Mike Owen looks at the type, content and position of liferafts and asks: are you ready should you need to use it?

For six days in May last year Britain held its breath as the search went on for Cheeki Rafiki and her crew. Signals had been reported and hopes were kindled that the four crew might have made it into their liferaft, despite the fact that a yacht had been spotted upside-down with no keel. It was not to be. When Cheeki Rafiki was found inverted, the liferaft was still on board in its dedicated stowage space. See our story from May 2014.

We cannot know what happened aboard Cheeki Rafiki, but we do know more about the less widely reported sinking of the Beneteau Oceanis 50 Blue Pearl 900 miles from Bermuda while on passage across the Atlantic, because the three crew and their dog survived.

Blue Pearl sank in storm conditions after a bulkhead broke up and she began taking on water. The crew took to the raft and, exhausted after enduring 8m waves and 40 knot winds, were rescued the next day. The EPIRB they carried into the liferaft alerted rescuers and guided them to the raft.

A stark contrast and, yes, different situations; in one there was time to consider what action to take; in the other it seems not.

The truth is that catastrophes at sea are rare, but for any individual crew there need be only one, so you have to be ready to go at any time. In the extreme between sink and swim there is the liferaft, but can you get to it? On a pitching deck in the dark with panicking crew can you heave it over the side in time? And what about other essential survival kit?

Liferaft – ready to go

Liferaft – ready to go

Classically, a hard-cased canister liferaft sits cradled on the coachroof, transom, pushpit or in the cockpit retained by quick-release straps. Ideally, it would have a hydrostatic pressure release system, which automatically deploys the raft if the boat should sink. Soft-cased valise liferafts, unsuited to long-term exposure, tend to be tucked away below decks or popped into a lazarette or cockpit locker. Incredibly, in this increasingly aesthetic age, many see liferafts as not just heavy and awkward to lug around, but ugly and to be hidden away.

There is no single best solution for where to stow your liferaft, but there is clear value in reviewing this vital asset. Alistair Hackett of safety equipment manufacturer and distributor Ocean Safety points out the obvious: “A liferaft really should if at all possible have open access to the ocean.”

So that means out in the fresh air; not away in a locker encumbered by clutter and a tangle of ropes and fenders. To focus on the practicalities, consider the 15 seconds ready-to-launch rule that racing and rally organisations such as ISAF and World Cruising recommend. Could you launch yours in 15 seconds from the depths of a cave locker or somewhere in a cabin that may now be on fire? In a bad seaway, let alone in fear, it can take 15 seconds just to think, let alone react.

Could you get at this raft? Photo: onEdition

Could you get at this raft? Photo: onEdition

Beware, too, of the expanding valise. Hackett says: “You have to be careful with modern vacuum-packed valises. The vacuum will ease over time and the package will grow in size. What went into that locker might not now come out. Allow for future space.” It doesn’t bear thinking about the panic that might ensue as you realise “it won’t come, it won’t come . . . ”

Dedicated locker space, created at design stage, might seem the panacea, but do check the reality. Liferafts tend not to have handles and while they slip in easily, they might be awkward to slide or lift out. Ensure that there are foolproof means to retrieve/release the raft. This might simply mean laying in web lifting strops, or more complex solutions might be needed. For instance, check there is more than one way to release covers and lids. You may be unable to reach the appropriate side to open it adequately in extremis. Remember that, in such conditions, you will tire quickly.


In case of capsize

Think how the liferaft in its canister or valise would behave if the boat were upside-down. With inherent buoyancy, it would want to go up, not down and would be pushing hard up into its fixing. Everything would be working against you. A retaining lid might well be held tight by water pressure.

Even if your liferaft is mounted on the coachroof and has a hydrostatic release, you’re far from home and dry. These are pressure-triggered and release only at about three to four metres below the surface. That’s sinking, not capsizing or inversion depth. So it may not release after a capsize, and if it does it will beneath the upturned hull with the possibility that the raft may become ensnared.

The same could be said of an inappropriately designed locker or stowage area, which might constrain hydrostatic release. It seems wise that, if possible, any enclosure or cradle should have a top and bottom or side method of release.

So the best option is to have the raft ready for immediate release overboard, preferably on the stern if at all possible.

Ocean Safety was involved in equipping the Challenge round the world yachts and Alistair Hackett tells us that the Bureau Veritas surveyor wanted liferafts in cradles on the coachroof. “But these were eight-person SOLAS rafts, weighing maybe 80kg. These are so heavy and dangerous to move around on a pitching deck and lift high to heave over the rail with everyone panicking, we said no, simply too unsafe. They went to the transom.”

And that’s now where most round the world racing yachts, including the new Volvo Ocean 65s that Ocean Safety is also equipping, keep their rafts so they can be kicked straight into the ocean or extracted manually if the boat is upside-down.

Liferafts mounted off-centre can be vulnerable to waves when heeled

Liferafts mounted off-centre can be vulnerable to waves when heeled

For a cruising boat the ideal is likely to be a pushpit or sugar scoop transom mounting. Weight in the ends is never welcome, but aboard yachts of 30ft or more it’s not an unreasonable suggestion, structural strength of the railing and fixing permitting.

Rob Gaffney of the Hamble School of Yachting and a lead safety inspector for World Cruising, the ARC organiser, believes stern mounting is the best option: “It’ll generally be quicker to release, involve less lifting and be less likely to snag on damaged rigging.” However, he does acknowledge that it is not always possible. “On some production boats the pushpit rails and fixings are weak and not up to it. On one of our boats we mounted this way, but the feet started flexing, working loose. As a last resort we moved the raft to the coachroof.”

Think about all the possible scenarios you might encounter. “The way the liferaft is deployed is dependent on so many factors,” says Ocean Safety’s Alistair Hackett. “With a sailing couple, one might not be able to manage the liferaft. A half-dozen burly blokes might be strong, but do they know who should do what?”

Rob Gaffney emphasises the importance of well-rehearsed roles. “When it comes to the crunch only 20 per cent act rationally; 80 per cent don’t,” he declares. “Have known, practised roles for each of the crew: who makes the distress call, who prepares for the raft, distributes lifejackets, gets the grab bag and last-minute items – have a list by the chart table or cockpit bulkhead. Pre-plan, practise, think before you set off.”


Which liferaft?

Now you’ve thought about where to stow it, what sort of liferaft do you need? The boat may have ten berths, but that doesn’t mean a ten-person raft is appropriate. How many are normally aboard? The closer a raft is to full capacity, the more stable it will be, so if you regularly sail with four aboard, a four-person raft will be best. If you sail occasionally with eight, it’s better to buy two four-person rafts. You carry the cost of two annual services, but each raft will be easier to heave around and much safer in use.

For offshore sailing, new liferafts should be double-floored and minimum category ISO 9650, preferably Type 1 Group A. It’s important to have the correct survival pack stowed in your raft. Supply pack options vary greatly, from less than to more than 24 hours, and SOLAS B. All are very basic.

To familiarise yourself with the contents ask to see them. You can then add extra grab bag items. Often a supply pack upgrade (more water/food, etc) is supplied separately and if you ask for it to be packed in, you’ll have less to grab in an emergency. You can also ask a service agent to incorporate some of your own extra items when repacking after a service.

If the primary grab bag (waterproof of course) can’t also be packed into the liferaft, keep it attached or at least close by.

A sea survival course may sound terrifying, but I cannot recommend them highly enough – they are a fantastic and very thought-provoking way of preparing for offshore sailing. If possible, do one with your whole crew, as many of the things you learn can be discussed afterwards as a group and will probably lead to useful suggestions or modifications for your yacht.


Central, practical solution for the four rafts on the Challenger yachts

Central, practical solution for the four rafts on the Challenger yachts

Where best to mount the raft?

Matthew Sheahan comments


Matthew Sheahan

Matthew Sheahan

Should liferafts be mounted on the transom? We may never know whether the position of the liferaft aboard Cheeki Rafiki influenced the tragic outcome, but there are those – including myself – who believe that it is time to take a close look at where we fit such a crucial piece of lifesaving equipment.

Fortunately, cases of keelboat capsizes are rare, but when the worst happens, the liferaft is likely to be your only chance of survival unless there are other boats around to help.

When Rambler 100 capsized during the 2011 Fastnet Race the crew were unable to deploy the two liferafts, which were mounted at the after end of the cockpit and were well below the water level once the boat was upside-down.

On the other hand, in 2007 the surviving crew of the 35-footer Hooligan V, who had their liferaft stowed in a similar position, were able to deploy the raft – just – after the boat had lost her keel and turned turtle.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) findings in this particular incident highlighted the issue of liferaft access, stating: ‘In Hooligan V’s case, the stowage position was a sensible and well-considered compromise. The use of quick-release knots would have helped to expedite the release of the liferaft and is worthy of future consideration.’

As I know only too well, when a keelboat is upside-down there is precious little, if anything, to hold onto. Staying with the upturned boat is a challenge in itself. Mounting a liferaft on the stern could mean you have a better chance of being able to hang onto the boat while deploying the raft that could save your life.



This is an extract from a feature in Yachting World August 2014 issue