Looking beyond the “box” and “bag”
As much as it pains me to do so, I will admit that when shopping for a life raft, to the untrained eye they all essentially look the same. When looking at life rafts you will typically find a quality/performance/features versus price “value matrix”. Simply put, you get what you pay for. More expensive rafts will be made of more durable materials, have more inherent features, and offer a longer usable life. This brings us to the essential functions of a life raft: It must inflate and it must hold air. Anything outside of those two categories is an additional feature which distinguishes high-end rafts from entry level models. Purchasing a life raft is like purchasing a form of flood/life insurance, and not to sound grim, but looking at the issue from a “price-centric” view is like openly putting a price on your life and the lives of your family, friends and crew.
SOLAS and USCG Certifications
One of the most common questions that I get asked about life rafts is regarding SOLAS (international convention for the Safety of Life At Sea) or USCG (Coast Guard) certification. A certified raft does not necessarily mean “better”, but it does mean “different” primarily in terms of survival equipment packs and capacities. In fact, there are some professional yachting rafts that are built to a better level of quality and will outperform SOLAS and USCG models. The bottom line here is that SOLAS or USCG approved rafts are simply made for commercial use (if you are selling your catch). I always recommend checking with your local marine safety officer to see which type of raft you require.
Inshore, Offshore and Transoceanic
Life rafts are classified based on their intended use (or your style of boating) as either Coastal, Offshore or Transoceanic. Typically, the biggest difference between the classifications are freeboard (Offshore/Transoceanic rafts offer more than Coastal), materials (weight), and ballasting. If “canyon” is a regular part of your vocabulary then you really need an Offshore raft. Fishing shy of the canyons, a Coastal will do just fine (under 100 miles is a good rule of thumb). On the other hand, if you refuse to settle for anything but the best and have the room to mount the big container, a Transoceanic raft will be the ultimate choice for safety and survival.
Construction and Materials
Construction and materials used is arguably the most important factor when considering a life raft. To evaluate a raft’s quality, you want to look at or ask questions about four essential items: What material are the buoyancy tubes made out of? How are the buoyancy tubes attached and assembled? What is the inflation mechanism? What testing does the manufacturer conduct on both raw materials and finished products?
While rubber and neoprene are most common, high-end rafts will have buoyancy tube(s) that are constructed of a double coated nylon fabric. The coating on the fabric is what actually locks the air inside. On high-end rafts, the fabric sections in the buoyancy tubes are actually heat welded and sealed to form a strong fused bond on both sides.
Many lower end brands are using an actual cement (which can even be water soluble in some cases) to connect the sections of their buoyancy tubes. Cementing seams has three major drawbacks: unpleasant odor (think seasickness), shorter overall product life (seams degrade over time), and higher maintenance costs (shorter service intervals needed and more expensive servicing). Traditionally rafts have been inflated with a CO2/nitrogen gas mixture, but the newest wave of high-end rafts are actually being inflated with regular compressed air, which provides a more rapid and stable inflation across a wider array of temperatures and allow for an actual visible pressure gauge for added peace of mind. Finally, all of this is for naught if the manufacturer does not conduct rigorous testing of both raw materials and finished products, which is an important question to ask the raft salesman at the next boat show.
Canopies, Floor, Ballast and Boarding Steps
All rafts will come standard with basic items such as a knife, heaving line, sea anchor, light(s), pump, and repair clamps… but that is where the similarities stop. Canopies are a must-have on life rafts to keep the sea and elements out. High-end rafts feature “convertible canopies” which deploy separately from the main buoyancy tubes. Once inside the raft, a convertible canopy is separately erected then when the time comes to exit the raft, a convertible canopy can be lowered and stowed for easy exit without the need to get into the water. Flooring is simple: if you boat or fish in cold weather make sure to have an inflatable floor as a hypothermia barrier. Ballast gets more complicated. All rafts will come standard with some form of water pockets (look for bigger weighted ones), but the best Offshore rafts will actually feature a toroidal ballast system which wraps around the entire perimeter of the bottom of the raft to keep the raft stable even when subject to the downdraft of a rescue helicopter. You want a raft with two to four points to board and rigid steps to stand or kneel on (as opposed to a simple webbing ladder) for offshore rafts with higher freeboard to climb over.
Valise or Hard Container
Life rafts will either come packed in a soft valise (bag) or a hard container. For center consoles, having a nice compact and light valise is very important, which is why many center console anglers look to higher end brands who offer the smallest and lightest packs on the market. For the larger sportfish boats, a hard container mounted out of the way on the bow where it will be easily accessible is the way to go. With hard containers, you also have the option for rigging with a hydrostatic release which will allow the raft to automatically deploy if the vessel were to sink before the raft could be reached.
The final piece to life raft ownership and purchase consideration is servicing. Trust me, if you plan to buy a raft once and simply leave it on your boat un-touched for fifteen years… don’t waste your money. Yes, servicing is expensive, but it is also very necessary for your raft to properly perform when needed instead of giving you false peace of mind. Also, the longer you wait for servicing, the more expensive your service costs will be, or the raft may have degraded to a point where it is unserviceable. If you are in the market for a raft always ask about expected service costs and intervals, which vary greatly between manufacturers. To make servicing as painless as possible, high-end manufacturers are actually vacuum sealing their rafts inside of a bag before placing them in their valise or container (water sitting on raft fabric for years at a time is the biggest cause of degradation) and offering safe service intervals as long as five years.
…I’ll bet you never realized how much thought actually goes into that “bag” in your console or “box” on your bow!
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