AN IMPECUNIOUS YOUNG COUPLE about to go ocean cruising in a small sailboat once asked me if they really needed a life raft. I said no. I told them their inflatable dinghy would do just as well, as long as they could protect themselves from wind, rain, and sun.
The trouble with a life raft is that there is no guarantee that it will work properly when you need it, or that it will stay afloat long enough for you to be rescued.
For a start, they’re expensive to buy and maintain. They contain very little to help sustain life. Some don’t even have any water. So you’d need a fully stocked grab bag whether you had a life raft or an inflatable carried half-inflated on deck.
Life rafts are cramped, too. I guess four people could tolerate being in a four-person life raft for four hours, but only a six-person life raft would be tolerable for two for a week.
Then there’s the question of how you can launch a raft in a storm, and keep it safely alongside while you get yourselves and your stuff into it. Seven lives were lost during the storm that hit the Fastnet Race off England in 1979 in incidents that the later inquiry called “failure of the life raft.” The inquiry board discovered that the yachts these seven people abandoned were later found afloat and towed to harbor. The board added: “The rafts clearly failed to provide the safe refuge which many crews expected.”
During the vicious Queen’s Birthday Storm off New Zealand in June 1994, the only lives lost were those of a family of three who abandoned their boat and took to their life raft, never to be seen again.
The pressure to abandon ship before it’s necessary is very great but the fact is that very few boats sink from the stress of storms. Even those abandoned with hatches open seem to survive.
So my advice to the young couple about to set off on their first cruising adventure was simply: “Never abandon your boat until you are absolutely, positively sure it’s going to sink. Then, if you have an Epirb, you’ll be rescued just as quickly in your inflatable dinghy as in a dedicated life raft.”
What is safe is distasteful; in rashness there is hope.
— Tacitus, History
“Did you hear that Johnny the butcher’s assistant backed into the meat grinder?”
“Goodness, no — how is he?”
“Well, he’s OK, but he got a little behind in his work.”
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