April 25, 2013

Are life rafts really necessary?

SOMEONE WHO READ my last column was moved to ask if there was a reason why any deep-sea sailor would prefer an inflatable dinghy to a dedicated life raft. Well, all I can say is this: Before you rush out and hand over thousands of dollars for a life raft, ask yourself a simple question: What are the chances of a tiny, fragile life raft surviving a storm that sank a much bigger and more seaworthy boat?

Not all that good, apparently. In a famous storm during a Fastnet Race off England in 1979, seven sailors lost their lives because of what an official board of enquiry described as “failure of the life rafts.” The board noted further: “Life rafts clearly failed to provide the safe refuge which many crews expected.”

In the Queen’s Birthday Storm off New Zealand in 1994, the only three sailors who took to a life raft were lost and never seen again. Others who stayed with their crippled, sinking yachts were rescued.

Even if a raft survives the ordeal of launching in a storm, its occupants then have to sit and wait to be rescued, which is catastrophic for morale. Psychologists say many people will die within three days if they perceive they are in a hopeless situation. They are far more likely to survive if they can make organized progress toward land, as they might in a hard dinghy or an inflatable dinghy.

If your boat is big enough to carry one, an unsinkable fiberglass or wooden dinghy is preferable. If not, a partially inflated inflatable dinghy on the cabintop will suffice. Most boats have room for that.

Finally, whether you have a life raft or not, the overwhelming advice is to stay with your boat until it actually sinks under you. Easy to say, of course. Not so easy to do.

Today’s Thought
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place.
— Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.

Here’s a question for all you history buffs:
What did Hannibal get when he crossed the Alps with elephants?
Mountains that never forget, of course.

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


Cameron said...

I'm more worried about hitting a deadhead, whale, getting run over by another ship, or having a fire that gets too out of control than I am a storm.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John. That answered to what I believe was my question. I have recently read other offshore sailors who concur. They prefer to make their boats as "bulletproof" as possible than worry about a liferaft.