A life raft is a fundamental piece of safety equipment that is used to provide emergency transportation and shelter, to evacuate people from a sinking or endangered vessel. They are partly collapsible, so are easier to store than life boats, which are solid. They are also much quicker to launch than life boats.
Types of Liferafts
There are essentially 3 types of liferafts...
Rescue Platforms are commonly used for Aircraft applications. These are intended to keep survivors out of the water for shorter periods of time and have little to no gear.
Coastal or Nearshore rafts are designed for use with boats that operate close to the shoreline (between 0-10 nautical miles). Basically within areas that you would be sure of a rescue within 24 hours. These rafts are not equipped with double inflation tubes or the added emergency features for extended survival.
Offshore or Ocean rafts are meant for use for greater than 10 miles from shore and in areas with volatile or cold weather. Essentially for areas where the likelihood of rescue may be more than 24 hours, as these rafts are designed to extend survival to somewhere between 4 and 30 days. They usually have a single large buoyancy tube or double inflation tubes and supported canopies. The best life raft canopy will be highly visible on the outside.
Life rafts will either have a single or double floor. Single floors are a few mm thick and will keep you out of the water. However, they will not provide any insulation against the freezing temperatures of the sea. A double floor life raft will provide survivors with protection from the cold.
Some rafts are supplied with a ladder underneath, which is very useful if the life raft is deployed upside down or becomes capsized.
Life raft standards
There are several standards that define life rafts. The development of these standards came after the tragic Fastnet disaster in 1979, which forced manufacturers to improve their life rafts.
The ORC standard (Offshore Racing Council requirements) was the first significant improvement in life raft design and was based on a list of requirements for Offshore Racing.
The ISO 9650 life raft specification was published in 2005 and set out operational performance and testing requirements that have to be completed for each life raft model. The 9650 was designed to bring all the life raft regulations of the EU countries into line with a single standard and eradicate confusion. The ISO 9650 is split into 2 types. Type-1 life rafts are designed for open ocean navigation and have been adapted for risks that can be associated with long voyages, such as high seas or heavy winds. The Type-2 life rafts are designed for coastal and inshore waters navigation. They have been adapted for risks where moderate conditions may occur.
For commercial life rafts, there is the SOLAS standard (Safety Of Life At Sea). For those venturing more than 150 miles from the coast, a SOLAS standard life raft is recommended. A SOLAS raft must be capable of withstanding more than 30 days at sea, be housed in a buoyant container and be strong enough to withstand repeated jumps of crew members from heights of 15 feet. There are A & B versions of SOLAS life rafts, which differ as to the equipment that they contain.
How big should the life raft be?
You will need to decide how many people the raft would need to accommodate at any one time. You should have approximately 4 cubic feet per person as a recommendation. If you can, choose a life raft that would fit an extra 2 people instead, then you will have plenty of room for supplies. Typical capacities vary from 4 man to 10+ man.
Life raft containers
There are 2 main types of storage for a life raft. One is known as a Container or a Canister. This will be a plastic or fibreglass shell. They are not normally 100% waterproof and usually have drain holes in the bottom, allowing for condensation. Canisters can be mounted on an exposed deck.
A Valise is made of coated fabric and will fit over the raft like a tight duffle bag. They are usually lighter than a canister, but will not provide as much impact protection. A valise can be stored in a dry location, such as a cockpit locker.
How to stow the life raft
The life raft should be secured in a place that is easily accessible and allows it to be launched when needed. It should also be stowed in a place that is not exposed to potential damage in rough seas. Many modern boats have purpose built life raft lockers, which can be found either in the sole of the cockpit, the transom or in a seat locker. This allows the raft to be easily reached and also affords some protection to it over a long voyage.
You should inspect your life raft regularly, to ensure it is still in good working order.
Accessories you may need for your liferaft
Many life rafts come with an assortment of safety accessories and you can also order items separately too. At the bare minimum, we recommend keeping an up-to-date first aid kit, thermal protective aid and a personal locator beacon. At Mailspeed Marine, we have a large range of life raft and man overboard equipment for you to browse through.