize sickness. Two curtained
windows allow you to see the horizon. It is self-righting.
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