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Survival suits versus a life raft?

Dec 21, 2010

To the editor: As is usually the case, I received my November/December issue of Ocean Navigator and read it cover to cover. I always learn a lot and am entertained for many hours. I just finished reading Ralph Naranjo’s excellent article concerning survival suits (Last line of defense? Issue #190). As an Alaskan cruiser, I thought I’d share some of my observations on survival suits versus life rafts.

My wife and I have cruised Alaskan waters for more than 20 years in various sailboats, the last 10 years in our 1984 Passport 40, Wings. In preparation for a recent crossing of the Gulf of Alaska from our home port of Seward to Elfin Cove, we debated the respective merits of a life raft versus survival suits, and elected to purchase a life raft. Here’s why:

We met when I taught mountaineering courses for adults at a community college. Beginning mountaineers always purchase “shiny gear” first — carabiners, ice tools and such — prior to purchasing important safety gear such as helmets and avalanche beacons. While we have (and use) life jackets, float coats, harnesses, tethers and jack lines, we had neither immersion suits nor a life raft. My wife made the excellent comment that crossing the Gulf of Alaska and not having a “plan B” in case of catastrophic misadventure was foolish.

We have each tested “Gumby suits” to see what they are like in cold water. Realistically speaking, any event serious enough to require us to abandon ship carries a high likelihood that at least one of us is injured. A seriously injured person would not be able to don a survival suit. Imagine sustaining a broken leg and then being faced with pushing it into a survival suit!

Naranjo correctly mentions the loss of personal mobility in a survival suit. Rendering first aid to my partner would be virtually impossible. The possibility of the crew becoming separated is a real danger with survival suits. In the event of catastrophic loss of our boat, we feel that we need to remain together to assure survival. It’s not just the “husband and wife thing,” although that’s important. It’s having two brains to solve problems.

In the vastness of Alaskan waters, rescue can be many hours, if not days, away. Even our hard working Coast Guard can’t always find shipwrecked people, and finding them is often not the same as reaching them. Issues like food and water become more important, to say nothing of first-aid supplies. A properly-equipped rescue raft buys considerable time under these circumstances.

Our decision to choose a raft over suits was also influenced by the greater visibility of a four-person raft compared to two survival suits — even when tethered together. In stormy conditions, there is no question that the larger visible footprint of a raft could be an important factor in a rescue. And amazingly, our packed raft is actually no larger than two survival suits.

In the end, we purchased a four-person, offshore survival raft from a well-respected manufacturer. Obviously, we don’t want to test our theories, but I do think some of these ideas might be useful to others when making a similar decision about what gear to purchase.

William Ennis taught physics at an Anchorage, Alaska, high school for 27 years and mountaineering for the University of Alaska, Anchorage for 22 years. He and his attorney wife, Conni, retired in 2008 and are sailing their 1984 Passport 40, Wings, south toward warmer climes. Their website is http://svwings.com.