Rules of the Road: Tend to life rafts as if your life depended on it

Sep 4, 2019 by Capt. Jake DesVergers

Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake DesVergers

Safety equipment on board a yacht is like auto insurance. You want to have plenty of it, the best available, but never, ever plan to use it. Life rafts definitely fall into that category. 

One of my all-time favorite series of questions from brokers, owners and crew revolves around life rafts. First, are they required? Yes, depending on the type of yacht and use. Second, how many do we need? Again, it depends on the type of yacht, her capacity, and operation. Third, when referencing capacity, does it include the crew? With that last question, I usually remain silent for them to realize the question asked. Obviously, yes, it includes the crew.

In general, depending upon the flag of registry, private yachts must carry enough life rafts for 100% of the total people on board. For those yachts that charter, life-raft capacity should be for 200% of the total people on board, with 100% on each side of the yacht. 

Most important, whether your yacht is private or charter, there are two essential functions for a life raft: It must inflate and it must hold air. The only way to test those two functions is through regular inspection. 

For private yachts, the required interval for servicing is determined by the manufacturer. That can range from annual to every three years, depending upon the exact unit. For charter yachts, the required interval is every 12 months, regardless of the manufacturer’s recommendation.  

Yes, servicing is expensive, but it is also very necessary for your raft to properly perform when needed instead of giving you false peace of mind. Also, the longer you wait for servicing, the more expensive your service costs will be. Or, the raft may have degraded to a point where it is unserviceable. By inspecting your raft at the required intervals, one will increase the life expectancy of your investment.

Now that the raft is due for servicing, what actually happens? Below is a sampling of items that will be completed at the approved center:

  • Information on the raft is recorded.
  • The raft is carefully unpacked from its hard container or soft valise.
  • The pull cable and mooring lines which trigger the deployment of the raft are disconnected.
  • The raft is unfolded in a disassembly area and inflated using low-pressure shop air through the topping off valves on the raft.
  • The raft and all of its components (metallic and fabric) are inspected for dirt and corrosion.
  • All components of the raft are visually inspected for tears, punctures, abrasions and deterioration. These components include, but are not limited to, raft fabric, seam tape, raft deck, patches, pockets, handles, zippers, Velcro, ladders, sea anchor, and heaving line.
  • All metallic components are inspected for damage, deterioration and corrosion.
  • Each piece of survival equipment – along with the canopy-mounted, water-activated light and battery – is inspected and determined to be up-to-date and in working order. Any expired equipment is replaced.
  • Repairs are made for each component where necessary. Any repair must follow a specific manufacturer’s procedure.

Another question that is always asked is if a life raft can be serviced anywhere? No. A life raft must be serviced at a facility authorized by the manufacturer and approved by a flag-state (i.e. U.S. Coast Guard, MCA, etc.). Service centers undergo extensive hands-on factory training to demonstrate their proficiency in packing life rafts. These centers also are aware of the most current version of a manufacturer’s life-raft packing requirements. Be aware that just because a particular company can service life rafts, it does not mean that they are authorized to service your specific life raft. Always confirm their approval.

One slight wrong fold, or even just the improper placement of an item within a packed life raft,  can create catastrophic consequences during an emergency. Discovering a failure in the life raft when you need it most is not the best timing and likely to be more than inconvenient.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau ( Comments are welcome below.