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A raft in need

Nov 3, 2014

How to install a life raft for quick use in an emergency

Raft mounted on a cruising catamaran. No hydrostatic release but note tether attached to the boat.

Raft mounted on a cruising catamaran. No hydrostatic release but note tether attached to the boat.

In light of the tragic capsizing this spring of the yacht Cheeki Rafiki during an Atlantic crossing, and more recently the rescue of the crew of the yacht Walkabout after being caught in the path of hurricane Julio off Hawaii, it seems appropriate to take a new look at life rafts and in particular how life rafts are stored and deployed on offshore vessels.  As a marine surveyor, I get a chance to look at many life raft installations. Sadly, more often than not I find rafts that are either not properly stored, or secured in such a way that would not allow rapid deployment in an emergency.

For those not familiar with the above incidents, the Cheeki Rafiki, a Beneteau 40.7, lost her keel and capsized midway through an Atlantic crossing this past May. The four crewmembers were tragically lost when the vessel suddenly overturned. The truly sad part was that a USCG swimmer later found the vessel’s life raft secured in place under the helmsman seat of the overturned yacht. Although it is not known if this raft had a hydrostatic release, it can be presumed that it did not. Even with a hydrostatic release, the raft’s location under the seat may not have allowed it to deploy once the vessel capsized.
 
In the case of the Walkabout, the raft was lost overboard during the height of the storm. Fortunately, this crew was able to get assistance before a raft was needed. These are just two recent incidents among many where an improperly stowed life raft was not available when needed. 

These cases clearly illustrate how important life raft storage is, yet most installations I see are poorly done at best. Few skippers really give much thought to just how their rafts are stored on their boats. When they do think about where to locate and secure the raft, they often miss some key concepts. Before we talk about how a raft is stowed, it helps to understand some of the challenges of a good installation. 

Transom mounted raft on a Lagoon cat.

Quick deployment
For a life raft to be truly useful, it must be able to be deployed quickly even in adverse conditions — most offshore racing rules call for 15 seconds or less. As illustrated with the loss of Cheeki Rafiki, things can and do go wrong fast at sea. Fifteen seconds may not give you and your crew the time needed to deploy a raft.  A rehearsal at the dock takes 15 seconds but will likely take much longer at sea on a pitching deck in poor conditions. 

The raft needs to be secured to the vessel so that it does not drift away once deployed. This is important for obvious reasons but thinking it will be possible to hold onto the tether when deploying could be a fatal mistake. Once again, this may be possible during calm conditions but at sea in storm conditions, it would be all but impossible. No matter how the raft is stowed, it should be in a location that protects it from damage and weather, while at the same time prevents it from being washed away by any waves breaking on or over the boat. As can be imagined, these requirements are challenging.
 
There are basically two ways most rafts are stowed: on deck in a hard canister or valise, or below deck in a valise. Although stowing a raft below deck keeps it dry and away from the damaging effects of sun and weather, it also is one of the worst places to have it in an emergency. Life rafts tend to be heavy and can be hard to lift when needed. The average six-man offshore life raft weighs around 75 pounds. Many offshore boats are often sailed shorthanded and may not have the manpower required to lift a raft up the companionway steps and into the cockpit. This can be made worse in a heavy seaway or if any of the crew is injured. Once in the cockpit the raft is immediately in danger of being lost overboard, as at this point it is likely not secured to the boat. The raft should be secured to the vessel, lifted over the rail and tossed overboard. This whole process is difficult and time consuming at best. Some get around part of this by stowing the raft in a cockpit locker. Much like lifting a raft out of the cabin, it can be hard to lift a raft out of a locker.  Once a cockpit locker is open it exposes the vessel to a new danger of possible flooding should a wave break into the cockpit. Additionally, most rafts in cockpit lockers soon become buried under equipment that is more frequently used, making them more difficult to retrieve. 

Installation using a hydrostatic release, attachment to the boat could be better. Note EPIRB just to the right of raft.

The best option is to stow the raft on deck. This has the advantage of having the raft already on deck ready for deployment. Most rafts can be purchased with a hard case to protect them from the elements and many manufacturers will provide an optional mounting system. This system is not without its drawbacks, however. The first problem is that a raft on deck can be washed overboard. The second problem is that the raft is more exposed to weather related damage even when in a hard case. Some also worry about theft when a raft is left out in the open. 

It’s true that a raft sitting out, exposed to weather and the heat of the sun, will suffer compared to one stored inside. One solution would be to simply stow the raft inside the cabin when in port for extended periods, which would also reduce the possibility of theft. Admittedly it can be a chore moving the raft, so another option would be a canvas cover to be used in port. I have seen some rafts stored in hard Pelican-type cases and though this will protect the raft from weather, it is a poor choice as the tether must be inside the case and all the latches on the lid might slow you down in a real emergency. The problem of being washed overboard can be reduced or eliminated by using a proper mounting system. 

Location options
Where is the best place to locate the raft? This is never an easy question as there are many options for any particular boat. Some locations are better than others, though. The traditional location on the house top is not perfect; the raft adds weight up high, can block visibility from the helm and it still needs to be lifted over the side rails to be manually deployed. This may not be the best location for the raft to float free as it may become trapped by lifelines or rigging. If the raft is not equipped with a hydrostatic release it may be hard for a crewmember in the water to reach the raft on a capsized or sinking vessel. 

Some boats have special lockers in the cockpit designed specifically for life rafts. These are often small lockers sealed to the inside of the boat so that they can be opened under any conditions. Many of these will have a closed or partially closed locker directly under the helm seat aft. Cockpit lockers designed just for rafts have the advantage of protecting the raft from weather while having it close to crew and easy to access. Once again, a disadvantage is the raft still needs to be lifted up and over the rail to be deployed. It is also difficult or impossible to have the raft self-deploy when inside a locker or under a seat. If the locker lid is securely closed the raft cannot float free. 

 An aft rail mounted raft that is well positioned for easy deployment.

Recently I have been seeing rafts stowed on a bracket on the side or aft rails. This makes perfect sense as the raft is already at the side of the boat and in a position where it can be easily deployed by even the smallest crewmember. Simply release the raft and it will drop over the side, ready to be inflated. Should the boat sink or capsize, this is the perfect location to allow the raft to float free. This also places the raft a bit higher up above any waves breaking on the boat. Some disadvantages are the rails holding the raft have to be strong enough to hold the raft when struck by a wave; this is often not the best place for additional weight; and this also places the raft at a convenient location for theft. For the most part, these disadvantages can be overcome by having rails properly constructed and using a lock when in port.
 
Another good location is in a recess in the transom, with the main advantage being that the  rail mount allows for easy deployment while the weight is kept a bit lower. On monohulls this does place the raft lower and subjects it to being hit with waves. Recessing the mount in a well can help reduce the effect of those waves. Catamarans will often have a recess higher up in the bridge deck transom where a raft would be very easy to deploy — even if capsized. Transom mounts also may allow access from crew in the water. 

For powerboats, much of the same thinking applies. I often see rafts mounted high up on hardtops or flying bridges. At this height, the weight of the raft will have an effect on the boat’s stability.  Additionally these locations are often hard to climb up to while at dock, let alone while the boat is pitching in a seaway. The owner also needs to think about the fact that the higher up the raft is on the boat, the deeper in the water it will be in the event of a capsize. For most power boats, the cockpit or transom makes the most sense. The foredeck can also work well, particularly if the raft will fit under any side rails. For trawlers and other aft cabin powerboats, the aft housetop can be a good location. 

Although fairly secure, this raft would be difficult to deploy.

Securing the raft 
Once a location has been selected, it is time to think about how the raft will be secured to the vessel so that it can withstand the impact of a wave yet still be easily deployed. Many raft makers will offer a cradle for their rafts for installing on deck. These are usually made of stainless steel tube and are designed with a single-point quick release. When attaching these mounts to the deck it is important to use through bolts with backing plates. Do not underestimate the force that can be applied to a raft by a wave. 

How the raft is secured to the mounts is as important as the mounts themselves. It is common to see rafts just lashed to the deck with no mounts, or strapped into the mounts so tightly that it would take several precious minutes to get free. On the other extreme I see rafts secured with nothing more than a couple of bungee cords. These, of course, would never hold a raft in a storm. The best system for securing the raft will have a single-point release, meaning there is only one fastener to release the raft. A system using hinged tubing, rod or wire cable is best. It should hold the raft securely all around so that the raft cannot slip out from any direction.  A single-point release will allow the use of a manual quick release along with a hydrostatic release that will allow the raft to self-deploy.

A poorly secured raft in a valise. The bungee cords would not hold the raft in heavy weather.

A hydrostatic release unit (HRU) consists of a pressure-sensitive cutter that will cut the link when the unit is submerged. As all raft canisters are designed to have positive buoyancy, the raft will then float free from its cradle. The second part of this device is called a “weak link.” The raft’s tether is connected to the vessel through the weak link. Once the raft floats free, the tether will play out until its end where it will then trigger the inflation of the raft. If the vessel sinks, this weak link will break, preventing the raft from being pulled under with the vessel. If the vessel is not sinking the raft will remain attached until the tether is cut manually; most rafts supply a special knife for this purpose. Some voyagers fear that if they secure the raft to the vessel and it sinks, it will pull the raft down with it. This problem is overcome with the use of the weak link. A manual release is still used in conjunction with the HRU so that the raft can still be manually deployed. With an HRU, the tether remains attached to the vessel even when manually deployed. This prevents the raft from being deployed without being attached to the vessel. These units are not very expensive and should be used on all life raft installations. 

Even the best-made life rafts are of no use if they cannot be properly deployed in an emergency. Think of your life raft as your parachute at sea: just like a parachute, you need to quickly and correctly deploy it. 

Capt. Wayne Canning lives on his Irwin 40 VAYU, in Wilmington NC. He is a full time Marine Surveyor, freelance writer, and consultant/project manager on major repairs. Visit www.4ABetterBoat.com and www.projectboatzen.com for more info.

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