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Photo courtesy of VIKING
Photo courtesy of VIKING

Selecting the Right Life Raft

When there is no other option but to abandon ship, having selected the right life raft for your vessel, and the type of boating you do, can mean the difference between life and death. Picking the right life raft can be as important as any other piece of equipment on board and should take more consideration than just the cost factor or the mindset that it will never get used.

I recently spoke with Karen Hansen, the National Yachting Sales Manager for Viking Life-Saving Equipment, a top end manufacturer of life-saving equipment used not only by yachts and cruisers but also in maritime and high seas applications. I asked her to help in what the thought process should be when purchasing a life raft.

Hansen said the first question to consider is what kind of boat you are equipping. Is it a sailboat or powerboat, a sport fish or center console? Each has its best options. Next is where are you going to be boating or cruising? Are you coastal cruising or voyaging far afield? Are you plying coastal waters in colder climates, only in warmer waters, or both? How many people are going to be aboard? Equally important is to question how the raft is built and what kind of materials and equipment are used. Delving deeper into these questions will give some solid answers as to the best raft for your situation.

The question of vessel type and where the raft can be mounted will help decide if a canister or valise raft would be your best option. Hansen says canister rafts are a good option for either power or sailing vessels if they have the deck space to install one. Canister rafts can be equipped with manual activation or hydrostatic release that will activate the raft when submerged (usually between six and 12 feet). If opting for the hydrostatic release option, Hansen adds, “it needs to be installed where it has the ability to float free and not become tangled. Since sailboats have standing rigging, it may not be a good fit. You don’t want your raft deploying only to be trapped or punctured by a shroud.”

Canister rafts can be mounted vertically on a bulkhead or rail mounted. But Hansen does not recommend doing so if rigged with a hydrostatic release on single deck craft unless it has a high freeboard, like a sundeck trawler, because “hydrostatic release units are pressure activated when they reach the designed depth. A following sea crashing down on the stern of a vessel may cause accidental activation.”

Careful consideration for where best to place or mount the raft for deployment and activation may determine which to choose.

Valise life rafts are popular with the larger center console consumer who does not have the deck space to mount a canister, and also for sailors with the appropriate storage. Hanson advises that they should have a dedicated storage home that is not cluttered with other equipment, is easily accessible and dry. Another consideration is that a valise raft needs to be tied off before throwing overboard, so a tie-off point, possibly in the storage locker, is suggested. The question of whether to buy a coastal or offshore raft must also be considered. If you plan on sailing coastal waters but plan further open water voyages in the future then an offshore raft should be your choice. The same is true even if you only plan coastal journeys but they include colder waters and climates. Offshore life rafts include double inflatable floors and are better suited for cold-water rescue. Coastal rafts are designed for rescue within 24 hours, whereas offshore rafts are designed for rescues that will take longer – worth considering if you are on the water in an area that may result in a long wait for rescue. The smallest rafts are four persons but one should consider how many people are normally aboard. Keep in mind friends, family or kids if they travel with you. Offshore rafts are usually roomier with an average four square feet compared to a comparable coastal raft at three square feet.

How the raft is built and the materials used in its construction are very important. Rafts such as those from Viking are ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certified. They are not only built to stringent ISO standards but also ISO tested and third party tested, resulting in well-designed and reliable rafts. Even the best-built rafts require service every three years for recreational life rafts and once a year for US flagged commercial vessels after the first two years. Make sure service is available in the areas in which you plan to cruise, such as is available with Viking’s 350 service stations in 90 countries. If you plan on participating in offshore rallies and races an ISO certified raft will be a necessity.

Small details, like more serviceable hand-glued seams and quality equipment packs such as SOLAS flares, quality paddles and weighted ballast bags, are also important factors to consider, explains Hansen, adding that machine-welded seams have to go back to the factory for repairs, whereas hand-glued seams are easily serviceable. Once selected it is just as important to keep up with the service of your raft, so that if it is needed it will be there and function as it should.

Choose wisely and have the peace of mind knowing it is the best equipment you will hopefully never use.

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