Bluewater Gear: Nine Life Rafts Reviewed
|The Winslow raft's wide opening is an easy target for life-raft expert and CW consultant Steve Callahan.|
After a full day of climbing into, out of, over, and under a string of new life rafts, I couldn't decide if it was my jump off the boat or the jump that followed mine that gave me the most pause for thought. The first came about as I stood amidships on Little Wing, the Passport 40 we'd borrowed for the day. It was August in Rhode Island, and I wore my foul-weather jacket and had a life jacket zipped tightly around me. Three feet below and a couple of feet from the deck, the gaping mouth of a Winslow ISO Global Star six-person raft awaited me and my three colleagues lined up along the rail.
Streaming out behind us were seven more rafts (a ninth was tested on another day), representative of the latest generation of safety equipment being built to standards now mandated by some offshore-racing and rally organizers. While we weren't conducting a formal test, the CW editorial team had decided to review the features of each raft, spend some time using them, then pass along our findings to readers to help you consider the many options available.
No time being like the present, I stepped to the lifelines and made the leap. As I landed and slipped quickly to my knees, I felt cold water rush around my legs and up my coat as I scurried out of the entranceway. I'd always wondered how it would feel to abandon ship, and though this was but a drill, that first step from a solid deck to a watery, bouncy raft had been, well, different.
Then came the second jump. With a dull thud, heavy boat shoes hit the life raft's floor. They came in fast and threatening. The floor pitched, and Doug Ritter, executive director of Equipped to Survive, tumbled into me as he slid out of the doorway and off to the side to make way for the others. Quickly, our consultant on this project, Steve Callahan, the author of Adrift, the chronicle of his 76 days in a raft crossing the Atlantic, and CW managing editor Elaine Lembo followed, with knees and elbows flying. And then there were four of us under the fabric canopy, sizing up the space and imagining what it would be like if we were really calling this home until rescuers arrived, what boarding might have been like if it were taking place at night and in heaving seas, and, most important, how easy, even in these controlled conditions, it would be for someone to be injured-when jumping or when being jumped upon-and for serious complications to quickly set in. Elaine, in fact, was about to get a too-real taste of trouble as we went through our planned assessment drill.
By day's end, once we'd finished going through the inventory of safety equipment stored aboard each raft, Steve would conclude that, as with most things relating to boats, a lot of compromises had to be made on how each raft was designed, built, and equipped. As a group, we found notable variations in comfort, kit, and construction, but we also agreed that should we find ourselves on a sinking boat far from shore, we'd be pretty relieved to step aboard any of the rafts that we'd looked at.
First though, we had to put these puppies through their paces. As those aboard Little Wing let out our painter, we were pushed backward by the current that in a minute would make it hard for us to swim about in our foul-weather gear, life jackets, and other clothing. One by one we jumped into the water, then used the Winslow's inflatable ramp and ladderlike webbing that runs across the raft's interior to pull ourselves back aboard-a maneuver that took a surprising amount of upper-body strength and defied a graceful execution. Then we crowded to one side of the raft, used the strings hanging from the bottom to empty its ballast bags, and flipped it over, taking to the water again. We decided that Elaine, the smallest and lightest, would use the strap across the bottom of the raft to climb up its side and right it. It was hard work and took her a few tries, but soon the raft slowly rose and rolled back onto its bottom-landing on top of a disoriented Elaine. Though she was at the edge of the circular raft, her life jacket and wetsuit pushed her upward and into the floor. Quickly, Steve Callahan sized up the problem and pulled her, sputtering, free. Yes, these rafts are a serious business.
|With 4 square feet per person, even a six-person raft is "cozy" when Sue Pillsbury (left), Mike Lovett, Steve Callahan, and a photographer are aboard.|
A Comparison of Features
After consulting on the latest industry trends with Jim and Dan O'Connor, who run Life Raft & Survival Equipment, based in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Cruising World editors decided to take a look at some of the new life rafts being built to standards drafted by the International Organization for Standardization and the International Sailing Federation, commonly referred to respectively as ISO and ISAF. (See "A Discussion of Life-Raft Standards," page 64.) These rafts are required aboard sailboats participating in certain offshore-racing events, and often such requirements trickle down to cruiser-based rallies, such as the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, which now mandates a life raft meeting International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), ISAF, or ISO 9650 guidelines. It's likely, we felt, that this new generation of rafts could create a buzz at boat shows when customers inquire about new products.
The manufacturers that participated in our review included DSB, Revere Survival Products (the sole raft in our study that isn't built to a particular set of standards but is intended for offshore work), Switlik Parachute Company, Viking Life-Saving Equipment, Winslow Life Raft Company, and Zodiac. In a separate session, we also took a look at a raft that Zodiac builds to specifications developed by West Marine.
Both manufacturers and safety experts on hand for our session were quick to point out that while there are valuable features in these standards-based rafts, there are some tradeoffs, too, primarily because these rafts tend to be heavier and more expensive. Unless one is planning to sail in an offshore race or rally, there may be no need to upgrade from your old raft or pay a premium for one of the models we looked at.
What was clear as the rafts were inflated, one after the other, is that there are a lot of variations to consider. Such factors as raft shape, tube construction, canopy height, floor insulation, door size, and ventilation can have a pronounced effect on comfort and performance offshore. Round rafts are thought perhaps to be more stable, rectangular ones more comfortable for stretching out, and high canopies may make it easier for tall people to sit up for long periods. But stability also depends to a large degree on the form and function of the raft's ballast bags, while a high canopy that allows for headroom will increase windage, meaning you may drift farther afield from where your EPIRB initially signaled. Of course, if the emergency signal stopped broadcasting, that increased windage might help you drift to shore faster, too.