Wherever you cruise, you’ll most likely want to keep a liferaft on board in case of emergency – but where’s the best place to stow it? Duncan Kent makes some suggestions
Where should you stow your liferaft?
Liferafts are your last lifeline should the unthinkable happen, so it makes a lot of sense for them to be easily accessible in every eventuality. Of course you should only step up into a liferaft, but before you can do that you have to launch it, so a little thought now could save time or even lives if you ever need to use one in anger. Most new boats have a dedicated stowage space for a liferaft but is that necessarily the best place to keep it? It protects the liferaft very well but, if you have to fold down the transom to access it, it’s not an ideal location should your yacht be inverted.
Canister or valise?
When first purchasing a liferaft you need to make a couple of important decisions – how big should it be and what type of container should it have. The first is common sense and would obviously depend on the number of people you regularly cruise with. The second is more important as it partially dictates where you might stow it. A liferaft in a rigid GRP canister is designed to face the elements without getting damaged. A soft plastic valise, however, may be a little lighter, but it isn’t as tough or UV-proof and therefore should be stowed in a locker to protect it.
Do I need hydrostatic release?
This is usually achieved by attaching the raft to its mount using straps and a hydrostatic release such as the Hammar H20. As with some automatic lifejackets, the device is activated by water pressure. When submerged in water to a depth of a few metres it cuts a loop of rope releasing the securing straps.
A regular quick release attachment, like a pelican clip for example, can be attached to the release loop so the user can release the liferaft manually if required. It’s questionable whether a hydrostatic release is ideal for a leisure yacht, though. In theory they should only release at a depth of two metres of water – as your yacht is sinking beneath you, fingers crossed your liferaft will float free. But what would happen during a knockdown? Will it activate and release your liferaft before you really need it?
It might be useful if you had a second, backup raft (unlikely on a small boat), but I’d prefer to be in control of the timing of liferaft deployment. Like all safety equipment it might save your life, but whether you need one is a question only you can answer after looking at your liferaft installation.
Automatically launches in the event
of the yacht sinking
Doesn’t release until submerged to a depth of a few metres
Needs replacing every two years
Possible areas to stow your liferaft
On the deck. Easier to launch, can be fitted with a float-free device but susceptible to the elements and tempting to thieves
In a cockpit locker. Safe from theft, provided you padlock your lockers, but could become buried beneath cruising paraphernalia
On the pushpit rail. Easy to launch, reasonably secure from theft but takes up valuable space and will be a heavy weight on the rail mountings
In/on the transom. Out of the crew’s way. Easy to launch – even from the water. Relatively protected and secure from theft. Possibly quite damp and not always accessible
Stowing down below. Dry, out of the sun and secure from theft, but also difficult to get to in a hurry. A liferaft will be heavy to lift up the companionway
Why you shouldn’t stow it down below
There’s absolutely no point in buying a safety device if you can’t get to it in an emergency. I regularly go on boats where the flares are buried beneath a pile of stuff in a locker below, and where the liferaft is at the bottom of a deep cockpit locker with the dinghy, barbeque, spare fenders, buckets, kedge anchor and more all piled on top. The owners always say they’re about to do something about it, but they rarely ever do!
There are two very good reasons for not stowing a liferaft below. The first is: it’s heavy and you’d have to be fairly big and strong to heft it up the companionway and over the bridgedeck. It’s all my petite wife can do to lift our four-man valise off the ground, let alone drag it up steep companionway steps.
Second, you might have to evacuate in a hurry in the event of a fire and grabbing the liferaft will probably be the last thing you think about until you get on deck and start wondering how you’re going to get off. By then it’ll likely be too late.
In the opinion of the RNLI and the RYA a liferaft should always be mounted where it can be deployed instantly and effortlessly by any member of the crew. I can’t help but entirely agree with that logic, so let’s give some thought to how best we can mount one on deck to attain that goal.
Dry and out of the sun
Secure from theft
Difficult to get to in a hurry
Heavy to lift up the companionway
Stowing a liferaft canister on the deck
Mounting a canister in wooden chocks on the hatch garage is probably the most popular place to stow a liferaft on a small to medium size sailing yacht and has a lot going for it. Firstly it’s quite high up, so it doesn’t take that much to drag it down and lob it over the guardrail.
It is, however, one of the most exposed places on the yacht and susceptible to damage from the sun’s UV rays, continuous spray, the odd big greenie and the crew’s hefty boots. It’s also heavy and, being so vulnerable, needs to be very solidly mounted. It is essential to check the strength of the garage first, as not all are substantial enough to support the weight of a liferaft. If there’s any flex in it, try to find space on the deck itself.
Fixing it here also puts quite a bit of extra weight up relatively high on the boat, although not really enough to concern a cruising skipper. Care must also be taken to avoid the possibility of it snagging any loose sheets or lines, so you might need to create a cage around it to deflect them or re-route some of them via strategically-placed turning blocks.
When you’ve secured it make a canvas cover to keep off the worst of the sun and spray. The cover may need replacing every 3-4 years, but at least the raft will be fairly well protected.
Easier to launch
Can be fitted with float-free device
Susceptible to the elements
Tempting to thieves
Stowing a liferaft valise in a cockpit locker
Many smaller cruising yachts will have little or no room on their transom or stern rail, and possibly little space on deck forward of the main hatch. In these cases it might well be necessary to stow the liferaft in a cockpit locker and as a canister is usually much bulkier than a valise, you will probably choose the latter.
To get over the accessibility problem it makes sense either to dedicate the entire locker to the liferaft, grab bag and flare container, or to fabricate a lid-less ‘emergency’ bin (with a drain hole) to contain the above. To avoid the risk of other stuff being piled on top make sure it comes right up to the locker lid so that there’s physically no room to put anything on it. At worst, create a stout, drained and deeply-fiddled shelf to put the raft on, but don’t tie the container down in any way.
Oh, and don’t forget to fix a stout padeye at the top onto which to tie the painter or someone might forget before they lob it over. You can always tie it in a more convenient position once the liferaft’s in the water.
Dry and protected from physical
damage and UV light
More secure from theft
Not so easy to access quickly
Tends to have stuff dumped on top
A pushpit-mounted canister
My personal preference, if you have the space, is to construct or buy a proper stainless steel cradle that fixes on the yacht’s stern rail. This keeps it out of the crew’s way when sailing, but makes it very accessible when required in a hurry. In fact, with a little ingenuity it could even be designed so it could be launched from the water, which is ideal for the single-hander (along with a long floating line to disconnect the autopilot of course!).
The main advantage of a rail-mount is that it is easy for anyone, regardless of their brawn, or lack of it, to deploy. For this reason it should be designed so that simply pulling a safety pin opens the cage and allows the canister to fall into the water unaided and without being damaged on the way down.
A secondary plus for this method is that the cage can be securely locked when not under way, but always remember to unlock it before every trip.
Easy to launch – possibly from the water
Reasonably secure from theft
Takes up valuable space
Heavy weight on the rail mountings
Stowing a canister in or on the transom
A large number of cruising yachts built in the 1980-90s had a sugar scoop-style transom. Not only does this make boarding easier from the water but, with a bit of thought, it can be an ideal place to stow the liferaft. You can either fit a cradle in a similar way as a pushpit mount, or you can fabricate a locker of sorts.
The downside of using a cage this position is its proximity to the water, which, when you have a big following sea, can frequently inundate the raft. Better to build a watertight locker, but put a drain into it just in case.
Although it’s easy to deploy a raft from here when you’re standing on the scoop or step, bear in mind it might be stormy when you need it and the scoop is not always the best place to be in a rough sea.
I have seen yachts with modified transom, whereby a dedicated locker is made to fit inside the stern, but this is dependent on whether you have a usable void inside the aft end of the boat. It also requires a bit of thought and GRP construction skills, but if it is designed with a gentle aft-running slope the raft can self-deploy as soon as the door is opened. Once again you’ll need to ensure the painter is firmly tied off at all times.
Out of the crew’s way
Easy to launch – even from the water
Relatively protected and secure from theft
Possibly quite damp
Not always accessible