Liferafts, EPIRBs etc

It’s like paying for insurance, having to buy a lot of (expensive) safety gear, always in the hope that you’ll never need it!


The first annoyance was that the two (!) EPIRBS on Sunny Spells are now both obsolete… The newest one was still good ’till 2010, but they’re both 121.5 MHz, so out they go. I’ve decided to replace it with the GME MT403G 406Mhz EPIRB with GPS receiver – I figured that, for the difference in price, you’d prefer 10 meter accuracy (rather than 5 miles) on the day you need it! These GME EPIRB’s have the added advantage that they are non-HAZMAT, so I can take mine on the plane when I fly up to Airlie Beach next month.

Life Raft

Having seen a bit of wild weather on the Australian East Coast recently, and most of it not forecast (a line squall can have really nasty wind associated with it!), I have come to realize that coastal sailing is every bit as dangerous as offshore passages, with the added dangers of lee shores, submerged shipping containers and other floating debris, not to mention the hundreds of migrating whales we saw on our recent passage from Sydney to Hamilton Island.

I’ve sailed without a life raft to date, but I have to admit that I’m not happy about it. Also, I can fool myself most of the time, especially on a nice sunny day, but it really hits home when you do the safety briefing and explain to the crew that, “if we go down, make sure you have a PFD on… if we have time, we’ll inflate the dinghy!”

It’s a big ticket item though. I’ve been scanning EBay since I returned in July, and this month I was lucky enough to find a good second-hand raft for the right price. It’s not hard to find a liferaft, but getting one that’s the right size is harder There seems to be a large number of larger life rafts for sale, but 4 and 6 person rafts suitable for offshore sailing are like hens teeth.

An advert in the AFLOAT magazine prompted me to explore new liferafts. As always, things are not as simple as they seem… A lot of terms get bandied about by the manufacturers like coastal, offshore, ISAF, ISO, SOLAS… Are you still with me?

When human lives are at stake, then someone will try and regulate the industry – that’ll be SOLAS, ISAF and ISO (not to mention ORC…). Trying to wade your way through this lot and work out what the average yachtie needs is not easy. Fortunately, one of my phone calls was to Peter Campbell-Burns at MarineSafe in Queensland. MarineSafe sell Zodiac life rafts but, more importantly, they service them too. Peter generously explained the ins and outs of life rafts to me. The following points were of greatest interest (I wasn’t taking notes – maybe I should have been…):

  • One should not buy too big a life raft. Work out how many people you are likely to be most of the time and buy a raft that’s just big enough. As Peter said, if the life raft is too big, it will ride you rather than the other way round. This was an important point – just because Sunny Spells has eight berths doesn’t mean I need an eight person life raft. In fact a four or six person liferaft is optimum.
  • Life raft certification IS confusing. However, here’s my take on it: SOLAS means it’s certified for commercial shipping; ORC or ISAF means it meets the ISAF or ORC regulations for racing (more about this later); and ISO 9650 is a fairly recent standard that is intended to improve and harmonise design standards for life rafts.
  • The terms “Offshore” and “Coastal” generally refer to their intended use under SOLAS (i.e. commercial shipping) certification. However, SOLAS defines “Coastal” as 200 miles from the coast – that’s a long way in a 33ft sail boat… The difference between “Coastal” and “Offshore” is primarily in the quantity and quality of supplies (water, food, EPIRB) packed into the raft and does not necessarily reflect on the quality or stability of the raft itself. A “Coastal” life raft may be convertible to “Offshore” at the time of servicing by upgrading the contents.
  • The quality of the raft itself is better judged by those who have experience with them. Things to look for include: welded seams (rather than glued), ballasted stabiliser pockets, a usable boarding platform with internal ladder to grab onto when getting in (apparently it is NOT easy to get into a liferaft in a heaving sea…).

This conversation made me realize that I had been unecessarily eliminating life rafts labeled as “coastal” from my search. As it happens, there was a very nice Zodiac 6 person liferaft on EBay, at the right price. By sheer coincidence, the photos showed that, you guessed it, MarineSafe had packed the life raft, and it even had part of the serial number visible. Peter checked his records and, very selflessly, considering it potentially cost him the sale, recommended that I bid on it, even suggesting a maximum price!

I’m now the proud owner of a life raft. Will it ever get used? Hopefully not! But hey, would I sail without insurance? Don’t think so…

Manufacturer's photo of Zodiac MP6 Open Sea Life Raft

I’ll do another post soon re. the requirements for racing, as everything is not always as it seems!