Bluewater Gear: Nine Life Rafts Reviewed
On the Water
To get a look at the rafts, we launched most from a dock, but we saved one packed in a valise and one in a canister to deploy from the deck of Little Wing. Our learning curve began as we carried each raft down the dock to be thrown off. Those packed in hard-shell canisters, which outweigh valises by about 10 pounds, were heavy, and almost all were hard to grip. On a pitching deck, it would be tough work for a shorthanded crew to move one of these about. That said, most canisters sit in a deck-mounted bracket and wouldn't need to be moved far to reach the rail. Still, some straps or handholds are needed; one offered only a fingertip grip where the two halves of the canister came together. The valises, with their hand straps, were much easier to handle, thought it was tough to imagine lugging one up from below in less than 15 seconds, which is one of the safety criteria cited by U.S. Sailing.
Once each raft was launched, the painter was tugged to fire off the inflating mechanism. Because rafts may be deployed in a wide range of temperatures, there's extra gas in the inflation canister. We soon got used to the loud hiss of excess gas venting from the expansion valves. Callahan said that in the fury of an emergency, that hissing is often mistaken for a leak. But expansion valves are needed since pressure within the rafts' tubes changes with temperature and must be allowed to vent.
With the launch of each raft, we witnessed many variations in features: inflatable boarding ramps, ladders made from webbing, fold-down fabric ramps, small doors, large doors, windows, observation hoods, and several different locations where painters might be attached. In the drills that would follow, we'd find that each variation had its pros and cons. Small doors make for good protection from the elements, but landing in such a hole when jumping aboard is harder. Webbing rungs designed for easy boarding can tangle legs. And a painter that keeps the door of the raft facing the opening in the lifelines can make boarding from the water all the more difficult.
To me, the biggest takeaway from this preliminary assessment was this: Whatever raft you buy, you'll be well served to find an opportunity to become familiar with it before you need to use it on some dark night. Dealers and manufacturers either run training sessions or can point you to a third party so you can at least experiment with a similar model. Or better yet, when your raft is due for servicing, your repack station can open it with you in a controlled manner that won't add wear and tear to the raft.
A Look at the Rafts DSB ISAF Standard:
DSB ISAF Standard
DSB ISAF Standard:DSB provided a pair of four-person rafts built to ISAF requirements, its ISAF Standard and its ISAF Ocean XR Self-Righting. The Standard, roughly rectangular in shape, comes packed in a valise. At 55 pounds, it's the lightest we looked at. Inflated, the canopy has a generously sized opening on one side that uses a zipper and hook-and-loop fasteners to seal out the elements; there's an observation hood, or inspection port, across from it. Outside the entrance, a fabric ramp folds down on webbing, with a web ladder underneath it so you can get a knee up when climbing in from the water. In general, we found it more difficult to climb aboard rafts with fabric rather than inflatable ramps.
The inner floors of both DSB rafts are made from insulated material (think cellular foam) with a surface that reflects heat back into the raft. On these rafts, the floors were attached to buttons in the corners, and both liners came loose as we moved about. We also found that the emergency equipment wasn't adequately secured and tended to clutter the entranceway as we climbed aboard. Both rafts had conical sea drogues, some of the better we saw, made from a mesh material that would let water pass through.
|DSB ISAF Ocean XR Self-Righting|
DSB ISAF Ocean XR Self-Righting: Similar in shape to the Standard but with double arches, the self-righting ISAF Life Raft has an entrance on its longer side, which can be closed with a zipper and hook-and-loop fasteners, and a fold-down fabric entry ramp with webbing below. As in the Standard, there was a good ladderlike mesh of handholds running across the interior of the raft from the entryway, but unlike some rafts, this couldn't be disconnected when everyone was aboard to get it out of the way. Once capsized, the raft needed only a little push to self-right; in waves it probably wouldn't have needed help. While four could easily fit in either of the DSB rafts, quarters were tight, and all aboard concluded that if planning for a crew of four, a six-person raft would be worth the added expense. (DSB also manufactures 6-person rafts.) The extra space would also allow each crew to carry his or her own ditch bag, a practice recommended by safety experts. (Go to www.cruisingworld.com/1108ditch for more on ditch bags.)
|Revere Offshore Elite|
Revere Offshore Elite: The six-person raft from Revere is built for offshore sailing but not to ISO or ISAF standards. Packed in a valise, it weighs just 63 pounds, making it relatively easy to lift. Inflated, the raft is square, with an ample doorway and a large entrance ramp that inflates with the raft. The raft's canopy is relatively low and brightly colored for visibility. There's a quilted inner floor that can be inflated to aid in the prevention of hypothermia in colder water, and a zippered window across from the opening serves as an observation window and provides cross ventilation. The exterior of the raft is well marked with reflective tape, but we found that when launching the raft, it was difficult to find on the valise the black patch secured by hook-and-loop fasteners that peeled off to expose the painter. We also found that the features of the raft itself weren't as well marked as on some of the other models. Although the raft comes with an older, parachute-style sea anchor, a bonus feature is that it automatically deploys when the raft inflates. On the raft we looked at, safety gear wasn't tied down well and, as on several of the rafts we capsized, tended to get strewn about.