Life rafts are our lifeline and storing/mounting them properly is critical for when you need to use one. Our guest blogger, Captain Frank Lanier, contributes another piece from his Sea Chest of Horrors for your amusement and education. Frank, now retired from the USCG, is a marine surveyor and writer for Practical Sailor, Lakeland Boating and numerous other marine magazines.
While the decision to buy a life raft is typically preceded by considerable thought, where it will be stowed or mounted once purchased is too often an afterthought. The best life raft money can buy will be more liability than asset if it is not easily accessed and launched when needed. Here’s a look at mounting and stowing strategies that will ensure your life raft is always ready, willing, and able.
The holy grail of life raft stowage can be boiled down into four basic requirements.
1. Protection from the elements.
2. Security against vandalism or theft.
3. Easy to access and launch.
4. Able to be deployed without becoming trapped or entangled.
The best scenario is the vessel that has a built-in life raft stowage locker, one that protects the raft, yet keeps it instantly available. A well thought-out raft locker ensures the unit is protected from the elements, less likely to be washed overboard in heavy seas, and (if the latching system accepts a padlock) more easily secured against theft while in port. If no dedicated locker exists, stowage options will be based on whether your raft is a valise or canister style.
Canister or valise?
Life rafts are available in two styles, those packed within a flexible valise (for below-deck storage) or those stowed within a ridged canister for mounting on deck. The valise style raft is a popular option due to its greater compactness, lighter weight, and the additional protection offered by stowing it inside, which also keeps the decks clear and the raft out of the way.
Although the above benefits are attractive, there are downsides associated with stowing a raft below decks. Smaller vessels may lack sufficient space near the companionway to stow a bulky raft without impeding the normal flow of traffic. Another issue is the need to lug the valise on deck to deploy – most rafts are heavy (even when deflated) and may be too much for smaller crew members to handle, particularly in rough weather. Ultra compact rafts offered by some manufactures (Survival Products for example) are lighter in weight to help mitigate this issue.
When selecting a below-deck stowage space or locker, choose one that’s accessible, convenient, free of clutter (lines, sails, etc) and that allows the raft to be easily launched by any crew member.
While some boaters may temporarily store a valise life raft above decks during offshore passages for easier deployment, rafts permanently stowed above decks should be housed within a canister. Canisters (rigid containers of molded fiberglass or ABS plastic) offer greater protection from physical damage and the elements than a fabric valise, allowing them to be mounted at most any suitable location above decks (i.e. one that provides easy access and deployment).
The cons associated with canisters include being larger, heavier, and more expensive than a valise container. The loss of valuable deck space can also be an issue. While they offer more protection against spray, canisters are also prone to flooding if submerged (such as while taking solid water over the decks) one reason the cockpit or upper decks may be a better mounting option than an exposed foredeck.
Canister rafts must be securely mounted to prevent damage (or worse) loss during heavy weather. Most life raft manufacturer’s offer metal or fiberglass cradles or mounts for use with their canister rafts. As with any heavily loaded piece of deck gear, when mounting make sure all raft mounts and cradles are secured with heavy nuts, bolts, and backing plates.
Regardless the style raft you have, inspect any possible stowage area or mounting location with a critical eye while trying to visualize potential problems. If mounted near that engine hatch, will you be able to reach and deploy the raft in the event of an engine fire or explosion? Will that spot beneath the boom allow the raft to deploy without becoming tangled in the rigging? Don’t be afraid to simulate a launch using the raft (or a cardboard box of similar size) to develop a launching procedure and ferret out problems beforehand – your life (as well as that of your crew) may depend on it.