The recent media coverage of the sinking Italian cruise ship and the loss of a fishing boat off Barnegat Light, New Jersey — which took the life of a local captain and touched many great friends in that community — has shone a light on emergencies at sea. When the airwaves are filled with the news of such accidents, the topic of safety at sea quickly moves to the forefront of national consciousness. However, contemplating and preparing for a host of unfortunate scenarios is always on the minds of the experienced captain and crew.
Taking a boat out on the ocean is a serious business, and every owner and captain must know where the safety equipment is and understand how to deploy it. I’ve spent a lot of time in this game, and I would say that very few crew members really know the limitations of their safety equipment or — even worse — how to use it.
Back in the late 1980s, Ed Murray, of the famed Murray Brothers, produced a comprehensive video on safety at sea called Survival. If you can find a copy, it is well worth watching. Even though it is nearly 25 years old, the information dealing with survival at sea is timeless and invaluable for anyone venturing offshore.
I’m a firm believer in pre-planning and taking all the necessary steps to eliminate potential problems. With the boats I manage, safety gear is reviewed annually, and all potential purchases are diligently researched. We buy only the highest-quality, proven, and U.S. Coast Guard–approved equipment, and this is especially the case with life rafts.
The life raft represents the key piece of equipment in our safety program. Several reputable manufacturers produce high-quality life rafts, but your first step in picking the right one for your vessel is being honest with yourself and figuring out what your actual needs are — doing so could save lives should you ever face the terrible prospect of abandoning ship.
Life rafts usually fall into two categories: coastal and offshore. After talking with some rescue experts, we learned that there are several criteria that you should consider when picking a raft. Obviously, you must pick a raft that can hold as many of the folks you plan to have aboard as possible, and it must stow away in a readily accessible place. It also must be easy to deploy, and easy to get into, even in the most unfavorable conditions. A good raft also allows for an easy exit once rescuers arrive on the scene.
Coastal rafts are engineered and designed for areas where the U.S. Coast Guard is within a reasonable rescue distance; but they are still safe and can be used offshore. For open-ocean transit, long-distance journeys and international travel, offshore-class rafts need to keep survivors safe at sea for longer periods of time, when rescue personnel are farther away. You can find more substantial coastal rafts and less substantial offshore rafts, so there is a middle ground — just remember to always think about the worst-case scenario, because once you are in a raft, it has arrived.
There are many reputable safety-equipment manufacturers, including the U.S. companies Switlik and Winslow, making high-quality products. Charles Daneko of the Winslow LifeRaft Company of Lake Suzy, Florida, says that making the raft easy to deploy is key. Placement on the boat is also critical.
Although you see quite a few of them up there, one of the worst places to mount a life raft is on the bow. It’s highly unlikely that anyone will be able to get forward in an emergency situation to launch and clear the raft, even if it has an automatic-deployment capability.
Try to pick as light a raft as possible — light enough so that the average person can lift it and get it overboard. You can’t always rely on the biggest guy in the crew — he might be unconscious at that time.
Manufacturers recommend mounting rafts in their hard case, where they can be thrown overboard as easily as possible. It’s also recommended that a soft valise-style raft be kept as close to the helm or vessel exit as possible. That cannot always be done on sport-fishing boats, where an uncluttered and fishable cockpit is desirable.
On the boats I manage, in addition to the two life rafts mounted on the hardtop, we put an extra valise-style raft under a bridge seat. Most sport-fishing captains mount their life rafts on the hardtop to allow them to open without obstruction when the hydrostatic release is triggered. Even so, it’s also a good idea to mount the raft in such a way so that you can access it manually, so you can deploy the raft before the boat goes down, if possible. The sooner you can get in the raft, the better off you are.
With that being said, however, I highly recommend doing whatever you can to keep the boat afloat as long as possible. Be prepared with pre-made plugs of various sizes, and be sure that access to all bilge areas is clear and clutter-free. Now’s the time to exercise your main engine emergency bilge intakes to be sure they are working in case you start taking on water in the future.