Moment of Truth
Imagine being tossed around in the water, disoriented, gasping for air. The last thing you need to be doing is swimming circles around your raft trying to get into it. Your raft should come with multiple boarding ladders and plenty of handles all the way around it so that you can easily grab them and use them to hang on or to pull yourself out of the water and into the raft with a life jacket on.
Switlik’s Andrew Goetting, from Trenton, New Jersey, says that it’s important not to have to fight through any extra lines or have to navigate through some tiny door when trying to enter the raft. He recommends that you physically inspect any raft you plan on buying to make sure you can get in and out of it.
Once you’re safely inside, the raft needs to provide comfort and safety. The first criteria is stability, so choose a raft with ballast bags substantial enough to keep the raft from capsizing in high swells. These bags also keep the raft in the water under the punishing downdraft thrown off the rotors of a rescue helicopter.
The raft needs to be constructed with high-quality components and assembled using proven methods in order to withstand horrific conditions. Raft construction begins with computer-engineered designs and high-tech specialty fabrics cut with computer-controlled cutting machines. Assembly specifications are especially rigid, with overlapped seams, multichamber flotation tubes and custom-engineered adhesives. Blends of specially engineered fabrics for different areas of the raft are used, as well as high-tech urethane coatings for puncture and abrasion resistance.
A raft’s main job is to protect its occupants from the elements — primarily the sun and cold. A properly constructed and supported canopy provides protection from hypothermia and exposure, which is critical to the survival of those inside. Remember, it’s highly unlikely that you will step into the raft bone-dry while sipping a glass of chardonnay — you’ll be wet and storm-tossed once you make it into the raft. Getting warm and staying warm is very important. The canopy not only needs to be able to stay securely fastened to the raft, but also needs to open easily to get a survivor out and into a basket when the rescue swimmer and helicopter arrive.
Goetting emphasizes that any raft must withstand the rigors of the waves and the pull of the sea anchor, as well as the constant movement and stress caused by the occupants. A comprehensive survival kit, including first aid, flares, and nonperishable water and food rations, must also be on board.
Let's say there’s a sailfish bite off the Martini Glass near Boynton Beach, Florida. It’s January, the water temperature is 76 degrees, the air temperature is 65, and there are no boats around you. From the time you key the mic and get a response to your Mayday, it’s at least a 30-minute wait to muster the rescue crew and get the bird in the air. Let’s say you were lucky and you had 10 minutes between the time the Coast Guard received your Mayday call and when you had to hit the water. By the time the helicopter is in the air, you’ve already been in the water 20 minutes. Add in flight time, establishing a search pattern with your drift from current and wind, and the search. If you are very lucky, the helicopter from the station in Miami will be over you in slightly over an hour. That’s a long time to be treading water. Every second that you’re immersed, your core body temperature is dropping. Once hypothermia starts to set in, you’re in trouble.
Now, imagine being a hundred miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, or out on the canyons off New Jersey. You’d be in the water for at least two hours — if you’re lucky.
Do your homework, evaluate your options, and spend the money when it comes time to shop for a high-quality life raft. It’s fully worth it, especially once you have to go over the rail.
* * * * *
The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.