February 21, 2013

Do you need a life raft?

MOST CRUISING BOATS are their own best lifeboats.  That’s the conclusion I came to once, after a lot of thinking about whether I could afford a life raft and all the fuss, bother, servicing, and money that goes with it.

The best plan is to forestall problems that might lead you to abandon ship, rather than the retrograde step of simply providing a life raft in the event that something goes wrong.

Therefore, you need to give a lot of thought to safety gear that will keep the boat out of trouble in the first place. Strong construction, strong rigging and good design are essential safety factors. But there is another factor that is just as important, but often overlooked, and that’s the need for a fit and mentally agile crew — that is, a crew able to work the boat and make intelligent decisions.

So do whatever is necessary for crew shelter and comfort. Provide hot food, dry beds and plenty of sleep. And take especially good care of the navigator.

Buy heavy ground tackle. No makeshift picks on dental floss rodes, please.  And good, bright navigation lights, plus a powerful strobe light, either with self-contained batteries and hauled up to the spreaders, or connected to the ship’s 12-volt supply and permanently mounted at the masthead.  Don’t worry about the legality of it. The international rules allow you to attract help in any way you can.

A good radar reflector, correctly mounted in the raincatcher position, is a must.  A radar detector and an AIS receiver/transmitter are among other safety devices that are helpful if you can afford them.

An auxiliary engine is something almost all cruising boats are equipped with these days, and while it’s undoubtedly an important safety feature, you should try very hard never to place yourself in a position where the engine is your only hope. On any boat that can sail half decently, it is a last resort, and I mean a last, last resort.

If you’ve decided to forgo a life raft, you’ll need to plan for a jury rig in case of mast failure. Wire clips or spare terminals, wire cutters, spare stays and jury spars are all things you need to think about. And before you disappear over the horizon, figure out how you’re going to steer if something happens to your rudder.  Are you prepared to sacrifice that expensive spinnaker pole and the beautiful locker door to cobble together a rudimentary rudder? If so, how are you going to bolt them together?  How will you pivot it? Buy the hardware now while you think about it.

Two bilge pumps are the minimum, at least one of which can be worked manually by the person at the helm. Two fire extinguishers are the very minimum, too, and you would also do well to have a couple of galvanized steel buckets handy.

A proper storm jib and towing warps or a drogue are standard safety equipment for riding out bad weather. Add a mainsail reefing system that is strong and easy to work. Slab reefing is fine. Don’t be tempted by roller-furling mainsails. They can be a lot of trouble at the worst of times.

And remember that there are isolated parts of the world where help is limited. You might need to be able to repair your hull yourself if you hit a reef, a whale, or a chunk of floating Japanese tsunami debris. Whether it’s wood, steel, GRP, concrete, or aluminum, take the right bits and pieces. 

The other thing about life rafts is that they have proved less than satisfactory in emergencies such as the deadly Fastnet Race off Britain and the Queen’s Birthday storm off New Zealand. All too often abandoned yachts are found weeks later,  half waterlogged, it’s true,  but still floating, while their crews, who took to life rafts, are never seen again.

Today’s Thought
He is free from danger who, even when he is safe, is on his guard.
— Publilius Syrus, Sententiae

A cowboy who took up a successful career in politics was heckled one day in the middle of a heated debate in Congress.
A female opponent asked him with a sneer: “Is it true that you used to look after cows?”
“Yes ma’am, it’s true,” he said. “Are you feeling ill?”

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


seanseamour said...

All your recommendations to avert having to abandon ship are excellent and have all been part of my cruising preparations for the past twenty years, that said when you encounter the conditions we survived, 70+' waves, an 01:00 rogue wave knockdown simulated at over 125', a two phase 360° roll an hour later, a GPIRB cloned by the manufacturer that woke another sailor 800 miles away, and here to tell the story only because I had kept a obsolete EPIRB and had a life raft to step up to. Granted the conditions were extraordinary but 80 nautical miles off my starboard s/v Flying Colors disappeared with two professional skippers on board. I don't believe the life raft shortcut is a wise decision. For more please visit my website www.artseaprovence.com

Bill said...

I'm still in the planning stages. But I will almost certainly have a lifeboat.


My wife wants one, and won't feel safe without one.

Other logic notwithstanding.