For Practical Sailors six-man life raft test, the examiners looked at eight life rafts suitable for a cruising sailboat with far horizons: the DSB 6-ISAF, the Elliot 6-SOLAS, the Switlik MD-3, the Switlik SAR-6 MKII, the Viking Rescyou, the Viking Rescyou Pro, the Winslow Ocean Rescue, the Zodiac Class Ocean ISAF. A close look at the survival gear that each life raft manufacturer provides reveals that its generally left up to the owner to provide the gear that is more likely to expedite rescue (like a 406- EPIRB) or keep him alive (like a Katadyn hand-operated wate maker).
Our recent test of six-man life rafts (“Elliot Life Raft Rises to the Top,” April 2007) gave us the chance to see what survival gear gets packed into an offshore life raft, and how this equipment varies from one manufacturer to another. Six manufacturers participated in the test: DSB, Elliot, Switlik, Viking, Winslow, and Zodiac.
The manufacturers featured in our life raft evaluation offer several options for survival packs, and in most cases, you can pay more for packages that are superior to those we were sent for review. Some makers also allow you to customize the pack to fit your own specific needs. With this in mind, our ratings focused on the rafts themselves. This evaluation of survival equipment is primarily a guide to choosing on a life raft kit that is appropriate for your needs. It should also help you determine what contents will be required for a separate abandon-ship bag, or “ditch bag.”
For our life raft test, we asked each maker to equip its raft for an offshore voyager planning a Caribbean cruise and possibly carrying on with a trans-Atlantic crossing.
It was no surprise that some packs were more complete than others. Two manufacturers, Winslow and Switlik, included separate ditch bags with the rafts they sent, and the contents were specifically chosen to supplement what was packed on their respective rafts.
The hierarchy of life raft survival packs ranges from a basic emergency kit (E-type) that the manufacturer puts together to the internationally standardized Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) A-package, which is more comprehensive and nearly twice as heavy as the E-type kits. The International Sailing Federation (ISAF) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have their own guidelines for what should be included in the packs, and these kits tend to be less comprehensive than commercial-grade SOLAS A (offshore) and B (coastal) survival packs.
In our view, none of these standardized packages is ideal. (No raft contained a proper radar reflector, a glaring omission in our view.) Even those sailors who have a customized life raft survival kit should be prepared to pack additional gear and supplies in an overboard bag. We will be looking more closely at ditch kits and their contents in a future issue.
The contents of all life raft survival packs can be divided into three categories: vessel gear, crew aids, and signaling equipment. Vessel gear includes items like paddles, a heaving device, a bailer and a drogue&emdash;equipment that helps in recovering crew, getting away from a sinking or burning vessel, and keeping the life raft afloat.
Among the vessel gear, we found patching gadgets and material. Some were ultimately useful, and others came with directions that instructed users to “make sure both surfaces are completely dry before applying cement”&emdash;not the most realistic expectation.
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The essentials packed for crew well-being included seasickness medication, sunblock, and reflective coveralls that help conserve body heat&emdash;similar to emergency “space blankets.”
The most obvious difference among the packs was the amount of drinking water. The Elliot 6-SOLAS had the most water (about 2.38 gallons), while two of our recommended rafts, the DSB 6-ISAF and the Switlik SAR-6 MKII, had none. Anyone who owns a life raft must know how much water it contains and have a plan to augment that supply.
The more diverse your distress signaling ability, the greater your chance of rescue. All of the rafts we tested provided flares, flashlights, and mirrors, but these items are fairly crude compared to what is available today. In the last decade, call-for-help technology has grown more reliable and smaller in size. The introduction of EPIRBs and their smaller cousins, the 406MHz Personal Locator Beacons (PLB), allow a person to summon a rescue coordination center (RCC) with the push of a button&emdash;although a timely response is by no means guaranteed, particularly in remote parts of the world. When you include a portable satellite phone, a cost-effective, 121.5MHz handheld, aviation VHF transceiver for contacting planes overhead, and a handheld VHF, a life raft seems more like a floating phone booth with 911 on speed dial.
None of the rafts we tested, however, came with an EPIRB, SART (search and rescue transponder), or VHF onboard. Winslow provided an EPIRB in its superb abandon ship kit, but we look forward to the day when EPIRBs are built into the raft. The technology is currently available (U.S. Marines carry satellite-linked PDAs into battle), but putting electronics in wet, harsh conditions takes some serious consideration.
The most common approach today is to include EPIRBs and similar equipment in an abandon ship kit, but it would be even better if this signaling was as automated as the inflation of the raft itself. The night-time drills held during raft testing convinced testers that in the chaos of an emergency, it is easy to overlook the EPIRB or to fail to bring along a handheld sat-phone kept ready at the nav station.
A life raft that comes equipped with an EPIRB and a comprehensive survival pack will, of course, be heavier and more difficult to stow and launch. Another school of thought emphasizes the importance of keeping the raft light and easy to launch by putting most of the survival equipment in a separate abandon-ship bag. Both arguments have merit, and perhaps a blend of the two philosophies offers the best solution. A belts-and-braces approach would place an EPIRB (and, if the budget allows, a sat-phone) on the boat where its ready for evacuation, and another EPIRB on the life raft itself. If a single EPIRB is the only option, it belongs on the boat in a dedicated location where it is handy during evacuation.
If a sat-phone is used as part of the normal high-seas communications routine, its operation will become second nature, a big advantage in an emergency. The trick is to stow the unit in a grab case thats waterproof and ready to go, and the phone manufacturers offer such options. In fact, all communication gear such as radios and sat-phones should be kept in a truly waterproof container with extra batteries, sealed separately. The package should also include a list of phone numbers to reach the U.S. Coast Guard or, if voyaging overseas, the relevant RCCs. Its also important to assign crew ahead of time to essential roles such as the raft launcher, grab-bag steward, Mayday communicator, EPIRB and phone-in-a-box carrier, etc.
A survival situation rarely unfolds as it has been rehearsed. The longer you are on the raft, and the farther you are from a well-equipped RCC, shipping lanes and land, the more your survival depends on things beyond your control. Drinking water immediately enters the equation. Sailors in the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) should find enough rainfall, but those elsewhere will face bleaker prospects for catching water. All too often, the rain comes with wind and sea and chop, and spray taints the fresh water running down the canopy into the catchment container. The solution is to bring extra drinking water aboard the life raft and to have a hand-pumped watermaker in the ditch kit.
In the raft
The E-pack is a basic kit found in many recreational life rafts, and its a good start to providing essential equipment for the raft and its crew. This kit is light, usually under 20 pounds, and compact&emdash;keeping the rafts bulk and weight to manageable proportions. However, the limited supplies mean that an abandon-ship bag is essential. Reviewing what we found in the rafts should help you get a feel for what else is needed to augment the supplies. The following are some of the testers comments regarding essential items found on the rafts. The table on page 14 compares the survival packs found in each raft.
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Not only is there a difference between brands of handheld and rocket-propelled flares, but theres also a wide gap between the standards for which they are designed. For example, when launched, a SOLAS-grade parachute flare burns longer and brighter than one designed simply to meet the U.S. Coast Guard requirements. Only the Elliot SOLAS raft included smoke canisters, a useful signalling device during daylight hours.
Using sunlight to gain the attention of nearby ships and aircraft can be effective. The large, highly polished stainless steel mirrors with center-hole targeting features made sense and proved easy to use. Each raft included at least one mirror in its onboard kit.
Any life raft flashlight should have a waterproof switch. Since the life raft kits usually contain no more than one set of extra batteries, youll want to know what size spares to pack in the abandon-ship bag.
When its time for a raft to be inspected, an owner should ask to be present when its inflated. This is a great opportunity to see firsthand whats offered in your survival kit.
Clamps are a great means of sealing a puncture and a big improvement over less expensive, screw-type plugs, which are quick to use but make for a less durable repair. Glue-on patch kits can be useful during a spell of hot, calm weather, but in windy, offshore conditions with high humidity and plenty of salt spray, prepping and drying the surface for bonding may be impossible.
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Winslow included a hand-pump Katadyn Survivor 6 watermaker in its optional abandon-ship bag. The watermaker can make up to 6 gallons of water a day if continually pumped. This divides out to a quart an hour, and based on a 40-stroke per minute pump regimen, it takes about 9,600 strokes of the pump to make 1 gallon&emdash;a demanding commitment, even for those with time and energy to spare. Augmenting this device with Manta Ventures SeaPack (Chandlery, March 2007), a passive desalinization system that effortlessly converts seawater to a nutrient drink, might provide relief in bad weather when the crew is too sick or busy bailing to pump.
To anyone at sea in a life raft, a 406 EPIRB (preferably GPS-enabled) is worth its weight in gold. Winslow packed one in its grab bag, and the life raft arch tube had a built-in pocket to secure the device. Switlik also offered an EPIRB as an optional item in its grab bag. Sailors on rafts with foil floors should make sure that an activated EPIRB is kept away from the foil. Many EPIRB makers recommend that their unit be deployed in the water and securely tied to the raft. Determine ahead of time how your unit(s) will be used.
The brightly colored, positively buoyant abandon-ship bag should have a line on it that is secured to the life raft as soon as the bag goes aboard. Although raft space is limited, essentials such as eyeglasses, personal medications, the vessels first-aid kit, and passports (or photocopies of them) are worth taking along. Decide ahead of time on what should be in the ditch kit and keep it in a designated location thats easy to access.
Today, the life rafts primary mission is no longer to serve as a means of navigating to safety, but rather a platform from which to signal for help. Thats fine if you have the gear needed to make the maritime equivalent of a 911 call. The current approach to life raft survival equipment, however, often leaves the mariner with what amounts to two tin cans and some twine.
So if you are serious about survival, youll need to give some careful thought to augmenting your life raft with an abandon-ship kit that has an EPIRB. An onboard satellite phone is also an underestimated survival tool, one that can be used not only from the life raft, but also for medical emergencies. A plan to supplement the rafts water supply deserves equal attention.
The gear you have with you can mean the difference between life and death, and based on our research, none of these rafts come with the ideal built-in inventory. We strongly endorse a supplementary abandon-ship bag that manufacturers such as Switlik and Winslow provide at additional cost.
If we were to isolate three survival packs that stood above the rest, those found in the Winslow Ocean Rescue (the clear leader here), the Switlik MD-3, and the Elliot 6-SOLAS come the closest to meeting our expectations.
A raft and the survival gear it contains can be augmented by the extra gear taken aboard, but equally important are the skills and attitude of the crew.