Survival Training Part 6: Testing the Life Raft

Survival training, Part 6 of 6: Life rafts.

We’ve been inside our raft when it was being repacked, and seen raft demonstrations at boat shows, but nothing we’ve done in the past compared with using a four-man Elliot raft in Sitka Harbor during our survival training.

We’ll start with righting the raft when it is capsized.

life raft training

Our intrepid Carter Hughes was selected to demonstrate the life raft righting technique. The key thing is to determine where the CO2 bottle is located, and put your feet on it, to make sure that you and it start in the same place so the bottle does not hit you as the raft comes right side up. (There is no bottle in these photos. Instructor Dug Jensen has removed it to prevent accidents).

You also want the raft upwind so you (and the bottle) are downwind. This way the wind will help to re-right the life raft.

righting capsized life raft

Pull the capsize recovery lines as Carter is doing here.


There is a good chance the raft will come down on top of you. The raft is light, and it is easy to swim out from under it, or push up on the bottom to create a pocket of air.

If the raft capsizes while occupied, everyone has to get out before the raft can be righted.

boarding a life raft

Getting into the raft wearing an immersion suit is not the easiest thing in to do. Our simulation here is made easier because of Wind Horse’s swim step, and the glass smooth water of the harbor. In the real world, this is apt to be a lot more difficult.

Steve is on the swim step, holding onto the rail with one hand, and with the other gripping the entrance of the raft. This is easier with a five fingered glove than with the three fingered style.

Bo Abbjorn is giving Carter a hand into the raft. Linda is already inside. It is tricky to maintain your balance doing this and care needs to be taken not to injure the existing occupants of the raft by falling onto them.


The four of us, all nice and cozy. You cannot imagine how uncomfortable and claustrophobic this is! Add in some fear, a bit of motion from the waves, and the raft occupants will quickly be displaying stomach contents for their raft mates.

life raft puke hole

Our instructor, Dug Jensen, referred to this opening as the "puke hole". It is also a good spot to keep watch, while the larger opening is kept closed because of wind and waves.

So far we’ve shown you the easy part.

using life raft boarding platform

Steve is now going to demonstrate getting into the raft wearing his survival suit, using the built-in boarding "platform". Note that not all rafts have these platforms. They are essential if you expect to get into the raft from the water wearing an immersion suit.


The platform is actually quite low, so this should be pretty easy. Steve is not in the same shape as five or ten years ago, but by average standards he can hold his own. Yet this proved exceptionally difficult (if the raft were not stabilized by three occupants, the boarding platform would be lower and easier to use). Our guess is that if you were at all injured, were weakened by salt water ingestion, or just overweight and out of shape, it would be really hard. What we are trying to say is that you should avoid abandoning ship until there is no alternative.


OK, he’s made it, without outside help, to prove it could be done. But it is not 100% certain this would be the outcome in the real world. Dug cautions that if you are in the water to keep clear of the feet of the person trying to work his way into the raft. The boarder often will use his legs to kick his way onto the platform, and if you are near those flying feet it might become uncomfortable.

This entire exercise emphasized for us the old saying, always step up into the life raft. In other words, don’t prematurely abandon the mother ship.

A few additional points we learned from Dug about the raft and its contents. There will be a bag or two secured to the interior which will contain flares, a first aid kit, bailing gear, food and water, raft repair gear, etc. Dug suggests keeping one of the two usually supplied sponges for collecting condensation off the inside of the raft canopy to drink. In cold climates your raft should have an inflatable floor. We were surprised to learn that these have to be manually inflated. There should be a pump for this process. Rafts all have a valve for releasing excess inflation pressure. Once the hiss of escaping CO2 has stopped, this over pressure valve needs to be capped – or the raft will lose pressure from wave impacts.

In regard to signaling, Dug suggests setting off one of your parachute flares even if you cannot see anyone else. There may be another boat, aircraft, or person on land that happens to spot your initial flare. Hold the rest for when you have a chance of attracting attention.

A recap of the high points we picked up for us includes:

  • Take to the raft as a last resort. The old motto, "always step up into a life raft" is a good one.
  • Make sure life raft maintenance is up to date.
  • Be familiar with the raft and its contents.
  • Have an abandon ship plan, practice it periodically, make sure everyone is familiar with the job they have to do. Be familiar with the EPIRB operation.
  • When righting a capsized raft, start at the end with the CO2 bottle, and downwind of the raft.
  • Once inside, inventory equipment (raft contents and other items you may have with you).Tie everything down, including paddles.

  • Cap pressure relief valves once they have finished hissing.
  • Shoot off a flare immediately, even if you cannot see anyone out there. Save the rest for a vessel or aircraft sighting.
  • Inflate raft floor if so equipped.
  • Arrange weight to keep raft floating evenly to maximize stability.
  • Activate EPIRB
  • Use one sponge to collect condensation for drinking from the underside of the raft canopy.Only eat if you have water to take with the food. If you do not have water, do not eat.

AMSEA preach "The Seven Steps to Survival." These include:

  • Recognition of the situation and the need to be proactive.
  • Inventory (what do you need to survive – attend to first aid and hypothermia first).
  • Maximize shelter (in the raft by closing the door and ashore by constructing shelter as a first priority).
  • Signals (EPIRB, flares).
  • Water (check raft contents and supplemental supplies, secure these in case of a raft capsize).
  • Food (again, do not eat food without water).
  • Play (important to keep up your spirits – helps with the will to see this through to a successful conclusion).

Other suggestions:

  • Take sea sick medicine before feeling ill.
  • Keep track of sharp objects which might puncture the raft.
  • Top off raft pressure as required. The raft will soften as it cools.
  • Stay attached to the mother ship as long as possible. It’s a better visual marker for searchers than the raft.
  • Stream the sea anchor to hold position better.
  • Establish duties, including a lookout for potential rescuers.
  • Keep appropriate signaling devices near look out.
  • Bail out water from raft.
  • Empty immersion suits if they have accumulated water.
  • Ring out wet clothes. If wearing cotton, take it off and put on wool or polyester.
  • Avoid the urge to urinate or defecate in survival suits. This will lead to irritation and skin sores. Use the bailer for this purpose and empty contents outside the raft.
  • Start drinking water during first 24 hours to avoid dehydration.
  • Do not drink sweet drinks without having fresh water as well.

And finally, some suggestions for the psychology of survival from AMSEA’s interviews with seamen who have successfully made it through abandoning ship:

  • Accept the situation you are in, but do not give in to it.
  • Do not act like a victim. Act like a survivor.
  • Do not give up.
  • Be positive.
  • Have a plan.
  • Pray

If at all possible, put yourself through a course like this. It might save your life.

Posted by Steve Dashew  (July 12, 2007)

2 Responses to “Survival Training Part 6: Testing the Life Raft”

  1. Tony Says:

    Hello., can you tell me – how can i tell when it is downwind or upwind, when your on a Life Raft. Thanks.

  2. Steve Dashew Says:

    Howdy Tony:
    If your sea anchor is working that is going to be tugging on the windward side of the life raft.