THIS IS NO ALFRED HITCHCOCK MOVIE
Buying a life raft is like buying life insurance-you know you should, but it's hard to get enthusiastic about something you hope never to need. Compounding the ambivalence is the lack of any official regulations requiring life rafts on U.S. recreational craft. Now factor in expense-from $1,600 to over $5,000 for initial purchase, plus another $500 or so in annual maintenance-and it's easy to see why many boaters would just as soon ignore the subject altogether. But experts in maritime safety say this can be the biggest mistake you'll ever make. "Never, under any circumstances, go offshore without a life raft," says Mark Fry, president of International Yachtmaster Training and Deliveries in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "If you get shipwrecked in the Gulf Stream, even if it's a mere five miles from shore, your next port of call could be the coast of Ireland." But how do you weigh the value of a life raft against the amount of money in your budget? Here are a few key factors to consider.
NUMBER ONBOARD. Life rafts allot four square feet per person and come in sizes that can accommodate anywhere from 4 to 50. When in doubt, go the next size up. If your boat can accommodate seven people, buy a life raft that will fit eight.
YOUR BOATING ARENA. The need for durability, redundancy of safety equipment, and the amount of packed fresh water and survival gear all escalate-as does expense-as the distance you travel offshore increases. Unless you consistently hug the shoreline, choose an offshore or ocean model life raft, which features two separate inflatable compartments plus an inflatable sole to provide cold-water insulation. "Even 80-degree water feels cold on your butt after a while," says Jerry Dzugan, director of the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association.
PACKAGING. Rafts that come in a valise must be stored in a dry, protected, but readily accessible spot. These are manually deployed-usually it takes at least two crewmembers to heave it overboard. Canister models, on the other hand, are permanently bolted in a spot clear of rigging. The latter should also have a hydrostatic release unit, which automatically releases the raft when the ship sinks below 15'. Because of such idiot-proofing, canisters are arguably safer but hard to justify on small vessels with tight deck space.
BALLAST SYSTEM. All life rafts have a passive system for trapping water underneath the raft, which helps keep it from flipping over in high seas. One such stabilizing device prevents capsizing even in hurricane-like winds. The Coast Guard, for its own personnel, uses life rafts featuring a design that traps a doughnut-shaped mass of water. Either of these two approaches are a safe bet.
APPROVAL BY SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea). This international maritime organization sets basic safety standards. It also standardizes the survival equipment that's packed along with the raft. Such packs include an array of basic items, from bailing buckets and fresh water to flares and radar reflectors, along with instructions on how to use all these devices. Important note: Taking a class in sea survival before you get in trouble is infinitely preferable to learning on the job.
NONESSENTIALS. Pack any personal items yourself. You should invest in as much safety technology as you can afford-EPIRB, SART beacon, handheld VHF, GPS, and so on. Also, buy a large, waterproof, floating ditch bag and use it to hold:
- passports, wallets, ship logs, and important papers, all inside zippered bags.
- extra drinking water-the 1 1/2 -liter-per-person SOLAS allotment doesn't last long.
- a high-energy food source, such as Power Bars.
- any personal prescription medication and eyeglasses, including sunglasses.
- scopolamine patches, which work better than oral medications, especially when it becomes impossible to keep ingested items down.
- a strobe light, air horn, and binoculars.
- a mask and snorkel for underwater raft repair.
- flashlights and extra batteries.
- basic fishing kit with gardening gloves and pliers to dehook fish.
- something to do while you await rescue.