October 25, 2011

Your own best lifeboat

A READER who is planning to go solo world cruising in a 28-foot sloop wants to know if she really needs a dedicated life raft.  "I really don't have space for one," she says, "and I can't actually afford one anyhow. I am considering carrying a half-inflated inflatable dinghy on deck and keeping a well-stocked grab-bag down below — within arm's reach of the cockpit. Do you think this is irresponsible?"

No ma'am, I don't. I have grave doubts about the usefulness of life rafts on small sailboats. I once edited a book about a large storm off New Zealand that caused havoc among a fleet of yachts heading north, and the only deaths involved a family that took to their life raft. They were never seen again. All the yachts survived, even though some were abandoned when their crews were taken aboard rescue boats.

The committee that investigated the famous Fastnet Race disaster was very critical of the value of life rafts in storm-force winds and seas. Time after time I have read about sailboats whose exhausted crews called for help because they thought their boats were sinking — only to discover days or weeks later that the yachts were still afloat.  Half-filled with water mostly (or more) but still floating, still salvageable, and still affording shelter.

This has led me to the belief that most cruising boats are their own best lifeboats.

There should be a watertight bulkhead up forward, of course, in case of collisions, and you should carry spares for a jury rig — plenty of wire rope and clamps, and as many whisker poles and spinnaker poles as you can find room for.  You may need a way to make an emergency rudder. How about a spinnaker pole and that nicely varnished locker door?

Two bilge pumps are the minimum, at least one of which can be worked manually from the helm. Plus all the usual stuff like a storm jib, and towing warps or a drogue. If you think carefully about it, your personal lifeboat will have a lot more going for it than a dedicated life raft could possibly have.  And yes, keep that half-inflated dinghy on deck somewhere as a last resort.  I suppose lifeboats sink, too, sometimes.

Today's Thought
The storm is master; man, like a ball,
Is toss'd twixt wind and billow.
— Schiller, Wilhelm Tell.

California cops recently pulled over the Bionic Man after they spotted him doing 120 mph on Interstate 5.

He was fined $1,500 and dismantled for six months.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)  


Matt Marsh said...

There's a good reason why some cruisers prefer to call it the "Last-glimmer-of-desperate-hope raft".....

Adam said...

The only problem I can see with a half inflated dinghy on deck is that it's probably the first thing that will get torn away in a capsize.

Reed said...

I tried a spinnaker pole and floor board after losing a rudder. After15 minutes the pole broke like a soda straw.

Anonymous said...

Also if you read the accounts of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart that was crushed by a cyclone, you will see that in all but one case, the sailboat itself was the best bet. It was stated many times that the only time you get into your life raft is when you need to step up into it.

John Vigor said...

Reed -- so how did you solve the steering problem? It would be interesting to know.

John V.

Deb said...

Glad to see you post this. We've been having this discussion around here lately because our Tartan 42 came with a 6 man life raft. The problem? It weighs 95 pounds and has to be THROWN into the water. It took me half an hour to get it out of my car for crying out loud. How am I supposed to throw it into the ocean when the boat's sinking??? I've always said that I would much rather keep the dinghy inflated on the foredeck and use it with a well stocked ditch bag whose contents I had inspected more recently than a year ago.

S/V Kintala

Paraplegic Racehorse said...

Liferafts are plumb dangerous.

The only commercially available self-rescue boat/dinghy/tender is the Portland Pudgy.

That said, there needs to be more competition in the small self-rescue boat market. Check my blog for further thoughts on self-rescue boats.

marine paneling said...

Before setting sail, make sure that you have all the equipments that you would be using. Always choose the best life saving material to ensure that you are safe when unexpected circumstances would occur

maritime law attorney Galveston said...

This post of yours is very helpful as it triggered a second thought in us whether going for a dinghy is safer than staying on the yacht we are in. Though one incident may not be enough for us to conclude that we can be safer without the dinghy, it is always a good idea to be prepared with more options.