Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Your Life Raft Might Not Save Your Life...

Image found here.
...in fact, it might not even inflate in your hour of need.  And I don't think I need to tell anyone just how badly that would suck considering the general rule of thumb is not to step into a life raft until your primary vessel has all but sunk from underneath you.

One of the perks of this blog is the fact that we have some pretty savvy followers who have advised, assisted and helped us on more than one occasion.  Many are active cruisers and sailors and pretty keen to share pertinent information with us when they see fit, and we have benefitted many times thanks to the brains of others.

Brian, a blog follower turned friend who actually helped us deliver our boat from the Bahamas to the BVI's back in May, just sent us the following excerpt from a thread on life rafts in an Allberg 30 forum he belongs to.  Knowing that we have a canister life raft stowed on the deck of our boat, he thought we might find it "of interest".  I most certainly did find it interesting and I think you will too so I am reprinting it here for you.  The following is reposted with the permission of the author, Gord Laco, who happens to be a marine historical consultant with a very interesting and very impressive resume.  In fact, I would very much like to meet the man!

Good day - 

My only direct experience with life rafts was when I served as a consultant on the television show 'Survivorman' in which Les Stroud is sent into various environments and copes for five days with what one might expect to have at hand. Sometimes he's been in the desert, sometimes a swamp, the one I did with him was assuming he'd had to abandon a yacht at sea and live in a life raft for five days. 

The production company made a deal with a popular life raft company for the use of one of their four person life rafts; but they backed out at the last minute suggesting that a five day test of a life raft was unrealistic...their representative said 'in this day and age anyone anywhere should expect rescue in two days'. 

I reckon he doesn't read the news nor books much. 

We were in a pickle; there we were in Belize about to set Les adrift but without a raft. I hit upon the idea of renting a raft from a yacht actually on a voyage; there were several yachts around, I knew people would probably be glad of the cash and it would add an interesting story point to be using a 'real' raft in the midst of a voyage. 

The first two rafts we tried (and you can guess where this is going) which had both been stored in on-deck canisters, inflated correctly when the lanyard was pulled. The first literally fell to pieces before our eyes. You should have seen the look on the owner's face. The glue had perished and the raft sank as a bunch of sheets of hypalon rubber. 

The second raft didn't quite fall to pieces, but it leaked so badly that we couldn't use it. You should have seen the look on that fellow's face too. 

The third raft blew up and...and.... Stayed inflated. However, when we opened the emergency kit, we found twice the amount of food in the container, but no water. You should have seen the look on that fellow's face. 

Each of these rafts were by name-brand manufacturers you'd all know. The first two were older, past their first and second "re-pack" cycles and had been stored in deck canisters and I reckon baking in the sun is what did them in. The first one was three years past it's repack date, the second one year past, as was the third. 

We gave Les a very old Zodiac inflatable boat (editor note: to use in conjunction with the third life raft) reckoning that it was reasonable to assume a sailor abandoning ship would bring his dink. 

Les ended up living during the day in the life raft to get out of the sun, but he had to work steadily to keep it inflated and also bailed out. It leaked through it's bottom. 

The ancient Zodiac however, performed flawlessly and he slept in it at night. Which was fine except when it rained in which case he really suffered. 

So what did I come away from that with? Always observe the repack dates. And with regard to stowage - most certainly on-deck stowage is best with regard to getting the raft over the side; but beware the effect of the sun baking your raft while you're sailing. I'd suggest only putting it out on deck when you're making a passage. 

Well there's another long message, I hope it's interesting.


So there you have it.

Just like everything related to cruising, there are vast and passionate arguments on the necessity and/or practicality of having a dedicated "life raft" on board (some say a dinghy will do just fine and that to spend so much money on something that is akin to potentially bad insurance isn't worth it or that having one is false security and might cause you to "abandon ship" when, really, you should not).  While I am certainly glad we have our life raft on deck (and, yes, it is current) - this definitely gives us something to think about... (and yet another "action item" on our to do list: make sure life raft is regularly serviced).  Safety gear is something we have plenty of on our boat (we are, after all, super conservative cruisers) and it's sort of assumed it will work as planned, but there are many stories of such items (including inflatable PFD's) not working properly - or at all - when they are needed most which is a very good way to make a really, really bad situation infinitely worse.  Not sure what the answer is, but it's definitely something to be mindful of before you head out to the big blue and begin selecting your safety gear.

Thank you, Gord Laco, your knowledge and findings and thank you, Brian, for sharing them with us. 


Hedonistic Values said...

That's just frightening. There are so many things to keep in mind and "risk manage." But you can only do what you know to do. How many of us blindly trust the packagers of things as essential as a life raft? How many other possibilities of "danger" exist that we haven't even thought about yet, or haven't heard of yet? SOOO glad to have this in mind now, and not when it's needed. For that matter, I hope that we, nor anyone, will ever have the need to put their life raft to the test, but we all know someone will. I just hope they will be safe in their raft and quickly rescued. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I've also heard stories about life rafts which have been repacked by the manufacturer dutifully according to the requirements by the owner who paid big bucks for this "service", only to find when the time came to use the raft that it was not packed with items such as water, or viable necessities to ensure survival as advertised. knives not worth a damn, water cans without openers, inedible food, etc. In the event of an emergency which forces you to abandon ship, it is imperative to have your own readied ditch bag, complete with food, water, and other items necessary for survival such as fishing line and hooks, complete medical kit, sun block, lotion for salt water sores and more. Even if your raft inflates properly, and you have been able to take with you a fully stocked ditch bag, there is still the unfortunate truth that you will be at the mercy of the currents and wind without being able to direct your life raft in a direction towards the nearest land of your choosing. None of the usually used life rafts have any sort of sail to be able to use the wind, nor a steering device of any sort, which to me would do well to lessen the length of time one has to survive when left to the vagaries of the harsh mistress of the sea. Self check your life raft, and self pack it, or at the least be there in the factory if you can with them when they do it for you so to keep a weather eye on what you are paying dearly for, it just might save your life.

George said...

Great post!! Along with making sure your life raft is properly inspected and current, a little bit of training goes a long way. Last year I went to a fantastic open water survival training event on the Long Island Sound where we had to deploy, enter, and use all of the safety equipment of a life raft. The training also included a classroom session that was full of great information.

As far as the life raft goes, ours inflated upside down so we got to practice righting it in the water, which isn't really that easy (at least not for the size of life raft that we were using.) Although the training really only scratched the surface, if I ever need to use a life raft in real life I will be glad that it won't be the first time.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

It is also interesting to note that many sailors deflate and stow their dinghy on long passages. I have always reflected on this and wondered if it wasn't a better idea to keep it inflated and inverted in an out of the way place. It could be a vital rescue vehicle.

Anonymous said...

I think a hard dinghy with a floatation ring and a sailing kit would be a better and cheaper solution. With regular use, one would also know if it needed repair.

Unknown said...

I like what Del Viento has written about the Portland Pudgy and hard-sided dinghy/lifeboat. they seem reliable

Lynsey said...

For the risk of sun and sea damage ours is kept in the saloon unless we are doing a long day/night passage whereby it is brought out and strapped to the deck purely for this reason. It's a life saving piece of kit that should be kept out of the elements as much as possible.

The overall consensus most of the time is that it's a life raft therefore it must be made of indestructible materials, wrong! Thanks for sharing!

Mike Boyd said...

As we are just now purchasing a boat that originally came with a life raft but it is now missing, I've been debating if it is worth replacing it. Seems to me that a good RIB tender would likely be in better repair (as someone above noted, you use it so you know its condition) as well as have a possible means of propulsion so you can help yourself.

Seems like having a bright orange tent-like cover for your tender would be a good way to go...if someone makes such a thing. I remember seeing that Survivorman episode and thinking that the Zodiac he had was the better option if he could move the liferaft's cover over to it.


Anonymous said...

I went to the movies and watched "All is Lost." It kind of showed what life in a life raft would be like if you boat was compromised. Thought it depicted pretty good reality that life boats are not as water tight as one might think.

Anonymous said...

I have been in the Marine Safety Industry for over 25 years. Never , ever attempt to repack a liferaft yourself. It should be done at a manufacturers approved facility. I highly recommend you see the liferaft opened in the facility. It can be expensive to repack your liferaft , but you will be glad it was done correctly if needed.

As for attempting to plan for every emergency contingency , it is impossible to do so. having a well stocked ditch bag and a Cat 1 EPIRB will help rescue time.

Never think an Inflatable boat is a substitute for an emergency liferaft. If you have to abandon your vessel and can bring both great. The exposure risk and instability make then a poor choice.

Andrew said...

I wouldn't want to be in a dinghy in any kind of stormy sea state, not that boats only sink in storms but if you're luck has completely run out that your boat sinks I would plan on some nasty weather to go with your life raft ride, granted if the choice is being in the water with a PFD or the dink I'll take the dink, although in bad seas those two problems will likely come together. But as others have said, a dinghy isn't a good choice here, right tool for the job kind of thing.

That said, from the 9-5 world managing risk is a process and not just doing one or two things, for the cruiser who is island hopping the Bahama's a dinghy may be sufficient to ditch in (or just stand up and walk to the next island ;) ). The cruiser crossing the Pacific and will be 1000+ miles from shore on a less traveled shipping route will want/need a whole lot more, in that case I would want to make sure my life raft maker is going to give me a raft that lasts longer than 2 days.

Or just get a cat, I hear they don't sink. -grin-

Jessie said...

This is a useful post. Thanks :) my husband and I are prepping to leave in October for a year of cruising. There are, of course, a thousand items on our to-do list, one of which was to recert our life raft. My husband did as Anonymous recommended above and watched the vessel be opened and inflated at the facility. In addition to feeling reassured that the raft was indeed capable of inflating properly, he also now feels more confident that in an emergency, we'd be better prepared to exit our sailboat. We were also able to request some spare supplies be repacked in the boat and now know exactly what we have in the raft; hence, we now also know what we need to have in our ditchbag to complement those items. It was pricey, $800 (gulp...), but we figure it will be worth should we ever (knock on wood) need it.

Roman said...

I don't have any connection with the company but ... the comment about relying upon your dinghy as a pseudo life raft and how normal ones wouldn't last thru severe weather was the reasoning behind the Portland Pudgy. Check it out, just do the Google and read the comments there.

Jessica said...

I remember that even when we were originally planning for a circumnavigation, we had never planned on having a life raft just because of their failure rate. Matt studied up on it, and don't quote me here, but it was something like 'Of 50 life rafts, 25 didn't inflate, of the 25 that did only 12 stayed inflated for over 24 hours...ect'. Pretty scary stuff when you put your faith into it possibly saving your life.

After our accident we did decide that one might be in order, because if the same thing happened when we weren't near shore or help, the story could have ended very differently. We now have a brand new (Ugh, can't remember the name, starts with an R) that we keep in the lazarette most of the time, but bring into the cockpit for passages. Let's hope we never have to use it, but I'm still glad to know it's there.

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JP said...

Top tip that.

I remember the preparation for the ARC there was a session where you could test your old flares using those past their expiry date. It was significant how many of them failed to light.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is amazing! Thanks for sharing so precious moments with us.
I tried to figure out what boat you had but wasn't sure...is it the 1st on on this list?


great article.
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