April 18, 2016

You may not need a life raft

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.”

Today’s Thought

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.”

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


don w said...

which vicious queen was that?

John Vigor said...

Don, it was the well-known lower-case vicious Queen, of course. She's not half as bad as some of those upper-case Vicious Queens.

Your Royal Correspondent,

John V., Esq.

Sixbears said...

In February my wife and I grounded on an unmarked shoal that had formed in the two years since we'd been there last. Instead of the 17 feet of water we were expecting we had 2. Of course, it was at night. Channel markers were scheduled to be moved in another two weeks.

Since our boat had a 4 foot draft it did not fare well on a 2 foot shoal. Weather got worse and we were taking a beating. Decided to abandon ship. We were on a 23 foot Ranger and towed a big Sea Eagle 420 inflatable kayak. Loaded up my wife, dog, ditch bag and headed to a nearby island. Threaded out way through the shoals and make a good landing on the beach through the heavy surf. Good thing we had a boat we could paddle to where we needed to go. No telling where a life raft would have drifted to.

It was a good thing we abandoned the boat as it broke up in the night. Even the keel snapped off. Total loss. However, it's just stuff. We survived just fine.