Life rafts are the thing you need when almost everything else fails. With the exception of a fierce and unexpected holing of the boat from some external force, or a fast-building fire you can’t contain, if you find yourself boarding a life raft, then you know that mistakes were made, opportunities were missed and—in most cases—you waited too long.
Leaving something built to float for something built to float “just in case” is not the way to end a trip on the ocean.
You would think that boaters would know more about this equipment. Recently, however, I was reminded that even boaters with long experience might know little about the last-ditch tool of choice.
While we were filming the life raft module for an online course, the raft failed to inflate fully, or even mostly inflate. It’s rare, but it happens. I climbed on the half-sunken mess, pulled out the manual pump and got to work. The raft was fully inflated in a half hour, and we finished filming.
After the shoot, a longtime sailor who was watching from the pier said, “I had no idea there was a pump in those things.”
If what happened to me while filming had happened to that guy in real life, he would have died within inches of the tools necessary for his salvation.
Life rafts are basically a series of tubes that hold air. All of them are required to be packed with equipment to stop air from escaping, and for putting air back into them if too much gets out. Not knowing that little fact can kill you.
Professionals have to take a course known as Basic Safety Training (BST), or Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). The five-day course includes a module on life rafts. Students inflate and board a life raft and learn to use the tools contained inside. If you’ve made the investment in a life raft, then you have done a good thing. But if you haven’t actually seen the raft inflated and crawled inside and gone through the contents of the survival pack, then you are waiting until the last minute to learn about the last thing you’ll want to use—which will probably be in the dark, in a storm.
Stop waiting and remedy that. The best (or least expensive) time to have a look into the life raft is before you buy it. If you haven’t done that, then insist on seeing the inside of your raft at the next inspection. If that date is years away, then research the make and model of your raft, determine what the raft pack contains, and learn what all of that stuff is for.
Of course, the best way to learn how to use a life raft is to actually, you know, use a life raft. The subsection class of the BST course the pros take—and that non-pros can take too—is called Personal Survival Techniques (PST) and usually costs less than $300. If you own a life raft, this is the best course to expose you to actual use and survival techniques. To find a class near you, go to the U.S. Coast Guard website and search for “personal survival techniques.”
If two days and $300 is more than you’re ready to spend, sailing associations and other organizations put on safety-at-sea seminars, and there always seem to be courses and classes available at boat shows and festivals. Just be warned: I’ve attended good and not-so-good courses.
Investing in life-raft training is way down on the priority list for many boaters. I get it. But like so many other safety-related learning experiences, this one can be the best money you ever spend. You don’t want to learn that your life raft won’t float when you pull the inflation line for the first time. The cost of learning that lesson is going to feel like a lot more than a few hundred bucks and a couple of days.
For more information on how to use and maintain your life raft, enroll in our online course, Safety & Rescue at Sea, through Boaters University at boatersuniversity.com
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.