While it's common knowledge that life vests and signaling instruments are essential safety devices required by the United States Coast Guard, most boaters don't put a lot of thought into safety gear. Think about the situation that may arise if you're ever forced to egress. You may believe that you're a fit individual and can float around in the ocean for hours on end, but think about your passengers.
What if you have children, elderly individuals or the family dog on board? Do you have the same faith they can hold on until rescue arrives? While keeping your passengers out of the water is vital, life rafts serve a secondary purpose—they are substantially more visible to search and rescue crews.
For commercial operators the rule is clear and concise. The life raft you select is dependent on the number of passengers onboard and the distance from the coast at which your vessel regularly operates. As a recreational boater you don't have to abide by the same stiff regulations, but at the very least you should be fully aware of your options.
For the recreational operator there are two categories of life rafts—coastal and offshore. Coastal rafts are rated for use less than 10-miles from shore, while offshore rafts are for those who routinely venture over the horizon. Offshore life rafts are designed to extend survival time by including noteworthy features such as supported canopies and double chambered buoyancy tubes.
When purchasing a life raft you must first identify where it will be stored on your vessel. Both coastal and offshore life rafts can be packed in a hand carry valise or mounted canister. Valise packs are advantageous because they can be deployed and boarded from any point of the vessel. They can be placed in a shaded and dry area of the vessel, and removed for safe storage when not in use. The downside of a valise is that they can be cumbersome and heavy for some to deploy.
Canister packed life rafts offer peace of mind knowing that your life raft will self-deploy once your vessel sinks, although they can be deployed manually by releasing the hydrostatic holding strap. There are disadvantages to a canister. Sitting in the sun your life raft literally bakes in the canister. In addition, moisture can penetrate the canister and damage the life raft. If unable to manually deploy, you will have to wait until the hydrostatic system releases the life raft. There is also a higher chance of theft or losing the raft overboard in rough seas. Whichever you select, spare no expense and make sure it is the best available option for your particular needs, desires and application.
Among recreational boaters there are many mixed feelings about carrying a life raft. You're either for it or against it. Many feel that it is an added expense that can be spent on other items such as EPIRBs, PLBs, and/or radio equipment. This equipment is all necessary, but a life raft is paramount.
As a retired U.S.C.G. Senior Chief Aviation Survivalman, I know a great deal about hypothermia and cold water drowning. Although the subtropical climate surrounding the state of Florida offers relatively warm waters year-round, hypothermia is a real possibility. In fact, it's a serious threat. Fishermen who deal with arctic temperatures know that if they go in the water, they have very little time to live. Because of this, they prepare for the worst. In subtropical locales people believe that because the water is "warm" they will be fine if forced to abandon ship. According to the U.S.C.G Boat Crew Seamanship manual, if the water temp is 70°, most adults have no more than 7-hours before exhaustion or unconsciousness sets in. With 80° degree water temperature, the survival period is extended to no more than 12-hours. In addition, safety experts estimate that nearly half of all drowning victims are a result of hypothermia.
When purchasing a life raft you should take a close look at the equipment carried in the survival equipment package. Some rafts are outfitted with a basic equipment package that contains an air pump, bailer bucket, raft repair kit, flares, knife and survival manual. Smaller rafts may only have an air pump with no survival supplies whatsoever. Others feature extensive packages with whistles, sponges, paddles, seasick tablets, watertight flashlights, drinking water, food rations, first-aid kits and thermal protective aides.
When it comes to necessary features you should first look for an inflatable floor. This will place a four to six-inch barrier between you and the water. Double-layered floors insulate passengers from the elements, as the surrounding water will be colder than your core body temperature. A thin piece of rubber between you and the water will actually suck the warmth from your body through conduction. In the case of a life raft, you can add convection heat loss due to the movement of water under the raft. To improve seaworthiness life raft rafts use a combination of water-filled ballast pockets and a sea anchor. Most feature designs that enable them to right to the correct upright position during deployment—even in dangerous waves or strong winds. You should also look for a platform-boarding ladder, rear-boarding ladder, rainwater catcher, boarding handles, and double-taped buoyancy chamber seams.
If you have all of the survival tools in the world and never have to use them, you are considered a survivor. If you have no survival tools when you need them, you will most likely become a statistic. If you're convinced you don't need a life raft for yourself, consider adding one to your vessel for the safety of your family and friends. If it's ever needed, it will turn out to be the best investment of your life. – Randy Boone, Marine Survival Technologies
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