Tag Archives: survival gear

Selecting a Life Raft


What they do
A life raft is designed to keep the crew of a boat alive until they can be rescued. Life rafts provide minimal environmental protection and create a larger visual and radar target for rescuers.

How they work
Life rafts are inflated by compressed gas, usually nitrogen and CO2, stored in a high-pressure cylinder. When the inflation lanyard is pulled, a valve releases the gas into the inflatable chambers, which takes about 20 seconds. The resulting inflated shape may be square, pentagonal, hexagonal, octagonal, elongated octagonal, etc.

Most have a protective canopy, supported by one or more inflatable tubes. Doors or openings allow occupants to board using an attached ladder, and to alter the amount of ventilation and storm protection according to the conditions.

The floor of the raft may be a single layer of fabric, a double layer inflated with air to provide insulation, a three-tiered laminate or a separate inflatable floor tied in place. Insulated floors greatly reduce heat loss and hypothermia, making the “raft experience” a little less grim.

Who needs a life raft?
There is little need for a life raft where rescue would be quickly forthcoming due to boating traffic and/or rescue agencies in your boating vicinity. Warm water extends survival time and reduces the need to get out of the water quickly to protect against hypothermia.

Inland, warm waters: You probably don’t need a raft, but you might consider having an inflatable or rigid dinghy available for rapid deployment.

Inland, cold waters: Strongly consider carrying a coastal life raft or large inflatable dinghy to keep you and your crew out of the water when operating in cold water. Hypothermia can kill anyone immersed in 50° water in just two hours, and quickly render you unable to function.

Coastal cruising/racing: One of the myths about boating is that coastal waters are somehow less threatening and require less rigorous safety gear than the open ocean. While it is true that your proximity to the coast may allow you to get to shelter before a storm or to get assistance more quickly than if you were further offshore, coastal sea conditions are frequently worse than those offshore, especially near points of land. Chances are you’ll spend less time in a raft when close to shore because you’ll wash ashore or be found sooner. Rafts used for coastal boating need to be seaworthy, but can include less gear for long-term survival than offshore rafts. Therefore, we recommend either premium coastal rafts or offshore rafts.

Offshore cruising/racing: Far from land, rescue agencies and safe harbors, you must have a raft in which you can survive for a week or more. Rafts for offshore use should be more commodious, and should have greater stability to survive storms at sea. SOLAS rafts, Offshore Plus and ISAF–Approved Bluewater rafts are recommended.

Raft types

Inflatable Dinghy: While not legitimate life rafts, inflatable dinghies can be pressed into service in an emergency. For coastal boating to nearby islands, or trips along the coast, a readily available dinghy is preferable to treading water while hypothermia saps your strength. The dinghy must be kept inflated and in a location where it can be launched quickly. The addition of a 3’ sea anchor for stability, a waterproof VHF radio and five gallons of water will greatly improve your crew’s survival chances.

Note:in all respects (except affordability) a dinghy is worse than our least expensive life raft, and should be considered only in coastal areas, and under the best possible conditions (which, incidentally, are not very common when you need a raft.) <a href="http://www.westmarine.com

Coastal ISO 9650 Life Raft: Coastal rafts are rated for open water, mostly protected or within 20 miles of a shoreline. Most rafts have a single buoyancy tube and either a manually–or automatically–erected canopy. Ballast systems vary, ranging from a single ballast bag about the size of a loaf of bread to the four large bags the better Coastal models have. The West Marine by Zodiac coastal raft is built with two identical stacked flotation chambers, an insulated foam floor and a self-inflating single–arch canopy. It meets the pre-2003 ORC offshore specs (see below). It is ideal for offshore fisherman and coastal cruisers who need a light, compact raft, but its equipment must be augmented with a Grab Bag.

Life Rafts: Formerly called the ORC life raft. ISAF life raft specifications were upgraded following the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race, where three sailors were killed because their life raft failed. These new requirements took effect in 2003. Rafts made to these specs are the most appropriate for boats encountering real offshore conditions for relatively short duration, but not taking a trans-oceanic voyage. The same, more stringent specs are recognized by governments around the world as ISO 9650. Two independent, stacked tubes provide redundant flotation should one chamber become damaged. The stacked tube design also provides more freeboard. Many have two entrances, and all have self-erecting canopies. Most will have deep triangular or rectangular ballast bags and a large drogue for stability.

SOLAS Trans–oceanic Life Rafts:Intended for the toughest conditions, with water temperatures below 41°F (5°C), these rafts include the most extensive list of equipment, and are the most heavily built, to allow self-sufficient survival for extended periods of time. Carried onboard boats in round–the–world races like the Volvo Ocean Race.

What to look for
Insulated floors are desirable in all rafts, even in warm water, due to the discomfort that comes from sitting on sub-body temperature surfaces. Although many record–breaking life raft survival episodes have occurred in single floor rafts, all survivors wished they had an insulated raft floor. If you use your boat in waters less than 65–70°, we strongly recommend this option.

Valise or canister storage: If you are going to store your raft on deck, you must use a canister version. We recommend that you also use a hydrostatic release, which will release your raft from its cradle and allow it to float to the surface if you can’t get to it before the boat sinks. If you store the raft below decks, make sure you can launch it in 15 seconds or less, and get a valise raft. It will be lighter, somewhat cheaper, but much less waterproof than the canister model. For offshore racers, rafts stowed below cannot be heavier than 40kg or 88lb.

Canopy Design: We strongly believe that self-inflating and self-erecting canopies are a necessity, not an option. This requires that some of the inflation gas be directed through a one–way valve to the arch tube(s). This is more expensive and more complicated than some of the other (bogus!) ways of doing it like using two paddles end to end as a tent pole, or using the heads of the occupants as the support.

Ballast Bags:Ballast bags keep the raft from blowing over before you board it, and keep the raft from being capsized by unruly waves. More ballast (more water volume) is generally better, especially when it is located along the perimeter of the buoyancy tubes. Interestingly, the drogue included with most rafts is critical in keeping the windward edge of the raft down on the water so that wind cannot get under the raft and blow it over. All drogues should be attached with large line, and should have a swivel (like those on the West Marine rafts.)

Ease of Boarding: Rafts are devilishly hard to board from the water, especially when cold and wearing soaked clothing. Most rafts have either one or two webbing ladders, which are a pain to climb. Other products may have a stirrup, while the best will have a boarding ramp. Ask yourself whether you could pull yourself up out of the cold water and into the relative security of the raft using the boarding methods provided. ISO rafts feature boarding ladders rated so a person wearing an inflated life jacket and heavy clothing can climb inside.

Emergency Equipment: Rafts do not come with lots of survival gear for economic and volumetric reasons. It is up to you to supply EPIRBs, water makers, extra flares, prescription medicine, radar reflectors, handheld VHF radios, etc. Raft manufacturers work at keeping the purchase price of rafts low, but they also realize that you will want to augment basic inventories with your own gear. An Abandon Ship Bag is vital to your survival. Standard raft equipment inventories generally include only those products that pertain to repairing the raft, while ISAF specification rafts may contain those items required for sailboat ocean racing like flares, paddles, bailers, and a flashlight. Regardless of the make or model, you will need to augment the standard inventory with your own gear.

Recommended minimum inventory items for Abandon Ship Bags:

  • 406 MHz EPIRB with or without GPS positioning
  • Katadyn Survivor 06 watermaker. Several solar stills would be a distant second choice.
  • Ship’s inventory of flares and other emergency signaling devices
  • Waterproof VHF radio with long shelf life batteries and replacement batteries
  • Ship’s medical kit including prescription medicine and reading glasses

Repacking your Raft
Generally, life rafts must be repacked each year to keep your warranty in effect. This is done for three reasons:

  • To replace dated items like flares, food, and water
  • To inspect for water damage and to make sure the cylinder is full
  • To fold the raft differently so it doesn’t wear through in folded areas

Life raft repackers should be licensed or approved by the raft manufacturer. Just because a guy hangs out a shingle that says Life Raft Repacking, don’t assume he is qualified for your Switlik, Avon, West Marine, Zodiac or whatever raft you have. Authorized repackers have the correct parts and have an inventory card with your own gear.

Some rafts, especially canister rafts packed in a vacuum inner-pack, can extend their first repack date for several years. Inside every West Marine raft, for example, is a piece of water-sensitive paper that shows through the inner vinyl bag. If this paper shows that no moisture is present, the repacker can seal the raft back up for the first and second scheduled repacks. This can save $300 in the first three years of ownership.



Selecting an EPIRB


What they do
An EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is one of the most critical pieces of last–resort lifesaving gear on your boat when you are out of range of a VHF radio, cell phone or other means of communication. EPIRBs are small radio transmitters, connected to a global satellite network, which is used worldwide to alert Search and Rescue agencies in the event of a dire emergency. Used only when all other means of rescue or communication have failed, these emergency beacons can be activated if your boat is in danger of sinking, or if you have a life–threatening accident or medical emergency. Activating an EPIRB starts a chain of responses, beginning when your signal is received by the COSPAS–SARSAT international satellite system, relayed rapidly to ground stations, forwarded to a regional Rescue Coordination Center and ending when a helicopter, boat, rescue swimmer or other type of emergency response team makes contact with you.

An EPIRB does not allow you to send or receive voice or text messages. If you can reach rescue agencies with an Iridium, INMARSAT or Globalstar satellite phone, Single Sideband radio or cell phone, you can better communicate the important details of your emergency. EPIRBs work when all of these means have failed, such as if your boat is sinking on the high seas and you have no electrical power. Since 1982 EPIRBs have saved about 20,300 people worldwide. In 2006, of the 105 incidents in the US, 272 people are alive, thanks to the COSPAS-SARSAT system.

How they work
EPIRBs transmit using internationally recognized distress frequencies, monitored by LEOSAR (low earth orbit) satellites moving from pole to pole above the earth’s surface, and GEOSAR (geostationary) satellites in high stationary orbit. LEOSAR satellites, because they are in motion, use Doppler shift processing (the perceived frequency change caused by the relative movement of the receiver and the source) to calculate the location of the distress beacon. They cover the entire globe, orbiting once about every 100 minutes. GEOSAR provides instantaneous alerting, but no position locating. Signals from both types are relayed to automated Local User Terminal (LUT) ground stations worldwide, which forward them to Mission Control Centers (MCC). The MCC (which in the U.S. is the NOAA office near DC) tracks the signal, attempts to identify the transmitting vessel using the database of registered EPIRBs, and notifies a regional Rescue Control Center (RCC), operated in the U.S. by the Coast Guard or the Air Force.

A Search and Rescue operation is launched, sometimes involving international communication, substantial costs, lots of planes, helicopters or ships, and rescuers who risk their lives. Unfortunately, some EPIRB transmissions are false alarms. Curious onboard guests or painters may remove an EPIRB from its cradle, causing accidental activation. Some false alarms are hoaxes, and deliberate misuse of emergency beacons may result in substantial fines, restitution and/or prison. If you accidentally trigger your EPIRB, call the U.S. Coast Guard HQ Command Center at 1–800–323–7233 immediately. You will keep valuable resources from being mobilized, unable to deal with an actual emergency, and possibly prevent a SAR team from converging on the trunk of your car. .

What to look for:
Class A & B EPIRBs: These older types were in use from 1970 to the end of 2006 and have saved many lives, but they also lacked accuracy, could trigger false alarms and are now obsolete compared to newer technology. As of January 1, 2007 the U.S. Coast Guard prohibits the use of Class A and B EPIRBs. As of February 1, 2009 all satellite processing of distress signals from all 121.5/243MHz beacons by the international COSPAS-SARSAT System will terminate (this does not apply to Crew Overboard devices with a base station like the Vecta2 and Mini B 300). Boaters wishing to have an emergency beacon now must use only a 406 MHz EPIRB.

406 MHz EPIRBs: Modern EPIRBs transmit digitally on 406.025 and 406.028 MHz (so they are called “406 EPIRBs”). Their signal has an embedded code containing a unique identification number, allowing rescue agencies to look up your emergency information (including name, phone number, vessel type, emergency contact, etc.), in a database, but only if you have registered your EPIRB. When your EPIRB transmits, rescuers know who you are, a huge improvement over Class A and B technology, and can phone your emergency contacts to verify your itinerary. Another advance over older EPIRBs is that satellites can store and rebroadcast your 406 emergency message, so the LEOSAR satellite does not need to be in direct contact between you and a ground station. A 406 MHz signal also allows the satellite to calculate the position of the sender to less than a 2-nm radius (instead of 12 nm with the older Class A and B EPIRBs), resulting in a faster and less costly rescue response. 406 EPIRBs also transmit with 5W of power (compared to 0.1W for the Class A and B beacons) so they function better in poor weather conditions. The average time to notification of RCCs via 406 MHz EPIRBs is approximately one hour worldwide.

Category I and II: By rule, all EPIRBs must be able to activate and transmit when they are removed from their brackets and immersed. Category I brackets will automatically deploy the beacon when submerged between 3′ and 14′, while Category II brackets need to have the beacon released manually. Both types can be manually activated either in or out of their brackets.

GPS/EPIRB Combinations: Two types of EPIRBs now include the ability to transmit GPS coordinates along with the rest of the digital distress message. Some units can interface with an external GPS and if the receiver is turned on will transmit coordinates within seconds of activation. Other EPIRBs contain their own receiver and take longer to acquire their location, but keep transmitting while the EPIRB is operating, without remaining connected to an external GPS with an interface cable. Using the stationary GEOSAR satellites, these transmitters do not need to wait for a LEOSAR to pass overhead and fix a Doppler bearing, and reduce the time–to–notification to as little as four minutes. Like other GPS receivers, their position accuracy is 100yd. (instead of 2nm without GPS).

Personal Locator Beacons: EPIRBS are intended strictly for marine use, but Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), their smaller cousins, can be carried with you just about anywhere. They provide the same worldwide coverage as 406MHz EPIRBs, and can rescue hikers, kayakers, backpackers, climbers, pilots, river rafters and hunters (among others) as well as boaters. PLBs were extensively tested in Alaska beginning in 1994 before FCC approval for general U.S. use in July, 2003, and saved 400 lives there during that time period. Pocket-sized and weighing less than a pound, PLBs are different than EPIRBs in some important ways. Their battery life (24hr. minimum transmit time) is half that of an EPIRB. PLBs do not have a strobe light, are not required to float (but most do), and are manually deployed and activated.

Like 406 EPIRBS, PLBs have an additional 121.5MHz homing signal to help planes, helicopters and other searchers find you. They also have a Morse code encryption for PLB attached to their digital signal. Manufacturers are marketing PLB versions intended for marine, backcountry and aeronautical use, like ACR’s AquaFix, TerraFix and AeroFix, and all three types often appear virtually identical (ACR’s products, for example, have the same specs).

We believe that EPIRBs are for your boat, and a PLB is a “personal” beacon. A PLB is also great insurance while exploring away from the mothership in your dinghy, and is a less-bulky EPIRB alternative for any small boat. The ability to be carried with you and to be used anywhere, with a group of hikers, on a snowmobile, in a canoe or in a backpack makes a PLB a valuable and versatile lifesaving tool.

Register your 406 EPIRB or PLB!
It is mandatory that you register your 406 EPIRB/PLB with NOAA SARSAT, yet only 80% of our customers register their new beacons. In the U.S. you can register online at http://www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov or in Canada at http: beacon.nss.gc.ca. U.S. registration can also be completed by mail or by downloading the registration form and faxing it to NOAA SARSAT at 301–568–8649. It is free, no license is required and it is critical in making your EPIRB perform as intended. When filling out the registration form, carefully select the emergency contacts NOAA or the Coast Guard should call in case your beacon goes off. These should be individuals who are familiar with your plans, and who are most likely to be available.

Failure to properly register your beacon will most likely delay the launch of a rescue mission. Also, the Coast Guard says that 94% of EPIRBs alerts are false and that registration data has enabled them to resolve 65% of the alerts prior to launching SAR operations.

Can I lend my EPIRB or PLB to another boater?
Yes, you can lend your EPIRB or PLB to your friends. The problem, of course, is that if you lend your 406 to a boater with a different boat description or different land contacts, you are likely to send the Coast Guard on a wild goose chase. The key to this is alerting NOAA of the change of information, even if only for a week or two. If you have previously registered your 406 MHz beacon with NOAA but have not accessed your registration information via their online registration site, you can access your beacon (just be sure you have your 15-digit Unique ID at hand) and view/update your registration. The online registration site contains a section for “Additional Information”. Use this section like a float plan, and let rescuers know how many passengers are aboard and your plans for the trip. This information can be updated on a daily basis.

You can also fax another registration form documenting the new information, and the approximate time that this will be in effect, to the MCC at 1-301-568-8649.

A 406 EPIRB will dramatically improve your chances and your boat’s chances of survival in an emergency. A Personal Locator Beacon provides almost the same level of protection, in a pocket-sized package, to an individual on land or water. If you own an older Class A or B EPIRB, which will soon cease to be monitored by COSPAS/SARSAT, you should upgrade to a Category I or II 406MHz EPIRB. Linked to an internal or interfaced GPS receiver, 406 EPIRBs and PLBs allow instant notification of your identity and an accurate fix on your position, speeding the launch of a full-scale search and rescue effort. One thing is for sure, however: You must do your part in registering your EPIRB/PLB and keeping the emergency contact information up to date, so rescuers can validate the authenticity of the distress signal.