I freely admit that the above title has a strong clickbate component.
In reality, unless my name were Steve Callahan, claiming to have definitive wisdom would be silly, given that, like most cruisers, I have no firsthand experience of actually using a liferaft.
That said, I have thought about, researched, and owned liferafts for some 40 years and so learned some things that will be useful as you think about this stuff and reach your own conclusions.
And, at the end of the article, I will share the liferafts Phyllis and I would buy today for various usage scenarios.
Let's do it:
Phyllis and I, as I have already shared, came, over the years, to believe that a liferaft would be very little use to us in a survival storm, but that's not the right choice for everyone.
And, anyway, the highest-quality option is a good place to start any acquisition process, even if we buy at a lower quality and price point in the end, so let's start with that:
5 years ago we chose a zodiac (part of the survitec group). We originally purchased a different raft but returned it as the size of the canister would have made safely stowing it anywhere very hard on a 35ft boat.
We chose a SOLAS B because the difference between that and a SOLAS A was some food water and flares.
We decided our grab bag was a better place to put these than making the liferaft even heavier.
One company the only difference was they supplied a grab bag with their Solas A raft.
Setting off across the Atlantic and on the service network was a major part of the choice process.
Self righting seemed like a good idea but we are still young enough to cut it as it eliminated so many other good choices.
When we had it serviced in Guadeloupe we got to see it inflated and have a good at it.
Thanks for the report. The whole issue of what to pack in the grab bag and what in the raft is an interesting one that I will dig into more in the next article. As you say the trade off between knowing whatever it is is in the raft and weight. I did not know Zodiac was part of survitec too, thanks for the heads up.
After much deliberation Lou and I decided to buy a new raft, despite many reservations.
The choice was limited to a degree by what would fit our life raft locker (port cockpit seat that folds open into the cockpit) and my dislike of gear on deck or the transom. The latter position in any case would harm the balance of our relatively narrow sterrned boat.
For the same reasons as you, we have opted for a relatively budget raft (Seago 4 man in a valise) as the only thing that would prompt us to abandon ship would be fire or some drastic water ingress that we could not stem. This is also because we both agree that we would fight tooth and nail not to abandon our boat and have plans and the equipment to try to tackle any eventuality. ‘Every herring should hang by its own tail’. We have always prepared our own grab bags before any decent passage.
Given our more coastal sailing range and better VHF and digital communications, we’d hope that we would get rescued sooner rather than later. Given that there will be (for the most part) only two of us, this all seems like a sensible compromise at not excessive cost.
When it comes to service time, Seago (in the UK) offer a quite attractive deal including shipping, which was another plus. As you say, buy what’s readily available and can be serviced easily. Plastimo, for example, will lose a lot of business in my view by running down their network of service agents.
Yes, the service situation on Plastimo is far from ideal. We will have to ship ours to Quebec in three years, but then again, it was the price leader, which made sense for our use these days, and a local service centre is promised, not that I would hold my breath on that. Anyway, it was so inexpensive compared to the other options open to us that we can probably replace it in three years at a lower net cost.
I should have been clearer – I was referring to Plastimo’s long distance network, which was always very good. Our situation with the Seago is much the same. But as you say, maybe liferafts are now ‘consumer durables’ to be put on eBay after three years, anyway.
Great article. I really appreciate your experienced , careful and broad view of this topic. Prior to reading this post we purchased a Viking Rescue You offshore 4 person manual inflation. We intend to cruise in warm waters on our totally refitted Westsail 32 and make a transatlantic to the med from the US.
Ease of service and self righting upon inflation were strong motivators for this choice. An other incentive was the boat show discount. It’s in a hard case and cradle trough bolted to the cabin top midship inline with the gate. Easy to slide it overboard. One short coming was the single webbing strap that secures the case to the cradle. We added an extra at 90 degrees.
We decided long ago that prevention would be our first line of defense. It’s the only thing that a sailor has a modicum of control over. So fire prevention, solid electrical/mechanical installation, weather routing, training and practice works for me.
Thanks again for the depth of your research and your passion for seamanship.
Good point on the inadequacy of straps and sometimes supplied cradles, definitely something to think about.
We used a Zodiac Hard Case 6 person liferafts with Insulated floor for many years.
When time for a Service we personally took it to the Service Agent Nr Warrington (UK) and oversaw each aspect of test and replacement of consumables,water etc.,..this also allowed us to have a spare radio batteries etc.,included.
Interestingly at later date we had to have it serviced in Spain, the servicing Certificate issued was only for one year as opposed to the UK 3 years due to local laws,though they did reissue the certificate with a three year life upon request.
We mounted the Liferaft on the specially strengthened ( when the boat was built) Push Pit with quick release as we knew that in rough weather we would not have been able to manhandle it
That’s interesting that Spain would have a law that trumped the manufacturer recommended service interval. Just another complexity to add to the whole service problem for long distance cruisers.
We initially bought a Winslow offshore with the loading ramp which we thought was the best quality available as we’re going offshore. We were able to have it serviced in New Zealand although at significant cost ($2800) in 2015. When we tried to get service in Australia none was available. We bought a 4 person Viking Rescupro in Brisbane at a cost of $3800 including cradle and rail mount. The dealer inflated and repacked the raft before delivering it to us, to ensureu that all was well. I was very impressed.
It’s very good to hear that the dealer inflated and checked a brand new raft. On the other hand, I wonder if that was because they knew that Viking had had quality control issues? Probably we will never know.
We purchased a Viking RescuPro six person life raft at the Miami Boat show in 2014 for our new to us boat. We purchased the Solas A and the additional >24 hour ditch bag that was required for the Route Halifax Saint-Pierre Ocean Race that we completed in 2016. We have had the life raft repacked three times in it’s lifespan at Sea Safety International in New Jersey. We always stay for the inflation and initial raft inspection and to see and remind our aging selves how we would enter it in a real life situation. We keep it stowed on a custom built stainless cage on the aft of our center cockpit combing. To deploy we need to release (or cut) a cam strap holding it in place and push/roll it after down the sugar scoop swim steps. On each repack we keep a collection of the “expired” water and food rations in another ready ditch bag to be used in super emergencies in the life raft or onboard if things really go south. So far, never used it and hope to never use it.
PS: Posting this mid North Atlantic, 9 days east of Bermuda, 4 days west of the Azores thanks to Starlink Roam with opt in ocean data at $2/GB. It’s been fantastic. I even got it working with our small standby 450W modified sine cockpit inverted when our MagnaSine MS2812 melted down three days ago due to salt water ingress, but that’s another story … John I look forward to your articles about Starlink for coastal and offshore sailors.
SV Sea Dogb
Thanks for the report on the raft and interesting that Starlink is working so well for you mid-ocean.
That said, I probably won’t write anything about Starlink given that I don’t have one, and have no plans to get one, and there is plenty of good information already out there.
I have a Viking RescuPro which resides on a rail-mounted bracket provided by Viking. The clamshell is held together with two plastic straps and the metal band commonly seen on large boxes and crates. One became frayed due to abrasion from the bracket itself and so I called on the local Viking office to put new straps on. The serviceman came to my boat and realized he had all his kit except the banding material. He said he would be back in an hour and he was – with a new roll of strapping material.
When I asked where he got it he told me it was from a local hardware shop. It was twice the thickness of the original! I hastily showed him the passerelle!
That is indeed a disturbing story. I think I would get that strap replaced with the correct one as soon as practical and make a mental note to cut it before any deployment in the mean time.
If it is the type of strap that’s wrapped around the canister and then closed and tensioned at a hydrostatic release device, then that’s likely fine; a stronger strap poses no concern as the release action happens entirely within the hydrostatic actuator.
If it’s the type of strap that’s wrapped around the canister and then crimped or seized to itself, i.e. the strap or the crimp clip is intended to break in tension when the pressure of the inflating raft overloads it, then using anything other than OEM-specified strapping material could render the raft completely useless.
I’d hope that a certified technician would know the difference between a perfectly safe substitution and an almost criminally negligent one, but then again, this is the marine industry we’re talking about….
The strap Dan is talking about is of the latter type, not hydrostatic, so not good to change it I’m thinking.
As you mention, the life raft topic is complicated. It gives me questions that I have no satisfying answer for. That nags me. Being a know-it-all, I must by default have answers. 🙂 The section of the article, near the end, titled “The real risks?” explains the issues well.
We sail a catamaran that cannot be sunk. If pushed under water and every cavity carefully filled with water, it would still float with a significant part of the structure above the surface. Ours is significantly lighter and more buoyant than the standard cruising cats, but the vast majority of production cats will will also float, even if chopped to pieces. Right side up, or not, it would perhaps be a better location than a life raft. In spite of a completely renewed electrical system, I still see fire as a more serious risk than sinking etc. That means that even if sinking might not be it, we still have a problem. Is a raft able to solve the problem?
Yes certainly, but in my mind it’s a solution with loads of issues I can’t remedy. That means I’m in search of an entirely different type of solution. One that doesn’t force me to:
– Trust companies and people I shouldn’t trust. I know the marine industry…
– Depend on a sequence of unreliable processes going well in unfavourable conditions.
– Force me to do actions I only do every 10 or so years, during a course, and do these unfamiliar actions under massive stress in unfavourable conditions with equipment I’ve never used or even seen.
– And a number of other serious but still less obviously alarming issues.
The solution then, has to be something I know is in good order, and I’m skilled at using and all necessary processes around it, because I use it daily….
So the dinghy is the answer? Well… Most, maybe all, dinghies fail on several important issues too. I still think this can become the solution. I have no ready answer to fix the issues, yet, but where better to look than in the minds available here? I’m curious about this topic in the next article.
In the fear of front-running the next article, there are absolutely solutions to your concerns Stein. I think I mentioned it in a comment to the previous article: A drysuit is something you can put on regularly (familiar gear that you know works). The same with the dinghy. And further, with an EPIRB and possibly a PLB, the “search” is largely removed from the search&rescue today. Hence by having a pretty robust alerting system, you would not be looking at a long time in the water for most places where people go. Don’t most people who go far away have at least two EPIRBs onboard? That’s fairly robust I would say. So even though it could theoretically happen that you end up for weeks in a liferaft, I would find it quite unlikely if the rescue centrals know about you. Even in the most remote places of the world, like Antarctica.
I consider myself quite young and fit, and hence I prefer a system that I am familiar with and use frequently, but maybe more dependent on my own abilities. When sailing with unfamiliar people or kids onboard, I prefer a system that is simpler to deploy, so they can handle it even if I become incapacitated, which is the main reason I have a liferaft.
The true solution is maybe to just not care too much about this, because we will never have a perfect system, and we can’t control all factors. A moderately thought out plan and kit is most likely going to suffice. This whole topic is very interesting, although I personally believe the mental gymnastics is just as valuable as which kind of liferaft one chooses. Having thought through and visualized various scenarios, I believe makes you more prepared for whatever comes along. But I can pretty much guarantee, that if the day ever comes, it won’t be like in any of those scenarios.
Great comment. Love the last paragraph. Just so true.
Hum, I have thought about this and wonder if a liferaft is still the best bet given that fire is one of the big risks?
Also the reading I have done indicates that the idea that staying on an inverted cat, or one with a hole in it, is a lot less tenable than most people believe, at least unless the cat has a special survival pod like those from Chris White and even then it’s iffy.
So if it were me, and given the risks are small, I would just buy a liferaft and go sailing, rather than start a big development project.
Hi Arne and John,
I totally agree with both of you. Your good points are the ones I had in mind while writing the comment. I do sail without any worries around this. I just register that there are insufficiencies in the safety realm that seem ready for remedying by the hive mind. Much like the safety harness, jackline, etc topic and the JSD topic have been thoroughly debated and loads of essential detail issues have been clarified and solved. I’ve learned a lot from those discussions, and loads of others.
A life raft that works certainly does an important job, but to me the whole thing looks a lot like side deck jacklines. A safety system that has unacceptable shortcomings. Or in other words: An item that lulls us into feeling safe, which will ALWAYS change our behaviour regarding risk, while not really being a good enough solution to that risk. I don’t have a complete solution, but I do think it’s possible to develop this issue. Maybe by setting various scenarios with different solutions. Maybe by improving life raft companies. Maybe by improving our ability to handle the product and its deployment. Maybe by visualising a dinghy modification or development. I don’t know, but I think it’s a topic ripe for exploration.
Yes, I see what you mean with that comparison. I guess the good news on rafts is that the situation is not as bad as the other two given that rafts do seem to work most of the time at least for rapid downflood and fire.
But then again, your right that if we think a raft is going to save us in a storm we might not work hard enough on keeping the boat right side up and watertight.
For our circumnavigation we chose the Viking RescuPro life raft for several reason:
– It was recommended by our local service place
– Viking seemed to have a good reputation and global service
– The price point was right
– It was self rightening
The last reason being the most important. When cruising we would occasionally be up to 6 people on board but most of the time it would only be the two of us. So we needed a 6 person life raft and having done quite a bit of pool practice as a volunteer search and rescue captain, rightening a too big raft can be nearly impossible even in a pool. For us it was very important that the lightest, smallest person onboard should be able to right the life raft themselves so therefore the self rightening was key.
I would probably never buy a life raft that didn’t self right for offshore sailing and think that this should be higher up on people’s criteria.
Good point on self righting. I did mention it in the first article, but should have made more of it.
Our Viking has been serviced 3 times, each a year or so past due. In Portland Maine, Aberdeen in Scotland and in Panama
No problems. We were present each time and weer favourably impressed by the Viking service people.
A couple of tips
Keel the pyrotechnics they replace. We recently practiced with some 12 year old ones.
Keep things like internal lights that are replaced. They can be fun or useful.
The water supply in the rafts is tiny. Humans can survive weeks without food but only days without water. We keep a load of soft drinks in the ditch bag because they provide calories as well as water.
this is a great article! And the comments are all great also. Personally I live in a philosophy of STAY ON THE BOAT so not sure I would ever want to put myself and my boat in a situation where I would actually use a life raft. If you read books on sailing disasters (and there are a lot, but of course those that don’t survive don’t write books do they?) and I have a conclusion there was always a point in the tale someone made a big bad decision (or several small ones) that lead to them losing their boat.
And in other times people abandon their boat and get on a life raft the boat is actually found after the storm and makes one wonder did they choose to abandon ship and board a life raft instead of staying with their vessel and ride out the storm and take measures to keep their floating home afloat. And I think it’s panic and being fatigued (tired people make bad decisions) and the fact they had a life raft it was even a option.
I would stay with my boat until it sank doing everything possible to keep it afloat before EVER grabbing a ditch bag and leaving.
Even a demasted boat with a dead engine is a better base on the water then the best life raft. Once the initial disaster is over you could rig some way to sail or with spare parts one should have aboard get the engine running again (usually dead due to water entry in engine room) what’s left of your boat to a safe port a life raft is sitting and hoping for rescue.
Of course if the boat is sinking or sunk or capsized and won’t right itself and can’t be saved, not much else to do and this article is a big help in choosing the options for that unthinkable situation.
(If I told my wife I was thinking of buying a life raft I know all she would think about after that is we are going to sink and have to use it instead of thinking we are prepared for the worse and probably never use it)
I agree with some of that, except for:fire, where I think that waiting too long to abandon can be a big mistake, and the idea of not having a raft at all: https://www.morganscloud.com/2023/05/04/liferafts-for-cruisers-purchase-criteria/