Pip Hare explains how to set up your liferaft properly so you know how to use it in the event of an emergency
When was the last time you gave your liferaft a second thought? Once bought and installed most of us don’t consider this life-saving piece of equipment again until the service date rolls around. Other than keeping it dry and visually inspecting the case, there’s not much day-to-day maintenance we can do for our rafts. The location it is stowed in however, should be reviewed more regularly.
The stowage and ‘launch-ability’ of your liferaft could be as vital to crew survival as the liferaft itself. Any member of the crew should be able to perform a launch – and this includes the smallest adults or any teenagers mature enough to understand the process.
There are pros and cons to every stowage location, and what is right for you and your boat will depend on crew size, yacht design and liferaft type; but here are a few things to consider when choosing where yours should go.
Pushpit or transom mounted cages offer a good solution to easy launching, but if mounting your liferaft canister vertically, double check with the manufacturer that it’s designed for that orientation. The weight of the inflation gas bottle inside can damage the contents if resting where it was not intended. And the drain holes in the canister may need relocating for different orientations.
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Ensure bespoke frames and cases are unlocked and extra lashings removed every time you go to sea. It should go without saying yet this is a common omission. This is particularly important if you have a hydrostatic unit (HSU) as part of a float-free system. The raft should be held in place only by the strap attached to the HSU and the painter should be attached to the ‘weak link’. There must be no other lashings in place or the float free system will not work.
Remove UV covers before sailing. Once again this is of greater importance if you have an HSU fitted, however it’s a good principle in general. Liferafts are not designed to ‘burst’ out of a cover when they inflate.
Will your liferaft fit under the bottom guardrail? This can allow smaller crew members to launch deck-mounted rafts without lifting. If the answer is no then consider changing the bottom guardrail attachment to a lashing, which can be cut easily. Don’t forget to brief everyone about this procedure. Make a regular check that the dedicated knife is in position and still sharp.
If sailing with a liferaft in a locker, whether canister or valise, practise removal from the locker regularly and be honest with yourself whether this really is possible. Avoid large lockers where it can get buried and if you have only one locker consider building in a compartment or shelf to keep the raft separate.
You may have had your boat for years and always kept the raft in the same place, but the location should be ‘trimmed’ as you and your crew change in number, age and ability.
Canisters in lockers are difficult to grab, especially when wet. If yours does not come with handles, place lifting straps underneath the liferaft so it’s ready to go in an emergency. Avoid tying anything around the canister as it could inhibit inflation.
Launching liferafts that will not float free should be considered a two-step process. Step one manoeuvres the liferaft on deck or into the open as early as possible. This should be a well-practised procedure with a dedicated spot to put the raft and attach the painter.
Don’t worry about over-reacting, just get the raft out the minute you have concerns. Over the course of my sailing life I can think of at least 10 times I have put the raft ‘on deck’ for reasons ranging from thick fog and no radar to a collision with a whale. Whatever the design of your vessel, serious thought should go into whether adaptations can be made to house a float-free system.
What to take
Grab bags are vital to survival in your liferaft and should be checked, maintained and adapted for each new passage and crew. Charge or replace batteries, check medicine dates and tailor the contents to the environment.
Essential emergency items should be stored in watertight containers that will float: old flare containers are ideal for this job, but also look out for the type of storage containers used by sea kayakers which tend to be different colours.
It is easy to fill a grab bag with personal and supplementary items, making it too bulky or heavy to move so I use a system of hierarchy on longer passages. The primary bag contains emergency essentials, passports and medication, the others have supplementary survival equipment and personal effects. Crew may also pack their own small dry bags with essentials, but it must be understood by everybody on board which bags to grab first.
In a habit learned from offshore racing I now carry an emergency water container even on deliveries. This is a 10lt container, filled with nine litres of water to allow it to float. Fitting containers and grab bags with a tether and clip will stop them from falling over the side if put on deck in preparation for abandonment.
Many liferaft service points will let you add extra items, if space will allow, when your raft is re-packed. This is an opportunity to add medication, food, extra water and small items of equipment. Anything put in the raft can be individually vacuum bagged first to keep it dry. I recommend adding electronic distress signalling devices, such as PLBs or SARTS rather than packing extra flares.
Can you lift it?
The weight of a six-man liferaft can very from 28kg for an ISO <24hr pack to 65kg for the SOLAS A pack. If your crew numbers regularly fluctuate between fully crewed and double-handed, it may be more practical to buy two liferafts, or hire an extra one when you have more crew. If purchasing a lightweight raft, ensure you fully understand the difference in standards and contents.
First published in the September 2018 edition of Yachting World.