The best possible place to deploy a life raft

Charles Daneko of Winslow Life Rafts holding the tether for one of their six-person models

Charles Daneko of Winslow Life Rafts holding the tether for one of their six-person models

You could tell 20 minutes before it started that it was going to be a popular presentation; there was a line stretching from the door of the Red Stage (a misnomer; the “stages” are all separate rooms this year) out in front of an increasingly annoyed set of vendors trying to hawk fishing gear to a bunch of cruisers. Incredulous newcomers to the line asked “Is there free beer at the end of this?”

There wasn’t. But what there was, was something that few cruising sailors ever see, and most hope to avoid seeing: a live life raft deployment. It was the best possible place to deploy one: high and dry and in complete safety.

The presentation, primarily delivered by Charles Daneko of Winslow Life Rafts, who was ably assisted by Denny Emory of OceanMedix, was polished and lively and informative enough to have been well worthwhile even without the actual raft inflation at the end.

Much of the information was the standard, solid advice that sailors can find anywhere about preparing themselves and their gear for the possibility of losing their boat. It’s too late to be thinking about abandoning ship for the first time when it’s actually happening; planning ahead, having an EPIRB, a ditch bag, a water maker, and an informed crew were all discussed in greater or lesser detail, as were some of the specific equipment items to help out with staying alive and getting found.

But the raft, and life in it, was the ultimate focus of the presentation. “If it’s too far to swim or too deep to walk back, you should have a life raft along,” is Daneko’s opinion.

What Daneko had to offer that few other sources can was the mechanics and operation of the deployment process itself. Somehow, that final, physical step of activating the raft seems like the point of no return, the moment that it all gets very undeniably real.

Of course, as Daneko points out, it’s not a point-of-no-return. Returning, actually, is the point. He put considerable emphasis on ensuring that the raft painter is securely attached to a solid attachment point on the sinking vessel itself. He pointed out that vessels often remain afloat for a considerable amount of time in an uninhabitable state, but that it’s advantageous both in terms of access to resources and visibility to remain near the vessel. Also, in some parts of the ocean, even if the boat goes down, it’s not going far … in the Bahamas, for instance, you might find it a convenient, if expensive, anchor, which will keep you in your last-reported position indefinitely, making it easier for rescuers to locate you.

The painter has a weak link intentionally inserted that breaks at around 700 pounds of pull, so there’s no need to worry about getting dragged under by the boat.

Judging the moment at which to abandon ship is beyond the scope of the presentation and it’s a subjective judgement that varies in each situation and must be made on the spot by the captain. But rafts deploy so quickly–within 15 to 20 seconds of pulling the tether–Daneko stresses that the decision and deployment should be made simultaneously. Rafts have blown away from vessels that later sank, or been damaged or tangled up with those that have stayed too close.

Actually deploying the raft may be different depending on the manufacturer and style, but with the demonstration model Daneko was showing from Winslow, it was a fast and straightforward process: free and flake the painter from the valise, orient the valise, and pitch it overboard with a short scope to let gravity do the work. Attempting to inflate the raft aboard, despite the perceived security of keeping it close, is a bad idea, Daneko warns … it may be damaged or fouled on deck.

Once it’s inflated and close aboard, your only problem is getting in it. Going directly from the boat to the raft is the best of all possible transitions. As easy as manufacturers have tried to make life raft boarding stations, it’s still far more difficult to haul a heavy, wet, tired body up into a bobbing tube than to step right in. And getting wet in some environments can be a death sentence even if you stay afloat.

Getting water in the raft is also bad and Daneko recommends bailing it immediately and keeping it bailed religiously as long as you are aboard it. The stability and comfort are both affected by too much water on board.

And along with keeping water out, you have to focus on keeping air in. Pumping it full anytime a tube looks low should be a regular job for anyone on board. Pressure relief valves will prevent over-inflation. Nothing, however, will prevent extreme under-inflation if you accidentally stick a knife in one of the tubes. An included safety knife is what should be used on board the raft unless extreme caution is exercised.

Daneko talked a bit about the mechanics of deploying the raft if you have to go in the water first and righting it if it should for some reason deploy inverted (extremely unlikely; most rafts with a canopy will self-right even if you dump the valise in upside down) but the audience was restless and time was running down, so he cleared a space at the front of the room, invited the crowd to move in all around, and then handed the painter to a woman in the front row and told her to give it a tug.

An inflated life raft in a room with a man standing in it

The raft inflated in seconds after the tether was pulled

The raft popped open and grew like an origami model being folded into being by an invisible giant. Daneko hopped aboard within seconds, demonstrating handily how quickly you can get in after initiating the deployment. The raft continued hissing, and the tubes near the gas canister were rimed with frost from the rapid expansion of the CO2 inside. Out of its element, the six-person raft looked tiny and insubstantial surrounded by the crowd. Out in the open ocean, with more suitable accommodations sinking nearby, it would no doubt appear palatial.

Running long, the seminar ended with the now fully-inflated six-person raft being picked up and carted out into the exhibition center hallway so that curious spectators could take as long as they wanted to hopping in and out of the raft and getting their hands on the various equipment and features.

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