It is easy to buy the cheapest liferaft and then forget about it, but do you know how to use it and what's actually inside? Theo Stoker met Survitec's Matthew Bridge to take a closer look

Liferafts are like insurance policies.

Spending hard-earned cash on something you hope to goodness you’re never going to use, then paying to service or replace it every few years, without even seeing what’s inside the case, is a bitter pill to swallow.

It’s easy to feel like it’s a waste of money, but if you actually need to use a liferaft in an emergency, sure as anything you’ll be glad of every penny you spent on it.

If the worst were to happen, having a liferaft to step into will dramatically increase your chances of surviving, giving you shelter and keeping you out of the water, as well as making you and your crew far easier to find.

An inflated six man liferaft

Depending on the standard your liferaft is built to, it will have different features and equipment

Having said that all that, there’s no point shelling out on a top-of-the-range 12-man ocean liferaft if you only go coastal sailing with a crew of two.

Some of the more highly specified liferafts will also contain perishable items, meaning that they are not only more expensive to buy, but need to be serviced more often too.

Picking the right liferaft, knowing how to use it, what’s inside it – and what isn’t so you can pack your grab bag – is of critical importance.

Liferaft maker Survitec’s Matt Bridge explained what to look for.

Liferaft standards

There are several levels of standards for liferafts, first introduced by the Offshore Racing Council following the disastrous 1979 Fastnet Race and later updated after the 1998 Sydney Hobart Race, in which a number of sailors also lost their lives.

Liferafts for leisure sailors are governed by International Standards Organisation (ISO) rules under standard ISO 9650.

There are two categories of liferaft under ISO 9650.

Paddles of a liferaft

Paddles should be included and tied on with lanyards. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

ISO 9650 Part 1 Type A covers liferafts operating between -15ºC and 65ºC, as these generally include an insulated floor to protect against hypothermia, while Part 1 Type B covers operation above 0ºC and are therefore better suited to warmer climates.

Private yachts under 13.7m (45ft) do not have to carry liferafts but for larger boats, it may be compulsory to carry a properly approved liferaft or even a commercial one.

Commercial liferafts are certified by SOLAS regulations and are much more heavily built, bulkier and more expensive.

There is nothing to stop a cruising sailor carrying a SOLAS or ISO liferaft, but due to the expense, many choose to carry a non-approved liferaft.

A sea anchor in a liferaft

A sea anchor will help slow your rate of drift. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

It is in this sector that you need to be particularly careful about what you buy, as there is no minimum standard the liferaft must meet.

That’s not to say a non-approved liferaft won’t be more than adequate for you, but it is certainly a case of ‘buyer beware’.

Depending on the manufacturer, a non-approved liferaft may be similar to the ISO-compliant liferaft, but with more basic fixtures and fittings and minimal equipment.

This will make the liferaft less expensive, as well as smaller and lighter.

Often, there will be no pyrotechnic flares, medication or food on board which would also shorten the service interval.

If you’ve got a well-packed grab bag, you can take most of the equipment you would need with you and can keep it in date at your leisure without needing a full liferaft service.

With a non-ISO liferaft, however, nothing is a given and there are no guarantees of what standard it is built to, so an ISO-standard liferaft remains the recommended option.

Liferaft construction

The safety standards are designed to govern both how a liferaft is equipped and how it is built.

Buying an ISO-approved liferaft guarantees a number of things.

The raft itself will be made of at least two separate compartments and with enough buoyancy that, with a four-man liferaft, it will keep four crew of 75kg afloat even if one compartment is punctured.

A canopy gutter on an orange six man liferaft

ISO liferafts will include a means of collecting rainwater, such as a canopy gutter. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

All inflatable compartments will have inflation top-up valves.

The floor will provide insulation either with an inflatable floor or thermal matting; the former will keep crew out of pooling water but will need to be inflated.

Inflation hoses will be certified for high-pressure inflation (with a defined service life) and installed away from any possible sharp edges.

The canopy will be fully closeable but also provide windows for keeping a 360º lookout.

Ropes and lifelines will be at least 8mm thick (rope) or 25mm wide (webbing), and non-slip.

Seasickness tablets being put into an orange liferaft

Seasickness is likely. If your liferaft doesn’t include tablets, pack your own. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

At the very least, you should choose a liferaft from a well-known make that includes a canopy, water ballast pockets, self-righting straps, an entry ladder, and of sufficient size for your maximum expected crew, which not all non-ISO liferafts would meet.

If you are sailing more than 150 miles offshore, a SOLAS-standard liferaft is recommended.

Getting to know your liferaft

The more experience you have of your liferaft and how to use it in the water, the easier you will find it should you need it for real.

To do this, you need to see it in the flesh.

You might be able to see an inflated example at a boat show or chandlery, but it’s better to ask your manufacturer or servicing agent if you can watch when they unpack and inflate it when your next service is due.

A liferaft at sea

A sea survival course is one way to get to know your liferaft. Credit: Graham Snook

Seeing your own liferaft inflated is an informative experience.

Even better, go on a sea survival course; some cost as little as £90.

While not a replacement for a liferaft service, it will give you hands-on experience in the water.

If you can’t do any of these, then as a minimum you should read your raft’s manual and equipment list so you know the specifics of your liferaft.

Your manufacturer may also have written instructions as well as videos and photos on their website, so you know what to expect once inflated and what you need to do.

Most importantly, this will also help you identify anything that is missing that you need to add to your grab bag.

Deployment

Having your liferaft stowed in a sensible location and knowing how to deploy it will make errors less likely.

Mounting the liferaft in a hard case externally usually gives the quickest access, though many modern boats now have liferaft stowage lockers built into the cockpit or transom, while smaller or older boats may not have space on deck and owners opt for a liferaft in a soft valise.

A hard mounted liferaft aft of a yacht

Mounting your raft in a hard case on deck means it will be protected and easily accessible. Credit: Graham Snook

The liferaft inside these is the same as one in a hard case, but it is not weatherproof and must be stowed carefully.

It can become buried at the bottom of a locker, so it’s worth practising how long it takes to get it out.

Most problems around deploying liferafts are to do with the painter.

Before you throw it overboard, make sure the painter is securely attached.

It won’t inflate instantly as you’ll need to pull the rest of the painter out and then give it a sharp tug to start inflation.

Boarding

Do you know how to right and board your particular liferaft?

There should be webbing on the underside to help you right it, so find out how and where this is attached, and how you would right it in the water.

There are also different ways of getting into the liferaft, depending on whether you are stepping into it from the yacht, or climbing in from the water, and whether you are wearing a lifejacket, which is clearly sensible in such situations.

Bridle on an orange liferaft

A bridle inside the raft helps crew pull themselves on board. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

There will be some form of ladder by the entrance to the liferaft, and higher specced rafts will have and inflatable platform or step to help you in.

Climbing in from the water, you may need help to get in, so the strongest should climb in first, using the webbing to pull themselves in.

Pushing yourself down into the water and using the buoyancy to bounce up to get your lifejacket over the side of the raft can be helpful.

Equipment

You will be able to go through the equipment list for your liferaft from the manufacturer to see what is included in the liferaft, but actually seeing it first hand and having a go at using it in the raft is even more valuable.

Servicing

Liferafts should always be serviced by the liferaft’s manufacturer or by one of its approved service agents.

You can then be confident that you liferaft has not only been properly and thoroughly checked, but has also been repacked correctly so it can inflate properly.

Repacking a liferaft incorrectly can seriously affect its deployment.

A man on the floor servicing a liferaft

All seams will be checked at service. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

Most service agents will be happy to let you watch, and if you can it’s worth doing as hopefully that will be the only time you see your liferaft inflated.

A liferaft service generally starts from about £200, and the largest cost, aside from the labour, is when the gas canister needs to be replaced.

The cost of servicing generally goes up with each service as more checks are carried out and more items replaced.

It is normal for a liferaft to have a first and sometimes a second service (depending on the specified interval) before the cost of maintaining the liferaft makes buying a new one sensible, usually after seven to 10 years.

Peace of mind

During a service, your liferaft will be removed from its canister and given a full visual inspection, particularly along the seams.

The air inflation hoses, which have a life span of five years, are checked for condition and that they will remain in date until the next service and replaced.

The raft is then inflated to full pressure and left for 30 minutes to stabilise.

An inflated liferaft

A manufacturer or service agent will usually let you see the liferaft inflated during its service. Credit: Andrew Sydenham

A pressure reading is taken and repeated an hour later to check for any leaks.

Other perishable equipment is also checked, including flares, food, water, batteries, first aid kits and medication and replaced as necessary.

You should then be given a certificate of service to guarantee the work and ensure your raft continues to meet the standard for which it was made, giving you peace of mind until the next time it needs to be serviced, hopefully never having been used in an emergency.

With thanks to Survitec for access to their facilities and expertise. www.crewsaver.com

Do I need an ISO-rated liferaft?

ISO liferaft

A basic ISO pack, for over 24 hours, will include:

  • 1 portable, buoyant hand bailer
  • 2 sponges
  • 2 paddles tied into raft close to entrance
  • 1 first aid kit
  • 1 whistle
  • 2 waterproof torches with six-hours’ duration, plus spare bulb and batteries
  • 1 signalling mirror
  • 6 anti-seasickness pills, per person
  • Sealable seasickness bags, one per person
  • 6 red hand flares
  • 2 red parachute flares
  • 2 thermal protective aids
  • Repair kit suitable for use during violent motion
  • 1 inflation pump and captive adaptors
  • 1.5 litres drinking water per person, in containers less than 500ml each, (or a desalinator) and a rainwater collection device
  • 10,000 calories of food per person

Non-ISO liferaft

A non-ISO raft may not have much equipment, but should include:

  • Repair kit and additional reflective tape
  • Large plastic hand bailer
  • 2 sponges
  • Floating knife
  • Rescue quoit and line
  • Two buoyant paddles
  • Sea anchor
  • Instruction manual and immediate action leaflet
  • Hand/foot pump for additional air top up

Packing your bag

Having checked what is already in your liferaft, you can make time spent in the raft more comfortable and increase your chances of survival with a well-packed grab bag.

If there are things you need to add at the last minute, such as an EPRIB, these should be kept to a minimum.

Ideally, you should have a VHF Radio, a handheld GPS and flares that are solely for the grab bag.

Roughly, items in the grab bag should help you call for help and signal your location, provide warmth or protection, food and water, and medical supplies including seasickness tablets, as even the most hardened sailor is likely to succumb in a liferaft.

Items to consider:

  • Flares
  • Torch and light sticks
  • Inflatable radar reflector
  • Life-saving signals (SOLAS 2) card
  • Pump
  • Paddles
  • Repair kit
  • Bailer
  • Sponges
  • Safety knife
  • Thermal protective aids/survival bags
  • Signalling mirror
  • GPS
  • EPIRB/PLB
  • SART
  • Waterproof handheld VHF and spare batteries
  • Waterproof torch / flashlight with spare batteries and bulb
  • Second sea anchor / drogue
  • Tin opener
  • First aid kit and sun protection
  • Food
  • Seasickness tablets, polythene bags and method for sealing them
  • Medical supplies for pre-existing medical conditions
  • Spare spectacles
  • Wet note book with captive pencil
  • Powerful (mouth operated) whistle
  • Water (or hand-operated desalinator and containers for the water). If the bottles are only 3/4 filled they will float
  • Warm clothing including hat & gloves
  • Wet wipes
  • Clock/watch and compass
  • Charts
  • Ships papers/insurance documents
  • Passports, keys, mobile phones
  • Money and credit cards