Liferafts! VERY Important Thread for all Cruisers
I briefly mentioned this in my Tortugas thread, but did not want to screw up a great thread and memories with an absolutely frightening discovery.
Anyone that was in Miami, Tampa, Ft Myers, the Keys (including Key West), or the surrounding area likely heard about what happened if they were monitoring CH16. I know that because the USCG posted a PAN-PAN across those areas. The dates were the evening of April 8th, all of the 9th and 10th, 2010.
This discussion is not meant to scare anyone. However, for those that leave sight of land and go beyond VHF range for hours/days at a time, I hope you will take the time to carefully read this thread. I don't know that it will save your life, but I think it needs to have a firm impression on seamanship and the reality of offshore cruising along with its dangers.
I am pulling this out of my log book right now:
At 15:15 hours, position 25.20.587N and 82.32.562W, while trying to sight in a tower used by the navy for verification of GPS coordinates, I spotted something orange floating on the horizon. THe wind was mild at 5-10 and roughly 4 foot seas. The skies were sunny and clear.
I immediately knew what it was, but did not want to believe it. I knew it was a life raft. My kids were aboard and both them, and my wife, were asleep below. I called Kris up (my wife) and had her take a look. SHe agreed, it had to be a raft. I was certain that I would find inside what I did not want to find and might cost us cruising forever.
We threw off the sheets and did not even bother trimming them from flogging. We punched the engine at full throttle and made the raft within 15 minutes (my girl will fly when she needs to). What we found was indeed a life raft, overturned. It was an 8 person. I know this because it was imprinted on the side, upside down. Running windward of the raft was what I suspect a drogue. It trailled off and dropped and dissapeared in the deep blue.
We repeatedly circled the raft, trying to find some marking or possible sign of life. We found none. THe raft was relatively fresh. It had no observeable growth or marine life/fish under it. There was no wreckage we could find. But if it was a drogue, I doubt we would have found it anyways as the drift would have been very different.
We repeatedly tried to raisse the USCG, but were well out of range. There were no other vessels close as we tried to reach out to spread the word. We could not investigate closer with our main vessel as we would get fowled in the drogue. And dropping the tender and investigating on my own seemed a poor decision in those seas and without obvious life in danger. In the end, we hauled in the sheets and made for Fort Myers. We tried to raise the USCG every 30 mins or so.
At approximately 1740 hours, we were able to hail the USCG. We were about 40 miles out of Cape Romano, making NEast. The USCG immediately went into action. The details and length of time we spoke is probably irrelevant here, but they immediately went into action with a PAN-PAN. I later became aware that they started flying C130's and diverted their interests to that area (and I think their cutter and helis). I have to tell you, the professionalism and absolute intensity of the USCG in those situations is amazing to me. Thank you guys.
The next day I got a call from two members of the USCG. They were very professional and asked me considerable detail of the event, yet again. They were both on the line and shooting questions back and forth. It was being taped also. I learned that they were flying more missions out to the raft and would report back their findings to me. As of that day, they still had not located the raft. I was told that they would let me know if the did find anything or anyone, but I have yet to hear back and can only conclude that the search was called off after repeated attempts.
I made one mistake in all of this that I will regret a long time - I did not take a pic of the raft. I do not know why. I shoot a picture of everything it seems these days and we were on our trip back with camera in sight. But for some odd reason it never crossed my mind until we were an hour back on course. At that point, it seemed more logical to stay the course and make our best time to get back into VHF range.
Now comes the point of discussion(s) I want to share with everyone. I have made some observations/conclusions from our find. They are my opinions and should be taken as such. Whether that raft was someone's bad day and lost at sea in a breaking swell or someone's empty-coffin is really irrelevant at this point and I have little interest in discussing it as it is all speculative. But I will tell you what I strongly believe:
1) If your raft flips over, you are dead. You will not die immediately, but you are not flipping it back over. Also, there were NO handholds on that raft on the bottom. The ballasts were just laying there limp and using them to hold onto would not last long. I saw no handholds along the bottom of the tube and certainly not on the bottom of the floor. So, when picking out a life raft, the number one key thing to choose from is its ability to stay upright. And for anyone thinking they could flip that raft over in a sea or crawl atop it in a sea, you can forget it. Ain't gonna happen or you will not be there for long. The rolling seas and slick canvas would be like sitting atop roller coaster made of wet ice. You would be back into the water within minutes. Even if you could hold on long enough, you would die of hypothermia before long (assuming the big fish don't find you first). So I say again, if that raft flips, you die. I cannot be more blunt than that.
2) The USCG is awesome. They are the best men and women in the world watching out for us as sailors. However, given an exact fix, only a few hours later, along with a very good drift information, in very fair conditions, only 60 ish miles offshore, they could not find it. THat is NOTHING against them. It is the grim reality of how big the ocean is and how small a speck a life raft is. And if you choose the liferaft option, you are at the mercy of someone finding you, not the other way around.
3) I would like to genuinely propose that everyone considering a liferaft also consider the more modern thought (or old sailor's thought, before you could even wish for a rescue) of a sailing tender that can double as a raft. I am becoming more and more convinced that you should take your rescue into your own hands and hope for a rescue along the way. A sailing dink can be righted in many conditions, and can be sailed to your destination. This might not work in a hurricane, but that probably is not what takes down most well founded vessels. And if a hurricane took down your mother vessel, I cannot imagine riding it out in some flip-easy liferaft where I can guarantee you its tortoising will cost you your life. At least with a sailing-tender that is 'unsinkable' you have the CHANCE to hold on until the weather permits righting it, crawling inside, and making your own decision on whether to bob along or start making for port. In a raft, assuming she stays ass down, you are just going to be sitting there and waiting and hoping you can stay alive until some lucky soul finds your unlucky soul. Hopefully you are still breathing.
4) I will probably make a fuss of this, more than I should, but I think that we as sailors need to challenge life raft companies to test their products in real life conditions. SOrry, I do not sail in a swimming pool. Drop her offshore in 6, 8, 10, 20+ foot seas and see how she resopnds. Drop her in 20, 30, 50, 90 kt winds and see whether she flips. I can tell you taht somebody makes a raft that will flip over! I saw it! And if by some chance it was an empty coffin, then shame on the raft makers who should have known better. Look for deep, wide, ballasts. Look for handholds on the bottom and a means of easy entry. I can tell you that in the little 4 foot seas we were in, climbing atop that raft should there have been handholds would have been arduous at best. 6 footer, 12 footers, 20 footers... I cannot imagine.
5) A extra EPIRB and flares should be considered for ocean crossings. That means for the mother vessel AND the raft. I have to conclude that a C130 flew close to that raft. A few flares or a spare EPIRB might have given them the fix they needed. If nothing else, keep your old flares in a ditch bag to be taken should you have to abandon ship and choose to step up into your raft.
6) DO NOT LEAVE YOUR MAIN VESSEL! Good lord known that has been harped on a thousand times, but I will say it again. Assuming the vessel did not sink, and should I have found wreckage, my entire action plan would have changed. And I gotta tell you, it would have been a lot easier to see the mother vessel from the sky than that little raft. As said a thousand times, step up into your life raft, not down.
There are probably a lot of other things to say, but I am tired and will see if we can pick it up tomorrow. Thank you for reading the above. I truly hope it was a waste of your time. If not, I hope you keep in mind some of our findings.
All the best,
Wow Brian. First hand accounts of stuff like this always drive the point home so much better than a second hand article. So whatcha think? The raft got away before the folks could get in or something?
A good review CD, lot's to think about. Thank you.
Yes; there was an article in the current Good ol Boat magazine about making your own sailing lifeboat. With any small lifeboat or raft there are tradeoffs. The problem I see with the boat is that it could easily turn turtle and leave you in a similar situation as the overturned raft. Deployment is also an issue/consideration. There are LOTS of things to consider here; and I agree with you that liferaft mfr's should test their equipment in real world situations.
I went to a liferaft seminar/demo last week as Strictly Sail Pacific; and was told that the owner of Winslow liferafts rode one of his rafts in to a beach through heavy breaking surf to demonstrate stability and safety. The raft they demoed had straps for righting on the bottom was designed to deploy right side up by careful placement of the CO2 cannister and packed weight distribution. IASF and USCG now have specs for upright deployment that the raft MFR's must build to (based on what I was told by the industry rep).
Sorry to hear about the deployed raft and nothing else found. Hopefully it was lost; not deployed and needed for survival.
I can only hope that the failure there was on the deck mounting; that this liferaft was swept off an otherwise intact boat, and her crew kept on sailing through whatever conditions liberated the raft.
I've heard this scenario (raft swept off deck) used as an endorsement for valise style rafts, though I'll still be mounting mine to deck.
Thank you for the post, and the concern!
Very good write up, you got my attention.
Fantastic report CD, makes ya want to rethink the norm
Perhaps setting off your epirb and staying with the raft would have gotten the CG to the right location.
Not meant as criticism - more as a suggestion of what someone might try if they find themselves in a similar situation.
I'm not so sure setting off an eprib is such a good idea. That would suggest that people are in danger and there was no evidence of that, it would also suggest that Brians boat was in danger and that was not the case.
This is most likely a life raft that was lost. It was not worth risking others to do any more than what was done (though a photo would have been nice, missed those shots myself so I understand why).
It would be nice to know what brand it was as being upside down is a damning statement and a warning that not all life rafts are created equal.
We don't know what the case was. Seeing a life raft like that is a good indicator that something happened. There could have been a missing boat and crew. There could have been somebody in the life raft. He did not want to speculate. I think he did the right thing at the right time, but I agree, a situation like that would justify setting off your epirb.
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