This story was first published in Southwinds Magazine out of St. Petersburg, Florida in February of 1999. Read, enjoy, share with your friends, but please don't publish it with out written permission from the author.

Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at

The ABC's of Life Rafts
by Gene Gruender
Copyright 1997, 1999

Like most cruisers, I knew little about my life raft. To rectify that I spent a little time talking to Homer Lambert, co-owner of Triad Marine in the Clear lake area. Triad Marine is one of the larger life raft sales and repacking agencies in the Clear Lake area.

The first surprise was when Homer told me that he was the second person I should see if I was going offshore. The first was the fellow selling a 406 MHz EPIRB. If you have to choose between the life raft or EPIRB, he recommends getting the EPIRB. It won't do you any good to be floating around out there if no one finds you. If you have enough money left, then get the life raft.

Once you've decided to buy a life raft, how do you decide which one to get? "First, be honest with yourself about the type of sailing you'll do. Don't convince yourself you're coastal cruising if you're really crossing oceans", said Lambert. He went on to explain that he'd recommend buying a life raft made by a manufacturer with a good track record who has been in business for 10 years or more.

Since many cruisers end up buying a used raft, I asked how a person could know if a raft was any good before handing over the money. I tried to buy one used raft but the deal fell apart because the seller didn't want to invest in a repack, and I didn't want to buy an unknown raft.
Homer explained that this should never be a problem. Simply take it in and get an estimate. Most reputable repackers will open and inflate a raft and give a written estimate for no charge. You can then negotiate the sale with no uncertainty.

When it comes time to get my raft recertified, I thought I'd just take it in and pull the cord. I would watch what happened, then let them repack it. Homer said that was a bad idea.
He explained that the cold nitrogen from the inflation canister was very hard on the raft. A raft will last for about five inflations, then the cold has taken the life out of the material. He recommends that when you're ready to have your raft recertified, take it to your repacking station. Most will encourage you to watch and videotape as they remove it from the canister, then inflate it with compressed air, which will not damage the raft.

He also recommends bringing along anyone who might be crew on the boat. He feels this is part of the service you are paying for, and any reputable repacking agency will allow it. This way, everyone in the crew will know what to expect and where things will be in an emergency.

Rafts need to be recertified each year. What will be required? The water will need replacing at the fifth year, flares must be replaced when they are outdated - usually after three years. Every five years the raft must be inflated with the canister. At the five year inflation test, 99% pass without repairs. At ten years, 80% pass. Some of the newer rafts are vacuum packed in a vinyl bag inside the canister. Using this method, many rafts are opened at ten years of age and are still like new.

When you take the raft to be recertified, you can add a small amount of your personal equipment to the stores already packed inside. A popular choice is the PUR Survivor 06 watermaker or something similar: however, the emergency watermaker will take up much of the storage in most rafts. If you have any medical needs you should consider putting the necessary medication in the raft before it is sealed. Glasses or extra fishing gear might be a choice for some.

Homer said that quite often there are injuries in the emergency that caused the raft to be used. you should consider adding to the medical supplies normally included, however, he cautioned against taking supplies nobody in the crew would be capable of using. For example, putting in a suture kit when no one in the crew would be able to use it would be a waste.

Storing your raft on the deck of your boat may look nautical and show off the fact that you are capable of going offshore, but it's going to shorten the life of your raft. Unless you really need it on the boat, for your regular sailing, it's better to store it in a cool dry place. Putting it in your storage shed is better than leaving it on your boat in the sun, even better is at home in the back of a closet in a controlled climate.

I've carried the heavy canister holding my eight - person offshore raft on and off the dock a number of times. I was always concerned that I'd get tangled in the line, give it a short pull and fire the thing off right there in my arms. Homer explained that pulling some line from the canister would do no harm, as there is at least 25 feet of line inside a raft. Until that last inch is pulled out and breaks a seal, it won't inflate. This 25 feet of line also means that when you throw the raft overboard, it's going to drift some distance from the boat before it inflates. When it does inflate, there will be a strong pull on the line from the water and wind if it's blowing. It is vital that the raft be tied to something solid on the boat before launching. Holding the line in your hand will not suffice. You'll lose the raft when you need it most.

Homer had a few suggestions about abandon ship bags. Make sure it floats. Don't trust the ads, try it out. It's much too important. Test it before you need it. In addition to the normal survival gear, add sanitary items and soap. If you spend any time in the raft you'll be glad you did.

In the time between writing this article and when it went to press we talked to a number of cruisers about some of the points in the article. Everytime I mentioned getting an estimate on a used raft, I was asked what happened if you didn't get it repacked. Did you leave with a big wad of liferaft in your arms? Did they fold it back up and put it back? Now why didn't I think of asking that?

About the time this article went to press we had our raft recertified. We asked the used raft questions - we asked what happened when they decide not to go through with the recertification after getting an estimate. He chuckled and said that is sometimes a problem. They can't put it back in the canister, it could be construed as having been repacked and the liabilities involved just won't allow them to do that. However, they try their best not to leave anyone in that shape.

He said that first they'll just cut the bands on the canister and lift it up. They can often tell right then if it's worth proceeding. More times than not, if it's a used raft either at the time of a sale or that someone has bought, it is clear right then that it isn't any good. Most of the time, when a buyer and seller come in and it's opened there is some embarrassment and quick re-negotiation. The majority of the used rafts brought in this way aren't worth repacking. Let the buyer be forewarned.

In the event that it is worth proceeding and the raft is taken out and inflated, they will fold it up as best as they can, but cannot fit it back in the canister due to the liability issues. It should be clear to anyone contemplating buying a used raft that you stand a better than 50-50 chance of buying something worthless if you don't get it checked before the sale.

Copyright 1997, 1999
All rights reserved

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