A life raft is the last piece of equipment boaters ever expect to use. After everything else has failed — bilge pumps, fire-suppression systems and the skipper's best efforts to save the boat — the crew turns to the raft, likely never to see that boat above water again. In hindsight, shipwreck survivors wish they had more or better equipment when they abandoned ship, but the same can be said about insurance. Human nature is to spend less on things one never intends to use. Consider too that a new chart plotter or better radar might prevent a catastrophe. For many it comes down to a choice of how to spend that $2,000 or $3,000. With that in mind, we asked two life raft sales and service experts for frank advice on choosing a raft.
"I can eliminate 90 percent of the choices with just two questions: What kind of boat do you have, and where are you going?" says Brian Bohne, manager of Inflatable Services and 84 Boatworks in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (84boatworks.com). The first question seems odd, but Bohne says it's often the most important. "I'd rather they have a less-expensive raft they can get to than the best raft in the world that will burn or sink with the boat," Bohne says. This often means choosing a smaller or lighter raft with fewer features but that fits in a locker somewhere near the helm. A raft on the bow or atop the hardtop might be out of the way, but Bohne warns either is nearly impossible to reach in rough seas on a foundering boat. Storing a raft near the stern doesn't take into account the most likely source of a fire. "If you have to go across the engine room hatch [to reach your life raft], that's a bad idea," he says.
When space is tight, Bohne often recommends a coastal raft or even a bare-bones rescue pod supplemented with an EPIRB and a simple ditch bag, both within arm's reach of the helm. But his second question also plays strongly in his suggestions. "The more remote you get, the longer it's going to take for rescue," Bohne warns. Five miles from Florida is a lot different than five miles from the coast of an island in the Bahamas, the latter requiring a raft better able to handle weather and packed with more survival equipment. Even when cruising within a few miles of shore, it may be many miles between inlets safe to traverse in a storm, so raft stability becomes important. Cold water calls for a raft with an inflatable or insulated floor to prevent hypothermia.