Long before hitting the water, I knew I was in over my head. Not only was the water along the Sail Newport piers deep, but until recently I'd never seen a life raft inflate, much less become a passenger. Fortunately, this was a controlled opportunity to board and examine an offshore life raft in calm waters, not at sea in a storm, when my life would be at stake. We were about to get into the last of nine models that senior editor Mark Pillsbury had collected for this month's story (see "Bluewater Gear: Nine Life Rafts Reviewed," page 62), but I was still at the steep end of my safety-at-sea learning curve.
After inflating West Marine's ISAF Bluewater raft, we boarded it from the dock, then climbed back onto the dock and manually tipped the raft over, which required emptying some of its water-ballast bags. We then jumped in the water, and as my foul-weather jacket ballooned out on a cushion of air, I thought, OK, this isn't going to be so bad. But then the air seeped out, and the cold sea water replaced it. Even though I had my life jacket on, I started second-guessing my decision not to wear the drysuit I'd used earlier in August, when we tested the eight other rafts.
My wife, Rachel, who swims in the ocean all summer and probably wasn't giving the temperature a second thought, was first to reach for the righting strap across the bottom of the raft, and in short order, she'd tipped the raft upright. Along with Steve Callahan, a former CW editor and life-raft survivor, I made sure that the raft didn't land on Rachel. It was her first life-raft experience, and as Mark describes in his story, we'd already seen that someone could get stuck underneath one.
There's no real substitute for first-hand experience. That's the main lesson from our in-water sessions. Sure, there are big differences among the rafts and their gear. But we found that once you got used to climbing in from the water, hand over hand, and adapted to moving about in a fluid environment, getting a feel for the second raft and then the third became easier. If you're shopping for a raft, spend time reading articles, watching our online videos (at www.cruisingworld.com/0811liferaft), and talking to raft makers at shows. But I guarantee that the biggest return you'll get is from spending time in an inflated life raft in the water.
What'll happen is you'll start to understand the dynamics that could develop and be able to begin formulating better questions. Such as the pros and cons of where you store and launch your raft, whether it's safer to jump in or board from the water, and what to pack in each crewmember's ditch kit. You'll also begin to measure how much you're willing to spend on a raft and other safety gear. For example, should you buy a four-, six-, or eight-person raft? And is this an area in which you really want to save a few bucks? Whatever we say won't match what you observe when you make the comparison yourself. Even more important, you'll get a clear idea of how wet and miserable a life raft can be-and you'll put that much more emphasis on keeping your boat intact.
In his story, Mark recommends inflating your raft, with assistance from a service technician, when it's due for inspection and a repack. But you might want to take advantage of new, hands-on training seminars, which give you a structured opportunity to do what we did: get wet and get in a life raft. You'll also launch flares and use a fire extinguisher to battle a real fire. For more on these, visit U.S. Sailing's website (www.ussailing.org/safety/seminars).
We still think, of course, that there's good value in writing about safety. This winter, many of CW's best stories will be in a new edition of the program we edit for U.S. Sailing's regular Safety-at-Sea Seminars. At the same time, if you get the chance to get wet, I say go for it. Next time, though, I'll wear the drysuit.