Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Life Raft Conundrum

If you intend to navigate more than 6 nautical miles from shore, French regulations stipulate that you must have a life raft on board.  These rafts come compressed in containers the size of a largish suitcase and are inflated automatically by a pressurized CO2 system that is tripped by pulling a sort of rip-cord.  The rafts come in several sizes depending on the number of people on board and are equipped with emergency tools and supplies for either 1) a rescue probable within 24 hours or 2) a rescue with a wait of longer than 24 hours.  

Ours is a < 24 hour model but augmented with a grab bag containing all the items found in the > 24 hour version plus other items we don’t want to be without while bobbing around waiting for a lift. 

Life raft in container; grab bag; and deployed life raft.

The basics to add for > 24 hours are a set of emergency flares, thermal protective blankets, a first aid kit, 1 liter of water per person, and 500 grams of food rations per person.  To this, we will also add a portable VHF radio, an EPIRB (GPS emergency position-indicating radio beacon), a bailing bucket and sponges, glow sticks, a water-tight flash light, a small compass and navigation ruler, a fog horn, a sac of batteries (for flash light and radio), a fishing line, 2 baseball hats and sun screen, and photocopies of all our important papers.

And after having read the survival manual stored inside one-such life raft, you can bet that I won’t be abandoning ship without my red lipstick and pantyhose.  Now, the official story is that the lip stick is useful for writing a brief message on the limp body of your companion to signal to your rescuers exactly what is wrong with him / her in the case that he / she is air-lifted out of the raft before you.  The pantyhose, we’re told, are useful for straining the water to capture plankton for a light snack.  Frankly, I’m not buying it.  I think these two items have been suggested in a sorely misguided attempt to provide (uh-hum) “entertainment” during a possibly long wait.  (Well yes, in fact, it was a French survival manual, now that you mention it…).

So far, so good.  But the conundrum is where to store your life raft.  If you’re lucky, you boat has been designed with the life raft in mind and has its own dedicated storage space under the helmsman’s seat or in a special compartment on the transom.  Unfortunately, this is quite rare, especially on older boats, and alternatives must be found.

Of the 23 different boats we’ve sailed on, the majority simply store their life raft in the bottom of the cockpit locker.  This is a fine place for it.  It’s out of the way and in a protected location.  The only problem with this is that it is highly improbable that you will ever be able to get it out of the locker if you ever need it in a hurry (and when would you ever need it not in a hurry?).  These suckers weigh about 35 kilos (~75 pounds), and most cockpit lockers are deep, meaning that you have to get down on your knees and lean over waist-deep to even get your hands on it (after, that is, removing the bucket, the hawsers, the water hose, and the spinnaker sack that will inevitably be stored on top of it). Did I mention the saloon is on fire and you’re taking on water in a storm?

Some forward thinkers have hooked up their rafts to a pulley system that will allow them to hook one end to the boom and then hoist the raft out of the cockpit locker with the pulleys, but if you’re in an abandon-ship situation, you may not be able hook up such a system in a rush, especially if you’ve lost the mast or can’t control the boom.

The rule of thumb is that the weakest member of the crew should be able to launch the raft with one arm (the other being broken, of course).  The above-mentioned situation, even with a pulley system, won’t work for either of us.

A good method is to fix the raft to the railing of the balcony above the transom with a stainless steel support.  But your boat has to have a sufficiently strong and wide balcony to bear this weight on a rolling ship, and if you have a relatively light boat like ours (a svelte 4.5 tonnes) you have to think about balancing out all the major weights in the boat, such as the fuel tank, the water tank, etc.  Our balcony just doesn’t look strong enough or wide enough for this, and it would have to be placed on the same side as the water tank.

Our remaining option is to fix the life raft to the coach roof, in front of the companionway and behind the mast.  Here, the weight of the raft is centered and it is high relative to the surrounding deck, so it can be pushed, rather than lifted, into the water.  The drawbacks are that the coach roof was never designed to take this kind of load and depending on the boat and/or the life raft, its placement here can limit visibility forward and interfere with the boom downhaul.

Raft tied to coachroof.
When we did our test sail on Zephyr, Antoine and Caroline had the life raft rigged this way, sitting flat on a no-skid mat and wrapped up snugly with an impressive web of 20 meters of strapping.  They said it never budged during their entire trans-Atlantic voyage, despite some rough weather.  In this configuration, a good sharp knife is kept handy in the companionway to cut away the lines in a hurry.  Fortunately, the visibility forward wasn’t affected and it was low enough that it didn’t touch the boom downhaul.

Patrick and I decided that we would keep the raft on the coach roof, but that we would get fancy and buy a stainless steel support that is screwed or bolted to the deck.  The advantages are that the support offers a quick-release system and comes with a lock (since, sadly, life rafts have been known to disappear if left unlocked on the deck). 

Our raft with quick-release straps.
But after reading up on life raft positioning in the sailing forums, I had a change of heart.  Stories abound of waves and knock-downs ripping the support from the coach roof, leaving holes where the support screws used to be.  As a general rule, I don’t like putting holes, even small ones, in the boat if not absolutely necessary, so these stories sent a shiver up my spine.  On a more practical note, when we saw the system at the ship chandler’s, we noticed that the stainless steel tubes were 3 cm high.  That small 3 cm was just enough for our raft to touch the boom downhaul, and we could imagine it getting snagged each time we tacked. 

So we decided that the system of Antoine and Caroline was perfectly well-adapted to the situation after all and that we would simply use individual quick-release straps rather than a single 20 m line to fix the raft to the deck. 

We’re still trying to figure out how to add a lock system to this configuration.  A word of advice to would-be boat buyers: look carefully at the life raft placement possibilities.  This shouldn’t be an afterthought.  And don’t forget the emergency lipstick and pantyhose, either.


Astrolabe Sailing said...

Lol the pantyhose and lipstick made me laugh! Gosh I never would have considered using lipstick for writing a note on a body... perhaps I'll add a permanent marker instead...?!

Good tips on the positioning of the raft. We envisioned using the locker in the floor by the transom, but is that not a good spot? I worry too about them being on the coachroof sitting in the sun and weather all day every day.

Hope you are well.
Viki :)

Sailing Mareda said...

For the record, we don't have lipstick or stockings in the grab bag ! On Mareda, we have the raft in the floor locker by the transom. It's a great spot and once the transom swim platform is let down, the raft can be easily pushed out. On Spray (our Dehler 34 when this article was written) we had no choice.