Introduction

The last thing on your mind when you go out boating is ditching your craft. But accidents happen, be it from weather-related issues, or boat malfunction. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard reported an 11.3% increase from 2016 to 2017 in boating fatalities. It pays to be prepared.

A life raft is designed to keep everyone together and out of the water, providing protection from the elements and creating a larger visual while awaiting rescue. It is the single most important safety equipment you never hope to use. 

In the market for a life raft or needing to care for the one you bought or possibly inherited with your boat purchase? We created your one-stop shop for all things life rafts, from buying to servicing.

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Types of Life Rafts

Life rafts are classified based on their intended use (or your style of boating) as either Coastal, Offshore, or Transoceanic. The biggest difference between the classifications are generally freeboard, weight, ballasting and additional survival equipment.

Coastal
Coastal life rafts are designed with the coastal cruiser, mid-shore sport-fisherman and day-sailor in mind, with its intended use for short-term emergency use. If you are going less than 100 miles offshore, a Coastal Life Raft with its lower freeboard and canopy will suffice until help arrives.

Offshore
If canyon is part of your vocabulary, you’ll need an offshore life raft. With double buoyancy tubes and additional ballasting for the higher and rougher seas, the offshore life raft offers greater protection.

Transoceanic
Transoceanic rafts offer world-class safety for those who venture beyond the horizon. Crossing the ocean? Transoceanic rafts are built from the bottom up to keep you safe and give you peace of mind in any sea condition.

When do you need a SOLAS and USCG approved raft? If you are selling your catch or use your boat for commercial use, then you need a SOLAS or USCG approved raft. If you are unsure, check with your local marine safety office to see which type of life raft you may require.

What to Look for when Purchasing Life Rafts

Purchasing a life raft can be overwhelming, but there are some key features you should look for that will make it as easy as checking items off a checklist.

Materials and Construction

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?
    The stronger rafts are constructed from double-coated nylon, locking in the air and providing better protection from leaks with two redundant internal buoyancy sleeves.
  • How are the buoyancy tubes attached and assembled?
    You’ll want to look for rafts that are heat-sealed at the seams rather than cemented together as cement degrades over time and off-gasses.
  • What is the inflation mechanism?
    Air vs. CO2? In addition to a faster inflation, compressed air inflation brings a host of solutions like reliability across all temperatures and a pressure gauge allowing you to see the pressure, letting you know your raft is ready to deploy.
  • What testing does the manufacturer conduct on both raw materials and finished products?
    Testing should be built into every step of the manufacturers process. Here at SWITLIK, from the moment raw materials are received on-site, we begin testing the fabric to ensure everything is up to specification. The material is stretched to test tear strength, breaking strength, burst and then cured in the oven to check the coating of the material. If the material fails any of the tests, it is sent back. Throughout the production process, an individual inspector investigates each and every partially finished product to verify seals and check for defects. Just like in the materials test, if the test is failed, the product is sent back.

Features
All life rafts come standard with a water-activated light, sea anchor, heaving ring and knife but that’s where a lot of similarities end. Higher-end life rafts will offer additional features making it easier to board and keeping you better protected from the elements, while not compromising rescue efforts.

A convertible canopy system with multiple boarding points allows for rapid and unobstructed boarding during an emergency, without entering the water. Rafts featuring this system inflate with the canopy still furled, allowing for easier boarding from either the water or your vessel. Once in the raft, you can quickly inflate the arch tubes with a separate inflation system, keeping them isolated from the main buoyancy chamber.

Inflatable floors are usually add-on items for when boating in colder water, further insulating you.

Ballast
Not all ballast systems are created equal. Shapes can vary from rectangular, Icelandic or hemispherical. You’ll want to look for the bigger weighted ones when selecting the right raft. Especially for the offshore and transoceanic rafts, you need a really reliable ballasting system.

Toroidal Stability Device is complete wrap-around ballasting that covers the entire perimeter of the underside of the raft with multiple, weighted, water-holding chambers. TSD provides the stability to withstand downwash from rescue helicopters.

Servicing
Service intervals can range from 1, 3, to 5 years. Its recommended you check with the manufacturer to determine the service interval for the raft you are looking at. A longer service interval will limit the down-time and expense associated with ownership of a life raft.

Capacity
In general, a life raft's capacity is defined by its total size in floor area and inflated buoyancy. You’ll want to consider the number of your crew and passengers, as well as your typical journey length to determine your capacity needs.

Using Your Raft

Abandoning your ship is always your last resort. That being said, you should always be prepared to use your life raft and preparation is key to seamless execution during moments of duress.

You should be familiar with how to work your life raft. SWITLIK life rafts come with a manual and list of survival equipment packed within the raft. Take the time to read those materials and determine if you need any additional survival equipment—hint, you will need additional equipment. Have your ditch bag located near your life raft.

When the time comes to fire your raft, you need a solid understanding of how that process works. While there is no method appropriate for all scenarios, the basic steps are:

  • Release raft
  • Throw raft overboard
  • Haul in line
  • Pull line hard
  • Board raft
  • Cast off

Remember, it takes 20 to 25 pounds of force or more to actuate the inflation valve so you’ll really need it give it a hard tug, then you’ll be greeted by the sweet view of your life raft inflating. What will your life raft actually look like? Check out our Coastal Passage Raft inflating and the Offshore Passage Raft inflating to get an idea of what you’ll need to do.

Servicing

At the end of the day, there are two essential functions of the life raft: it must inflate and it must hold air. The only way to test those two functions is through regular inspection. Regular inspection ensures your life raft will perform as it is designed. While servicing is typically looked at as an expense, regular servicing will increase the life expectancy and your confidence in having proper equipment on board.

Life raft servicing extends beyond just repairing the raft, there are a number of tests run to inspect and monitor different features within the life raft. All life raft servicing needs to be done by a certified technician, one slight wrong fold, or even just the improper placement of an item within a packed raft can create catastrophic consequences during an emergency.

Find a service center near you!

 

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CPR Coastal Passage Raft OPR Offshore Passage Raft SAR-6 Transoceanic
Heat-Sealed Seams X X X
Air Charge Inflation System X X X
Convertible Canopy System X X X
4 Reinforced Boarding Steps X X X
5 Year Service Interval X X X
Inflatable Floor Optional X X
Hard Canister or Valise? X X X
Toroidal Stability Device Optional Optional X
Buoyancy Tube Fabric Polyurethane Coated Nylon Polyurethane Coated Nylon or 840 Denier Double Coated Nylon 840 Denier Double Coated Nylon
Freeboard 12.83 in. 19.5 in. 20.5 in.
Floor Area (Total) 10.1 sq. ft. 24 sq. ft. 24.5 sq. ft.
Inflated Raft Dimensions 84.79 in. width at flats 83.98 in. width at flats 99 in. L x 69 in. W x 48.5 in. H

 

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