We’ve always been conflicted about the functionality of life rafts. They are relatively fragile, tend to come apart in heavy weather, must be stored properly (if they get wet, the fabric rots), are heavy, bulky, and difficult to store properly. And they are a costly initial purchase and expensive to have checked every couple of years. (We just had our raft serviced. It was in good shape. Flares were all still in date. And the final bill was US$500!)
On the other hand, the average modern inflatable dink is comparatively bullet-proof, requires little service, and if set up properly, can make an excellent survival platform. We still carry a life raft, but if we had to choose between the raft and our inflatable, we’d probably go with the inflatable.
The real question to be answered deals with the risk factors. Most sailors think about getting into their life raft in heavy weather. This is of course a rare usage, and highly risky. There are so many sad stories of sailors dying in their rafts, with the boats they abandoned eventually found floating, or washing up on some distant shore. That old adage about stepping UP into the liferaft very much is still in effect.
Then there’s the EPIRB we all carry. These are highly reliable and accurate homing devices. But when the rescuers come looking for you they can find a yacht a hell of a lot easier than a life raft.
So what are the the issues which cause us to carry life rafts and ditch bags? Our number one concern is fire. Although we have circuit breakers or fuses all over, fire-probably started in the electrical system-is one situation we can see forcing us off the boat. The second is collision with a floating object which breaches our hull-although our risk from this with our double bottom, watertight bulkheads, and metal hull is less than with other boats. Given the fact that we rarely see heavy weather, and that there would be several minutes or more in which to prepare to abandon ship, we come back to the first choice being a well prepared inflatable.
In our case we have a large sea anchor, and 300′ rode for it that goes into the dink before each passage, in addition to a canister of flares, and a tarp with which we’d cover ourselves from the sun if required. We also lash a six-gallon water container (80% filled so it will float) into the dink.
Of course the Switlick eight-man life raft is in a cockpit seat locker ready to go as well.
Our grab bags are in the starboard after stateroom and have a bunch of the usual stuff-lots of Solas 25mm parachute flares, space blankets, polypropylene clothing (dries easily) medical gear, food supplies, etc. One bag is a top-opening waterproof zipper type. The other is a screw-on lid container. Both have long polyethene rope lanyards.
We have two EPIRBs. The old Litton, which still functions, but which has a battery out of its time stamp that cannot be replaced, is packed in the life raft. The new Paines Wessex unit (GPS built-in, with a seven-year battery) is mounted below at the nav station. (We feel its highest possibility of use would be in a medical or security emergency.)
We’ve never even come close to needing a raft or a properly prepared dinghy-but we still carry both. Just part of being prepared…