Bohne points to European-made EV or Revere rafts as among the most compact. Mark Haskell, owner of A Sailor's Place in Stuart, Florida (www.asailorsplace.com) adds Zodiac to that list. "They're reasonably priced and a good value," Haskell says, but all three brands are made of PVC rather than rubber. For longevity, Haskell likes neoprene best, natural rubber second and PVC last. Bohne disagrees, though. "A PVC life raft with 100 percent welded seams is the longest-lasting life raft you can buy," Bohne says. "There is no direct ultraviolet exposure [to a life raft], so it's usually the glue that fails. With 100 percent welded seams, there is no glue to degrade."
Bohne's caveat — all-welded seams — is important. Both he and Haskell report problems where some manufacturers of welded-seam rafts glue on ballast bags or canopies. "If the ballast bags come unglued, the raft [might capsize]," Haskell says. "If the canopy comes unglued, you don't have protection from the sun." Both Haskell and Bohne say annual inspections head off such problems, but both are concerned with the trend toward three-year service intervals. To extend time between inspections, rafts are sealed inside a vacuum bag. While this helps keep moisture out, "The heat seal on a vacuum bag can come apart, or the raft can shift and pinch it," Haskell says. "Once moisture gets inside the bag, you get corrosion on metal fittings and mold and mildew, which break down the fabric. When glue sits in water and heat for years, it softens."
Extending service intervals does save money — about half the cost at roughly $1,200 for three years versus $800 per year for annual service over those first three years, with less of a difference at the end of six years.
To head off potential problems between inspections, Haskell suggests storing rafts inside during winter layup and finding a mounting location where it won't be baked by direct summer sun. Bohne suggests periodically opening the Velcro of valise storage containers to look for signs of water in the vacuum bag or tipping fiberglass raft canisters on their sides to see if water comes out of canister seams. "If you're holding water inside that vacuum bag and you wait three years [for inspection], that raft is ruined." Bohne says. He also worries about flashlight batteries and repair kit glue. "Having those items in your ditch bag becomes much more important."