Find out when and why it can be a good idea, or even mandatory to carry a liferaft. Understand which specification of liferaft you should choose.

If you do not have a liferaft, in extreme circumstances you may simply have to take your chances in the water; the chances of a person surviving in the water compared to being in a liferaft are significantly lower and your survival time will vary depending on the location, the time of year, the weather conditions and the water temperature.

Do I or don't I?

It is not mandatory for pleasure vessels under 13.7 metres in length to carry a liferaft, but when deciding whether or not to do so your proximity to other boats and emergency services who can render assistance if you need to abandon ship, should be taken into consideration.

The further from the coast you venture, the more likely you are to choose to carry a liferaft. The method of build of some boats lead their manufacture to claim them to be unsinkable, and their owners frequently elect not to carry a liferaft;  a fire could however still destroy the vessel, returning the need for a liferaft.  

There is a common misconception that a half inflated tender carried on deck can be a substitute for a liferaft.  Although in some circumstances, for instance a fire onboard in calm weather, a tender could save the life of your crew, it cannot be anything but a poor second best if the yacht has to be abandoned quickly or in any conditions but very calm weather.  Rigid dinghies will frequently capsize and float inverted in heavy seas.

There is nothing to stop the owner of a boat (unless there are mandatory carriage requirements) from buying a basic leisure liferaft. For coastal boating near to shore in daylight, such a raft may well suffice, but such items should be bought with caution – you might not get what you are expecting.

You are choosing whether or not to buy (or hire) something on which your life may very well depend.  Once you have elected to buy, rather than simply choosing the cheapest thing you can find on the internet, consult a competent supplier who will explain the features of a liferaft to you and help you to decide whether the "cheap option" will actually do the job.

Liferaft standards

There are standards to which some liferafts are built, which help the buyer establish what they are actually getting.

ORC liferafts were introduced, following the 1979 Fastnet Race, by the Offshore Racing Council, now Offshore Racing Congress (ORC) for yachts racing under their rules. The Sydney Hobart Race in 1998, brought the durability of these liferafts into question and lead to a revision of the standard. 

Offshore racing is now governed by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) Offshore Special Regulations. In 2002 the ISAF standard for liferafts built on or after 1 January 2003, was introduced.

ISAF’s long-term policy however was to allow an International Standards Organisation (ISO) standard to supersede the ISAF liferaft specification.  The ISAF Special Regulations Committee has since agreed to accept ISO Standard 9650. This ISO standard is now in place and ISAF is moving to it as its primary reference. As a result manufacturers may choose to no longer market products under the ISAF name.

For cruising around the UK the ISO 9650  Part 1 Category A liferaft is likely to be come the most common choice. This has an operational range of -15° to +65°C and has thermal insulation in the floor.

The ISO 9650  Part 1 Category B liferaft has no floor insulation and its operation is tested at 0°C for use in 0° to +65°C; the ISO Part 1 Category B may therefore be more commonly found on boats in the Mediterranean.

The commercial standard for liferafts is SOLAS – Safety of Life at Sea. Designed for commercial vessels SOLAS liferafts are bulkier, heavier and of course more expensive than those designed specifically for yachtsmen, but for anyone venturing more than 150 miles from the coast, a liferaft constructed to SOLAS standard, Wheelmarked or MCA approved is strongly recommended and for vessels over 13.7m (45ft) it may also be mandatory.

Once existing stocks have been sold, the ratification of the ISO standard should lead to the liferaft buying decision becoming simpler for leisure boaters; SOLAS or ISO approved or where there is no mandatory requirement, the leisure liferaft lottery i.e. a liferaft which does not comply to either standard. 

Choosing a liferaft

The specification of liferaft you select should be based on your chosen cruising ground. Once you have abandoned to the liferaft, the length of the vessel you have left is of no consequence and therefore crew survival must be the focus.

With a reduction in build standard will also a come a reduction in the operational temperature range and the durability (due both to the standard of construction and to the quality of the materials used). You should therefore strongly consider selecting the standard that is mandatory for vessels over 13.7m in length for the same cruising area.

A word of caution: a liferaft built to ISO 9650 DIN was built to a draft of the standard – but to which draft – the standard took 14 years to finalise. These rafts may not meet the specification of the final standard and therefore may not meet your expectations.

Liferaft features

There are a number of points to consider when you are choosing a liferaft.

Stability - a liferaft is a very small boat and has no fixed ballast.  This means that its design has to prevent it from capsizing.  Most liferafts are fitted with a number of water-ballast bags around the underside.  These should be large, strongly constructed and fitted with a weight that will ensure they fill with water quickly when the liferaft is launched.  As a minimum look for four water ballast bags, that make a total capacity of not less than 25 litres per person or 160 litres, whichever is the greater. 

A drogue, or sea anchor, is also essential for stability.  Drogues are often made of porous material and have short shroud-lines to reduce the risk of tangling.  The drogue attachment line must be long - at least 30m - and should be 6mm nylon.  The drogue should be streamed as soon as possible after the liferaft has been launched.

Canopy - an automatically erecting canopy is highly desirable.  As well as protecting the crew from cold or the sun, the canopy and support arch should prevent total inversion if the liferaft inflates upside down or is capsized by a wave.

Boarding Aid - It is very difficult for anyone wearing wet clothes and an inflated lifejacket to board a liferaft from the water, particularly if there is no one else inside to help them.  An inflatable step or ramp outside the main opening makes boarding from the water much easier.

Two-compartment buoyancy provision - This allows one or other of the buoyancy compartments to be damaged without compromising the buoyancy of the whole liferaft and therefore the safety of the crew.

Inflatable floor - A double floor, which is inflatable with a pump gives very good protection against the cold, although may not be necessary for relatively short period survival around the UK in summer.  A partially inflatable floor, which provides an insulating ring around the edge of the liferaft where the survivors sit, is a good compromise and a thermo-reflective insulated floor can also be considered.

Stowage options

A valise liferaft (which is basically a liferaft packed in a bag) needs to be protected from accidental damage and the elements - it is vital that it is kept dry. It should therefore be stowed in a locker which is easily accessible or similar location to protect it.

A canister liferaft is more robust and can happily be stored in the open. It should ideally be fitted where it can be easily deployed and could have the additional feature of a hydrostatic release, which would automatically release the raft should the vessel sink rapidly.

Remember to pay attention to any special instructions from the manufacturer on how to stow the liferaft properly.

Ideally your liferaft will be stowed so that if your boat inverts, the liferaft can still be deployed, which makes a canister liferaft stowed on the transom a common choice.

Liferafts are heavy, it is therefore also important to consider both your own ability to move the raft to launch it and that of the weakest member of the crew. Making launching it as easy as possible.

The painter must be secured to a strong point - it activates the inflation device and so must remain attached to the yacht when the liferaft is launched.

Liferaft capacity

The capacity you chose for your liferaft does not have to match the number of berths on the boat. For example if you have an eight berth boat, but only ever sail with 2 or 4 people onboard, selecting a 4 person raft, will be both cheaper and safer to use. An 8 person raft with just two people in it will lack stability in all but the calmest of sea states.

If on occasion you opt to have more people on board, for an occasional voyage, you could hire an additional raft to increase the capacity to cover all those on board.

Two smaller liferafts can also have the added benefit of being lighter and therefore easier to launch. 

Liferaft equipment and grab bag

Each manufacturer will include different equipment as standard within a liferaft. A variety of packs are available to supplement the content of the liferaft; each standard has its own packs which are used to ensure that there are sufficient aids to survival and the manufacturers also produce their own.

A full survival pack to commercial standards adds considerably to the cost of a liferaft and you may decide that it is not really necessary for your cruising area if you are unlikely to be in the liferaft for more than 24 hours. You can add a greater level of control to by carrying an EPIRB or a PLB

A grab bag should be stowed in an easily accessible location. Ideally it should be waterproof and able to float once the contents are in it and you may find a lanyard useful for securing it.

A word of caution – don’t be tempted to borrow items from the grab bag or they won’t be there if you really need them. It may therefore be worthwhile having the permanent contents in one bag and a second one for the items which will be taken in and out, or which may need to be collected from around the boat such as the EPIRB and handheld VHF.

Prepare a list of the things to fill the grab bag with - presuming there is time - in priority order. The goal should be to ensure you are rescued alive having spent the shortest possible time in the liferaft. The order of priority is therefore:

  1. Items that will help you to ensure you plight is known and assist with your location 
  2. Basic protection from the elements and conditions in the liferaft
  3. Medical supplies
  4. Food and Water

Depending on the contents of your liferaft and any additional pack items (in no particular order) to consider for the grab bag could include: Flares; light sticks; inflatable radar reflector; life-saving signals (SOLAS 2) card; pump; paddles; repair kit; bailer; sponges; safety knife; thermal protective aids / survival bags; signalling mirror; GPS; EPIRB / PLB; SART; waterproof handheld VHF and spare batteries; waterproof torch / flashlight with spare batteries and bulb; second sea anchor / drogue; tin opener; first aid kit and sun protection;  food; seasickness tablets, polythene bags and method for sealing them; strobe light; medical supplies for pre-existing medical conditions; spare spectacles; wet note book with captive pencil; powerful (mouth operated) whistle; water (or hand operated desalinator and containers for the water) NB if the bottles are only 3/4 filled they will float; warm clothing including hat and gloves; wet wipes; clock / watch; compass; charts; ships papers and insurance documents; vital personal items such as passports, house keys, mobile phones; money and credit cards.

Liferaft servicing

Ensure that your liferaft is serviced according to the manufacturer’s instructions and by an approved service agent.  Servicing can be expensive, but it is a false economy to compromise on this and some of the equipment contained within a liferaft has a limited life expectancy.

Many service agents will allow you to be present when your liferaft is being serviced, so that you can familiarise yourself with the boarding arrangements and the equipment it has.   

Related pages

Sea survival course
Mandatory equipment for pleasure vessels of 13.7m in length and over
Liferaft safety poster
Will your liferaft float free or sink with your boat?