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Types of Liferafts

By: Survival At Sea | Liferaft Services, LLC


For one reason or another you've decided to shop for a liferaft.  Maybe you own a commercial fishing boat and need a liferaft to meet USCG regulations, or maybe you stayed out a little too far and a little too late last summer and had that scary ride home after the weather turned bad.  Whatever the reason, the process of selecting a liferaft that will meet your specific needs, and budget, can be confusing.  Don't worry, we're here to help!  Over the following paragraphs we'll break down the different types of liferafts and set you on the right path to choosing a raft of your own.

Commercial Liferafts

This category consists of liferafts that are approved for use on commercial vessels and have one or more approvals like USCG or SOLAS.  There are lots of variations of commercial approvals throughout the world but we're going to focus on United States USCG regulations.  You might be required to carry a commercially approved liferaft if you are operating a commercial fishing vessel, passenger vessel, or larger commercial vessel.  There are a lot of factors that are used to determine if a commercial liferaft is required, and which type, but we'll break down those details in a different article.  A USCG approved commercial liferaft will normally come with a two-year inspection sticker when it's purchased new, which is based on the date it was initially packed at the manufacturer not necessarily when you purchased it.  After that, all commercial rafts require annual inspection starting when the initial two-year inspection sticker expires.  Commercial liferafts require a lot of maintenance and can be expensive to own, but there's also a lot of liability involved in operating a commercial vessel so it's important to choose the correct raft and keep up with annual service.

Types of USCG Approved Commercial Liferafts:

  • USCG/SOLAS 'A':  These rafts are fully loaded with food and water rations, SOLAS grade flares, first aid kit and more.  They have an insulated floor to protect from hypothermia and are approved for vessels traveling an unlimited distance from shore.  SOLAS 'A' refers to the type of equipment packed inside the raft.
  • USCG/SOLAS 'B': These rafts are identical to SOLAS 'A' rafts except the food and water rations have been removed along with half of the flares.  The exclusion of the rations and flares translates into some decent weight savings and a modest break in servicing costs over the lifetime of the raft.  These rafts are generally approved out to 50 miles from shore in cold water.
  • USCG Coastal: Coastal rafts are usually the same "frame" as their SOLAS cousins except the insulating layer of the floor has been removed.  The equipment packs are significantly smaller and don't include any rations, thermal protective aids, fishing equipment, first aid, and usually don't have any flares.  Coastal rafts are generally approved for use out to 20 miles from shore in cold water.
  • USCG approved IBA:  Inflatable Buoyant Apparatus is the official name for this type of raft.  These are the most basic commercial rafts and do not have a canopy or insulated floor.  These are intended for vessels operating closer to shore, generally within 12 miles in cold water and include the same equipment pack as a coastal raft.

 

ISO Approved & Yachting Liferafts 

These liferafts are not approved for use on commercial vessels in the U.S., but they do still hold some other important approvals.  Many organized events such sailboat races require participants to carry an ISO approved liferaft onboard.  If you're looking at purchasing a liferaft to get ready for one of these events you can usually find detailed information about which approvals or equipment type the event organizers are looking for within their safety equipment requirements.  Most modern ISO rafts are vacuum bagged inside the container which extends the service interval to once every three years, although some situations or events might dictate a shortened inspection cycle.

ISO approvals are split into two main categories:

  • ISO 9650-1: These are considered offshore rafts and include sizes from 4 to 12 person capacity,designed for extended voyages, where high wind and significant wave heights may be experienced, but excluding abnormal conditions such as hurricanes.  These rafts should be completely self-sufficient and prepared to meet serious emergencies without expectation of outside assistance. [Source: International Organization for Standardization (ISO) https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:9650:-1:ed-1:v1:en]
  • ISO 9650-2: Raft in this group are commonly called coastal rafts and include sizes from 4 to 10 person capacity.  These rafts are designed for voyages where moderate conditions may be met in areas such as, but not limited to, coastal water, large bays, estuaries, lakes and rivers, and have a high degree of self-sufficiency.  [Source: International Organization for Standardization (ISO) https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:9650:-2:ed-1:v1:en]

 

There are basically three equipment pack options to choose from with ISO approved liferafts:

  • >24hr (Greater Than 24 Hour):  Just like the name suggests, this equipment pack type is intended for voyages that could potentially leave you outside the range of rescue within one day.  If you're going way offshore or frequently operating in poor conditions, this is the equipment pack type for you.
  • <24hr (Less Than 24 Hour): You guessed it!  You could get away with this equipment pack type if your still doing some offshore trips but close enough to civilization that you could expect to be rescued within 24 hours if something went wrong.
  • Coastal: These are the 9650-2 rafts we just learned about.  These rafts have minimal gear included in their equipment pack.  If you're travels keep you close to shore and within a reasonable distance from help, this type of raft could be just right for you. 

 

Recreational Liferafts

If you don't relate to any of the scenarios we outlined above, but you still think it's a good idea to have a backup plan out there, then this category is for you!  Let's be honest, unless you're Michael Phelps, you're probably boating somewhere that you couldn't swim home from.  Recreational rafts don't hold any official approvals, and they usually only require inspection every three years.  That doesn't mean it's the wild west and you have no idea if it will work or not, in fact the better brands usually offer warranties of up to 12 years provided you keep up with their recommended servicing schedule.  There are a lot of great liferafts available in this range that are just as good as some of the commercial and ISO rafts, and they're usually less expensive because the manufacturers don't need to pay for the expensive approval process.

Recreational rafts are usually available in three types:

  • Offshore:  These rafts are intended for offshore voyages, similar to the ISO 9650-1 rafts.  They usually have water or food rations, signaling flares, first aid kit, and the other typical items you would find in an equipment pack.  Because there's no set standard for recreational rafts, the exact equipment will vary from one brand and model to another.  The biggest things to look for in an offshore raft are an insulated floor and large ballast bags.
  • Coastal:  Coastal rafts usually forgo the rations and most of the flares.  There's a lot of variation between manufacturers on coastal rafts but they generally don't have an insulated floor and limited equipment.  Coastal rafts are usually the smallest and lightest rafts because of the reduce equipment packed inside the raft.
  • Platform style & Compact:  These are the smallest, lightest and usually the least expensive rafts available.  These rafts bridge the gap between floating in the water in a life jacket and taking refuge in a full size liferaft.  Usually constructed of a single buoyancy tube and relatively light material, these rafts can be packed in extremely small packages for easy storage and transportation, but that doesn't mean they're just pool toys.  Compact rafts can still share some features with their full-size brethren like ballast bags, automatic lights, boarding ladders, and automatic inflation.  Some compact rafts even come with a manually erecting canopy to shelter occupants from the sun!

 

Summary 

The above information is only meant to get your feet wet (pun intended), so we're here to help should you have any more questions.  Whether you're required to carry an approved liferaft onboard, or you're choosing one for your own piece of mind, it's important to select a raft that works for your specific application and budget.

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